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John Danks' home run problems are no accident

Danks has plenty of control, but could use a lot more command. He's putting a ton of pitches in the zone and batters know it. Statistically, something's got to give.

No om nom, son. No om nom.
No om nom, son. No om nom.
Jonathan Daniel

John Danks' peripherals are great. He's striking out slightly fewer batters per nine, but that's just because he's facing fewer batters per inning. His K/PA and whiff rates are right in line with his career. His ground-ball rate is a tad low, perhaps, but that's not a huge deal. The real difference is his walk rate, where he's cut his free passes by almost two-thirds. That is, a statistically-oriented type like me might say he's doing just fine. Stats like SIERA and xFIP love him.

  • ERA: 4.81
  • xFIP: 3.87
  • SIERA: 3.92

On the face of it, he's taking much worse stuff and somehow figured out how to cut his walk rate way down. Sure, his home-run rate is ludicrous, but that's the kind of thing that us sabermetrickers would say is mostly a function of sample size. Indeed, if you look at his rest-of-season projections on FanGraphs, they expect Danks' HR rate to drop off from nearly 2.00 per nine innings to a bit above his career rate. In combination, they expect his walk rate to migrate closer to his career norm. They think he can more or less hit his career averages. Or juuust shy of them, anyway.

So that's what the unthinking machines say.

Personally, I think he'll be somewhat worse.

My going theory: Danks is overanxious to throw strikes and get ahead. This is a point that Don Cooper has pressed in the past and it's a common fix. Cooper's implicit philosophy is that pitchers tend to nibble too much. They throw too many balls, get into bad counts and are afraid of the ball being put in play. The best example for this is Edwin Jackson. Often enough, A.J. Pierzynski would literally just center up in the middle of the plate and make EJax's misses productive.

Cooper's had success like this because he finds guys with stuff. He's good at teaching better breaking balls, and he's not terrible at changeups, either. He improves your stuff, tells you to aim at the plate and challenge hitters. Buehrle did it, and he can't break 86. Just throw strikes, Kid.

And Danks probably does need to hear this, because it's not that hard to imagine a crisis of confidence if you're struggling to break 90. Except as it stands, he's basically the exact same pitcher with worse stuff. The guy needs to find some command and that's a hard thing to do suddenly. It's all the harder if you're a guy who's had a lot of success with the Cooper philosophy. His control has been good because his stuff has been stellar. But his command has always been his downfall. I bet if I went back through the archives we'd find Jim's recaps mentioning a lot of fifth-, sixth- and seventh-inning changes left up in the zone that tarnished a good night's work.

At some point, he's going to start compensating for these home runs. He's going to start nibbling and we'll see if he can teach himself some command. Like the projection systems, I'm guessing his walks will go up and his homers will fall. But if his strikeouts stay static, I'll be surprised and impressed. His stuff just isn't as good as it was. He'll take pitches that are getting swings (and hence homers and whiffs) and push them farther off the plate and he'll get fewer swings. More walks, fewer homers and strikeouts and Ks.

Exactly where that puts him is hard to say. I'll take the under if the projection systems put him at 2 WAR per 200 innings, but there's a lot of error margin. If he stays healthy -- a big if -- there'll be plenty of opportunities for Sox fans to find out if new Danks can learn old tricks.