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John Danks can finish seasons again

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His 2014 hasn't been pretty, but it's better than last year, and useful for next season

Not sure about this new delivery though.
Not sure about this new delivery though.
Brian Blanco

Last September, John Danks was at his wit's end. His shoulder surgery caused him to start his 2013 late, and he was trying to work through a string of unsuccessful starts that rolled over from August. He vented after a stomping courtesy of the Indians:

"Nothing worked for me," Danks said. "I threw the ball where I wasn’t supposed to throw it and got my [rear end] kicked." [...]

"It was embarrassing; this is supposed to be the major leagues, and I went out and pitched like a guy that did not belong tonight," he said. "I need to get it turned around and make the most out of my last few starts."

He didn't get a few more starts. Instead, he pitched seven decent innings in a loss to Minnesota, and he and the White Sox decided to call it a year, 4-14 record and all.

In his penultimate start this season, Danks took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and coasted to his 10th victory over the year. He's still not satisfied with his overall output, but he's able to find more enjoyment with this finish.

Danks was in as good a mood as he has been after a game, getting a hug from bullpen coach Bobby Thigpen and talking with eager anticipation about working during the offseason with pitching coach Don Cooper, who, like Danks now, lives in Nashville, Tennessee. [...]

"It’s not going to take away from the second half I’ve had, and no one is more frustrated than me about that,’’ Danks said. "But having been in this position before, there is something to be said for going into the offseason with a good taste in your mouth, and confidence and feeling good. I’m hoping that happens. Hopefully, I’ll finish on a high note [in his last start] against Kansas City [on Saturday].’’

Robin Ventura said Danks made some "mechanical changes" that he described as "going more toward home plate instead of him falling off on the third-base side." So I looked at the video, and the changes smack you (or just me) in the face.

Here's Danks against the Twins during the last shelling he suffered at the start of the month:


And here's Danks against the Rays on Sunday:


Sure, it looks like he's falling off less, but the finish isn't nearly as interesting as the start, because his new, truncated delivery looks like it should come with a voiceover stating, "We now join this windup already in progress."

Instead of starting with both feet on the rubber and toes facing the plate, he now sets up from what is effectively the stretch. He rocks back and moves his right foot, but that's a more deliberate motion, and his left foot never moves. So the whole thing is a little more compact, and I feel like a doofus because he's been doing it for the last three starts, all of which have been reasonably successful.

Sep 9 OAK L,2-11 6.0 7 4 2 1 3 0 0 5.05 28 109 48
Sep 15 KCR L,3-4 6.0 2 0 0 4 6 0 0 4.88 23 103 70
Sep 21 TBR W,10-5 6.0 2 2 2 3 5 0 0 4.82 23 86 62
18 11 6 4 8 14 0 0 2.00

He's also changed his pitch selection somewhat over this time, replacing some cutters with curves, especially with two strikes. According to Brooks, he's recorded more strikeouts on the curve over the last three starts (three) than he did over his first 28 starts (two).

Watching Danks the last two years, we've learned that it's probably not worth getting excited over any one particular adjustment (you may remember he shifted over on the rubber earlier in the year). The effectiveness stemming from an individual change seems to have an expiration date, and then it's on to the next tweak.

But at this point last year, Danks had already been shut down after allowing  21 runs over his last 21⅓ innings. This time around, he's making five September starts instead of three, and he should break the 190-inning barrier after dragging himself across the 160-inning line (138 at the MLB level) last year.

That quantity can be a difference-maker over the course of a season if you keep your expectations of the random Triple-A starter grounded. Danks might have the ERA of a No. 5 starter, but he's effective and durable enough to throw a No. 2 starter's workload. That combination is the starting-pitcher equivalent of a sandbag levee -- by no means an elegant solution, but one that keeps the No. 7 and No. 8 starters from coming in and ruining everything.

(An exercise: Danks might have a 4.82 ERA over 190 innings. But if Danks throws only 130 innings, and you replace those 60 innings with somebody like Andre Rienzo, the ERA from those 32 starts looks more like 5.35.)

There may come a time where the Sox do have legitimate options to make better use those starts, similar to the way Gordon Beckham gave way to Carlos Sanchez and Marcus Semien. That time isn't now, and won't be in a rotation where Hector Noesi plays a structural necessity. As long as Danks can keep making alterations to keep from collapsing, he'll serve a purpose for 2015. After that, he's on a one-year deal, and it'll be easier to move him. Hopefully it's because they'll need to, and not just because they'd want to.