Danks deals with contract questions early, maybe often

John Danks.

After another rough outing on Thursday night, the media is asking John Danks the obvious question -- is he feeling the pressure of living up to the big contract?

Danks is giving the equally obvious answer:

Manager Robin Ventura said Danks "is going to be fine" but Danks wasn’t so easy on himself. One thing he’s sure of is that his performance is unrelated to pressure from the big contract.

"I’ve been asked that a couple times now, and that’s the furthest thing,’’ Danks said. "Granted, I understand the thought and angle of that question, but that’s the furthest from the truth. That’s not a topic.

"The problem is I’m not ­making pitches and I’m getting my ass kicked out there. Got to do ­something."

It's not a very enlightening exchange by itself. Contract pressures are seldom acknowledged at the time, but the story is known to change when the player has some time and distance to re-assess it again -- even if money really played no part in it. We'll never know for sure either way.

That we're reading/watching/having this discussion is what's noteworthy, because the contract totally changes the dynamic of The John Danks Experience. He's the owner of the most lucrative contract in White Sox history. That's his primary identifier now, and it will only loom larger the longer he struggles.

Thursday's start was Danks' 33rd since the start of the 2011 season. That's the average amount of starts in a season for an established starter, and if you divide it into equal thirds, it's pretty interesting how distinct the differences are:

  • First 11 starts: 0-8, 5.25 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 11 HR over 70.1 IP
  • Middle 11 starts: 6-1, 2.03 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 5 HR over 71 IP
  • Last 11 starts: 4-7, 7.06 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 10 HR over 66.1 IP

For two-thirds of the last season, Danks has been either a "bad" or a bad pitcher.

The first third can be explained away -- he received only 2.6 runs of support per start, he was legitimately good during April of 2011, and it seemed like the negative momentum overwhelmed him during May.

But over the last 11 starts, Danks has been outright lousy. It was one thing last September, when he was ready to call it a year with weeks to go, only to find the manager had beaten him to the punch. This year, there's nothing to hide behind. His command is off. His traditional numbers, his peripherals and his velocity have all gone in the wrong direction.

The aesthetics are kicking his ass, too. He's had problems finishing a night's work (or at least getting through sixth innings unscathed) in the past, but now they're bookends with rough beginnings, which leaves the offense chasing the dollar on the string. The White Sox have scored in 12 different innings for Danks this year. Eight times, Danks has been scored upon the very following half-inning.

Star-divide

Up to this point, the media has been largely favorable toward Danks (it certainly helps that he's one of Joe Cowley's guys). Coming up at the same time as Gavin Floyd, he's often been portrayed as the left-handed Gallant to the right-hander's Goofus. Danks is the strong-jawed, gum-chomping, poker-playing, straight-shooting Texan who will look you straight in the eye and take accountability for everything. Floyd, while considered nice and well-meaning off the field, is the underachieving space cadet who exchanged his charisma for a shopping cart full of t-shirts nobody else would want to wear.

I'm interested in seeing if that dynamic changes should the current trends continue. While Floyd is no stranger to really rough two-month stretches, he's never bunched them up quite like Danks has.

Moreover, after Danks' latest loss, their White Sox ERAs are roughly identical:

Pitcher W L ERA GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
Gavin Floyd 53 53 4.14 139 4 0 882.0 851 446 406 108 262 690 1.26
John Danks 56 60 4.13 156 4 2 955.0 937 465 438 115 316 739 1.31

It seems like the shift in tone is inevitable, because money changes the conversation. Javier Vazquez is a great recent example. He was an effective pitcher over his White Sox career, going 38-36 with a 4.40 ERA (106 ERA+). He also was the first White Sox pitcher in nearly 40 years to record 200 strikeouts in back-to-back seasons.

But he came with a big price tag (the Sox inherited a four-year, $48 million contract), and he cost a good prospect in Chris Young. Therefore, expectations were immense, and they involved more than mere numbers. Even though he technically earned his contract in terms of production, he was seen as a disappointment in the media because of the experience he provided. He, too, had sixth-inning issues ("five and dive" was a popular phrase), and he turned in a few noteworthy duds in big games. Sure, Vazquez had a lot of great starts for the Sox, but the nature of his failures -- winnable games slipping away, must-win games turning into routs -- diminished the faith the Sox's biggest mouthpieces professed in him. He wasn't considered a winner in Ozzie Guillen's eyes. He wasn't considered a winner in Hawk Harrelson's eyes.

It's not a perfect comparison, for Danks has banked goodwill that Vazquez never had. He's been a White Sox his entire major-league career, and a consistently good one until last season. And while Danks has those sixth-inning woes, they have been magnified by the amount of close games he's been in, due to the constant lack of run support. He's been required to pitch tough far more often than his teammates, and he's been mostly successful in doing so.

The problem is that the parameters for "success" have become less generous. Danks is no longer one of the guys. As the owner of the biggest contract in franchise history, he is the guy on the staff -- and when he pitches like anything but the guy, there's a divide that begs to be addressed. Danks might not consider the contract "a topic," but technically speaking, it's newsworthy as all get-out.

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