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No such thing as playing out the string for John Danks

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Implications of shoulder surgery, strangeness in peripherals would make a late-season fade difficult to write off as meaningless

Rob Carr

Just when it looked like John Danks' numbers might be normalizing somewhat, the Baltimore Orioles threw him back into record quirk territory.

Entering Friday night, Danks had allowed just one homer over his last three outings while walking three batters combined. That put him back at 23 walks and 23 homers for the season.

But he reversed those totals in one night's work, giving up three solo shots while issuing just one walk, and now he's back on track to become the first White Sox pitcher to serve up more gopher balls than free passes in a full(ish) season.

In the process, he joined Kevin Tapani in 1996 and James Baldwin in 1999 as the only White Sox pitchers to give up at least three homers in four separate games in one season. With one more three-pack, Danks will stand alone.

And should Danks give up three more homers over the next start or two, he'll surpass his single-season high of 28 (set in both 2007 and 2009), while with the lowest inning total of the group. In fact, if you apply this home run rate to his 2009 workload, Danks would be on pace to allow 41 homers over 200 innings, which would also be a franchise record.

Now you could take these stats and throw them like a wet blanket on any sense of progress in his first year removed from shoulder surgery. I'm not at that point yet. His inability to keep the ball in the park may be problematic for projecting his value for 2014 and beyond, but I'm more inclined to merely marvel at it now for a couple of reasons.

  1. When there's nothing else, root for weird history.
  2. His season should be a disaster, but it isn't.

If somebody told you that Danks would come back from his shoulder surgery missing 2-3 mph on his fastball and allowing homers at twice his career rate (or at least since he added the cutter), what would you guess for his ERA? I'd say his 5.70 ERA from 2012 would be a good place to start, and 6.00 doesn't seem out of the question.

But he's been sitting in the mid-4.00s for the last two-plus months, which is a rather sturdy No. 4 starter. His ERA over that stretch (14 starts) is 4.09, which puts him in the territory of a typical No. 3 starter. It may not feel like it, but keep in mind that the Sox have been blessed with rotation depth since the days of Fifth Starter Hell, and the league's worst offense makes even average pitching a big liability.

Individually, Danks is close to having a triumphant year given his circumstances, although he's starting to wobble his last two starts by failing to complete six innings in either. This being the case, his postgame quote caught my eye:

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in mid-February. Is it too soon to count down the days and look ahead to next season?

"I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t doing that a little bit,’’ said Danks, whose season has been more about taking the ball every turn and building up strength after undergoing shoulder surgery last August. "It’s easier to look ahead with the position we’re in as a team. Everything that we’re doing now, for me personally, is geared toward getting ready for next year and having a full, healthy season. I think we’re well on the way.’’

That brought back to mind what Danks said the last time he pitched in early September:

"Yeah, it’s been a [expletive] year, no doubt," Danks said. "I don’t know how many starts I have left but I’ll be ready to throw in those games. All in all it’s been a crappy year. I’m looking forward to next year starting clean. I don’t want to sound like I am giving up on the year, I’m not. But I’m definitely looking forward to starting with a clean slate."

Danks ended up posting a 7.76 ERA over the final month of the 2011 season, which undid a lot of the progress he made in overcoming a then-uncharacteristic 0-8 start. The shoulder problem crushed those dreams of a clean slate the following year, and subsequent teamwide failures in 2013 make modest personal gains difficult to rally around.

It was easy to write off a late-season fade that season, because Ozzie Guillen had been planning his escape to Miami and the on-field product was a secondary concern. This year, I'd be more wary of a September decline, especially since his astronomical home run rate still could devour him and shoulder injuries have a way of creeping back into the picture. I don't know if there's such thing as tabula rasa for pitchers based on the calendar alone, but it definitely doesn't exist for a guy who had his rotator cuff rasa'd just last year.

He seems to know that, because later in the story, he reiterates that he wants every available start to keep rebuilding his game. His finish is going to be more meaningful than most, and if he can somehow see that low-4.00-ERA effectiveness through the rest of the season, it'll make the running weirdness a lot easier to enjoy. If he drops off again, that slate will be brimming with questions.