John Danks: The Left-Handed Edwin Jackson

With a relatively weak free agent pitching market, more and more teams are turning to the trade market to try and upgrade their rotations this winter. The White Sox have taken note of this shortage and inserted themselves as sellers of pitching, and are rumored to be taking offers for both Gavin Floyd and John Danks. With Kenny Williams talking about rebuilding, moving one or both could make some sense, as Danks is a free agent after the 2012 season and Floyd is only under team control for two more seasons.

Despite being under contract for one fewer year, however, Danks has proven to be the hot name on the market over the last week. Jon Paul Morosi reported that the Rangers are interested in a reunion, which Jon Heyman also reported and noted that Danks would be “very popular”. On Saturday, Keith Law tweeted that he thought Danks would get more than C.J. Wilson if he was a free agent this winter.

Clearly, Danks’ skillset as a quality young pitcher is in demand, and it seems likely that someone will pay a significant price to acquire his services for 2012. However, I’d like to suggest that if someone wants the package that Danks can bring to the table, they could save themselves the hassle of giving up talent and just sign Edwin Jackson instead.

I know that on the surface, they don’t seem all that similar. Danks is a lefty, Jackson is a righty. Jackson is a power pitcher whose fastball sits around 94 and throws a lot of sliders. Danks’ velocity is several ticks lower, he leans on a cutter as his main secondary pitch, and he throws a lot more change-ups. But, look at their performances over the last three seasons – the two have produced remarkably similar results.

Name BB% K% GB% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Edwin Jackson 7.9 18.5 44.0 93 92 95
John Danks 7.7 18.2 44.5 90 92 96

In terms of core skills, it’s nearly impossible to find two pitchers with more even numbers over a three year period of time. Their walk rates, strikeout rates, and ground ball rates are nearly identical, and even numbers that come with more external variance – HR/FB rate and LOB%, for instance – are alost exactly the same. Danks has Jackson beat on BABIP, but even that ability to limit hits on balls in play has had a minimal effect on their overall outcomes, as Danks’ 90 ERA- is just marginally better than Jackson’s 93 ERA- over the same time period. Toss in the fact that Jackson has thrown 40 more innings over the last three years, and that small difference essentially evaporates – these two have essentially pitched to a draw since the start of the 2009 season.

So, why is the perception of Danks so much more positive than the perception of Jackson? Their early career performances probably dictate most of that.

Jackson came up as a much-hyped 19-year-old with the Dodgers in 2003, but outside of one pretty great start in his Major League Debut, he wasn’t very good. After a few seasons of disappointment, the Dodgers shipped him to Tampa Bay, where he continued to not be very good. Even during his “breakout” year of 2008, his xFIP was 16 percent worse than league average. For the five years following his debut, Jackson was pretty lousy, and earned the reputation as a guy who simply couldn’t get his results to match his considerable stuff.

That reputation has never really gone away, even as Jackson has developed into an above average innings eater over the last few years. Because his improvement has been more incremental that drastic, he’s never shaken the reputation of a guy with good stuff and poor command, despite the fact that his walk rate is slightly better than league average nowadays.

Meanwhile, Danks’ early career reputation is completely different. He struggled with a home run problem in his rookie season at age 22, but in his second year in the big leagues, Danks was terrific – he upped his ground ball rate significantly, cut his walks, increased his strikeout rate, and saw his ERA fall from 5.50 to 3.32. At just 23-years-old, he finished 5th in the league in ERA, and quickly came to be seen as one of the game’s best young southpaws.

The fact that his peripherals didn’t support that kind of low ERA was mostly overlooked, however, and Danks’ performance the last three seasons have served to re-establish the idea – founded in 2008 – that he’s a high-quality starting pitcher. Because the perception of Danks going into the last three years was positive, his performance is seen in a different light than Jackson’s. Instead of being judged on what they’ve done more recently, both pitchers are still being judged by reputations that were built off performances from four years ago.

We shouldn’t ignore the early career performances of both pitchers, but history has shown that data beyond the most recent three years isn’t that useful in helping project future performance. We also need to be cognizant of the fact that Jackson debuted at a very young age and simply wasn’t ready to pitch in the big leagues, so while he has a much longer track record of failure, Danks’ Major League resume doesn’t include what he was at age 20 or 21, and if he had been pushed as quickly as Jackson has, he’d likely have quite a bit more failure in his past as well.

The reality of the two pitchers is that they’re both young-ish arms (Jackson is 28, Danks will turn 27 in April of next year) who have performed at nearly the exact same level over the past three seasons. In projecting future performance, it’s extremely difficult to make a case that Danks will be substantially better than Jackson, and there certainly isn’t enough evidence to suggest that a team should be willing to surrender premium talent in order to acquire Danks in a trade when they could sign just Jackson as a free agent instead.

For a team looking to upgrade their rotation, Danks could be a very useful piece. I’d just suggest that, before they give up a premium prospect to acquire one year of his services, that they check in on the cost of signing Jackson instead – they might very well get a similar pitcher at a similar cost without having to surrender any talent to acquire him in the first place.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

33 Responses to “John Danks: The Left-Handed Edwin Jackson”

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  1. Kyle says:

    Fascinating comparison. I really don’t understand all this Danks love myself.

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  2. Eminor3rd says:

    Having watched both pitchers pitch a lot lately (as a White Sox fan), the biggest difference between these guys is consistency.

    Edwin Jackson’s numbers tell you he’s a league-average or a bit above type of guy, but what he really is a Jekyll & Hyde combination of an utterly dominant K machine and a hapless, confused walk machine with no semblance of control. FWIW, it seems to come form the fact that he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher; when that dominant slider isn’t going where it’s supposed to go, he has nothing but 94mph fastballs down main street.

    Danks, on the other hand, is a finesse-type change up guy. He gets K’s when the change is going well, but tends to be more of a pitch-to-contact guy when he has to rely on the cutter. Much more Buerhle in him than Jackson. When he isn’t stirking guys out, he’s going to give up 3-4 runs in a solid-but-not-terribly-impressive type of outing.

    I tend to feel like Danks hasn’t had his best season yet. He always seems to get crappy run support or give up errors behind him. Last season, he started out 0-8 but should have won at least 5 of the starts. You could be right about their early careers setting the precedent, but it seems to me like Danks is more likely to get nastier with the change cutter than Jackson is to be able to consistenly command the slider.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      This is easy enough to test. Their average game scores for 2011 were nearly identical – 50.77 for Jackson, 50.67 for Danks. The average standard deviation for Danks was 18.61, much higher than Jackson’s 15.6. This suggests that Jackson was actually more consistent than Danks last year.

      By Game Score tiers:

      Starts <10: Danks 1, Jackson 0
      Starts <20: Danks 3, Jackson 2
      Starts <30: Danks 4, Jackson 4
      Starts <40: Danks 6, Jackson 6
      Starts >60: Danks 10, Jackson 9
      Starts >70: Danks 3, Jackson 3
      Starts >80: Danks 1, Jackson 1
      Starts >90: Danks 1, Jackson 0

      The evidence actually shows the exact opposite for 2011. Last year, Jackson was the more consistent pitcher.

      This is kind of my point – the narrative about the two pitchers simply doesn’t match the reality of how they’ve actually pitched. People see Jackson as an inconsistent flake, but he’s basically been every bit as reliable as Danks has over the last three years.

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      • Eminor3rd says:

        Very interesting.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Jackson’s “inconsistent” label, IMO, stems from 2009 when the Arizona Diamondbacks flat out abused him because they had no bullpen.

        I[1] It’s not data-based.

        [2] IMO, his numbers don’t look as good as they should because they continually leave him in too long.

        I’ve been saying that EJackson is continually under-rated for all of this season and some of last season.

        He’s a 3.5 – 3.8 WAR pitcher (for each of the last 3 years) and folks need to recognize that it’s not just “above league average”, it’s “good” … and it’s sustained good.

        Besides, the data also shows that you win more game with a good pitcher that’s either on or off versus a guy that gives up the same total runs, but broken up evenly over the games started. TT’s blog had a thread on this not too long ago.

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      • I will say that EJax was far more consistent last season than he had been in previous ones (just look at the ERA). I wouldn’t bet on it, but if we were to look at 2010, Danks probably wins out on the consistency thing.

        I also think the perception of Jackson being inconsistent is that Jackson either posts a 14K game or throws 100 pitches by the 5th in back to back starts (see game logs 4/12 – 4/28 of last season). He’s unpredictable. Danks, on the other hand, will go on hot streaks. When he’s cold, he sucks and lacks any control of his secondary pitches. When he’s hot, he can strike out 8-9 and pitch 6 or 7 quality innings.

        To the observer, this could give the perception that Danks will give you more predictable performances while you don’t know what the hell you might get with Jackson. As a fan, this is kind of how I felt when I watched these two.

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      • JK says:

        Right, but “the narrative” for a lot of people evaluating these pitchers doesn’t just encompass the last 3 years of their career and nothing else (even if that is the most important info for future performance).

        If you watch the White Sox, “the narrative” for John Danks includes a +138 ERA season at age 23 capped by 8 innings of shutout baseball in the game that decided the division that many people may have watched. For this comparison that means nothing, but that does explain people having a certain perception.

        As flawed as ERA is, people still look at it, and when it is adjusted, Jackson is a +97 for his career, and Danks is +111. This might explain some of the perception.

        Meanwhile, Jackson’s age 23 season featured a +79 ERA.

        So even if we agree that they have been nearly identical the last 3 seasons, why exactly would we wonder why they are perceived differently? They are perceived differently because people still remember things that happened outside of that evaluation time when Danks had better results.

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      • ubastratofan says:

        Well, it’s no surprise Jackson was more consistent, Danks suffered through an injury for an extended period of time and had two absolutely atrocious months. This was very uncharacteristic for Danks. Moreover, Danks is 2 years younger than Jackson and that is worht something. Additionally, Danks’ peripherals in a bad year were still better than Jackson’s in a “good” year for him. And on a yearly basis, Danks outperforms Jackson in K/BB, WHIP, AVG against, ERA, etc., etc. I don’t disagree that your numbers suggest some similarity, but I think it gratuitous at the least to say that those similarities warrant a team going after Jackson on the premise that they’re getting a cheaper and less-heralded version of John Danks.

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    • Greg H says:

      But when you take a look at the gamelogs of each pitcher, the results don’t support your narrative. Danks and Jackson suffer from the same malady shared by all pitchers not named Halladay: inconsistency. And Jackson has never been anything close to an “utterly dominant K machine.” He had never struck out more than 9 batters in a game until 2010, and only 5 times in 173 career starts has he struck out 10 or more batters. Jackson was never going to follow the steps of Koufax, Ryan, or Randy Johnson – the hard-throwing but wild youngster who once he developed command would become an all-time great strikeout artist. I think the expectations on Jackson have been too great because he throws so damn hard.

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  3. dickey simpkins says:

    So does that mean there’s a post on USS Mariner about trading Jose Lopez for Edwin Jackson?

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  4. Tim says:

    As a White Sox fan that has had the pleasure of watching both the past year, I would say the big difference is inconsistency. Jackson seems to be all or nothing. Meaning he is absolutely brilliant or he throws 100 pitches through 4 bad innings. Danks is more consistent and is more valuable because he is a lefty.

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  5. I see how the overall performance is similar, but I think that taking Danks stats, even peripheral stats, at face value is going to underrate him due to the role that injuries have played. I know we’re getting more into a grey area here, but Danks goes through periods of ineffectiveness that pretty strongly correlate to word getting out through the media that he is injured [though, sometimes we don’t get word until after this has happened]. This isn’t to say that Danks is likely to be better than CJ Wilson over the next couple of years, but I do think he’s going to be better than these stats are suggesting.

    I suppose you could argue that Danks is more likely to get injured going forward, but then that makes him dissimilar compared to Edwin Jackson.

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  6. SeaBass says:

    I would take Danks 9/10, the other 1/10 being when Jackson actually finds the plate minus the meaty fastballs. I think it would be more appropriate to say that Jackson is the poor man’s Danks. Big market teams would be better off spending for Danks IMO.

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  7. MikeS says:

    Danks is 17 months younger and left handed. I know you made both of those points but I don’t think you emphasized them enough. The age difference is small, but potentially real if you are talking about the back end of a long term contract and lefties are always at a premium because of supply and demand.

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    • Jono411 says:

      i’ve never understood the love for lefty starters. if a guy’s going to give you 190 innings of 3.90 ERA pitching, why do you care which hand he throws with?

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    • U-God says:

      Also, Edwin Jackson is a statue defensively. And Jackson is easier to steal on. And Jackson has no pickoff move.

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      • Jono411 says:

        it’s a good thing that’s led to Danks being better at preventing runs than Jackson. oh wait…

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      • Yinka Double Dare says:

        It’s a good thing we can look at the actual run stats as to who was better at preventing runs instead of just making a snarky comment.

        Jackson — 4.28 R/G in 623 IP, about 200 of which were in the NL
        Danks — 4.18 R/G in 584 IP, all in the AL

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    • Choo says:

      I think the appeal with Danks lies in his projectability. He has a clean delivery and plus command of two pitches, one that ages well (cutter) and another that neutralizes opposite-handed batters (change-up).

      However, I have a feeling that any front-office person who looks at Danks and sees a 26-year old Andy Pettitte or Mark Buehrle is impossible to reason with.

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  8. JohnOrpheus says:

    What I find fascinating is how much KLaw hates CJ Wilson, favoring both Buerhle and Danks and probably any other half decent pitcher over him despite every bit of evidence pointing to CJ as the better pitcher.

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    • Colin says:

      KLaw does seem to have some random bias.

      That said, the evidence of CJ being a superior pitcher really just happened this season if you take into account how flukey his peripherals were last year. CJ is also on the wrong side of 30.

      So, wrong side of 30 with really a one year track record, it’s easy to see how one might not like him.

      That said, I do not understand favoring Buerhle over him. I would be surprised if he actually said something to that extent. Danks on the other hand is younger with a longer track record of sustained success.

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  9. Joey B says:

    “For a team looking to upgrade their rotation, Danks could be a very useful piece. I’d just suggest that, before they give up a premium prospect to acquire one year of his services, that they check in on the cost of signing Jackson instead – they might very well get a similar pitcher at a similar cost without having to surrender any talent to acquire him in the first place.”

    The one-year issue might not be as big an issue as you think. Depending on the CBA, they may or may not get comp back. Plus, I think there is a lot of value getting guys on short contracts. Even without the comp picks, it might be worth a middling prospects in exchange for not having the back end of Jackson’s contract to weigh you down.

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  10. KJOK says:

    “We shouldn’t ignore the early career performances of both pitchers, but history has shown that data beyond the most recent three years isn’t that useful in helping project future performance.”

    That’s true for HITTERS, but not sure it’s true for PITCHERS. For PITCHERS, IIRC, they’re entire career performance is one of the best predictors, as long as you adjust Innings downward for aging/injury as the career progresses.

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    • Colin says:

      I don’t think it’s very useful for either unless they maintain similar peripheral stats.

      Players are getting better and worse all the time.

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  11. Michael says:

    Why sign Danks? Just sign Lopez and trade for him. Much cheaper.

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  12. Matt says:

    Financial restraints must be taken into account. A GM may shy away from a multi year contract with Jackson (or most pitchers, for that matter) whereas with Danks not only do you only have a one year obligation, you also have the possibility of the White Sox contributing to part of his 2012 salary, depending on the package back to Chicago. For a GM with a small and aging window and not a lot of salary room, Danks over Edwin makes loads of sense.

    And what about the elephant in the room? Jackson is represented by Boras – a very real turn off for many GM’s. So it’s not like you can make a fair offer for him and swoop him up. Your offer will be leaked and shopped to other teams. No Boras client outside of Weaver is an easy sign. Even if it’s not enough to turn off a GM, with Boras it’s quite conceivable that GM’s are downplaying their interest in Jackson to dance with Boras.

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  13. Mark says:

    Of course wouldn’t the team that signs Jackson have to surrender a first round pick? Would anyone be giving up something that valuable for Danks? Assuming that Danks is signed long term, the debate in cost come from a) their respective contracts and b) whether the draft compensation for Jackson is equal to the value of what is traded for Danks.

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  14. Retnan says:

    The Sox better not be unable to get a good return on Danks because of this article!!!!!

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