Prospect Retro: John Danks
One of my favorite young pitchers in baseball right now is White Sox lefty John Danks. His minor league track record was rather strange, and he's a great candidate for a retrospective prospect examination.
John Danks was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 2003 draft, ninth overall, out of high school in Round Rock, Texas. He was a home-state guy of course, but by no means an overdraft: he was considered the epitome of a projectable young lefty. It cost $2.1 million to keep him away from college ball. He got off to a good start in the Arizona Rookie League, posting a 22/4 K/BB and a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings, but found the going rougher after moving up to the Northwest League, giving up 12 runs in 12.2 innings, granted he was facing older competition. I gave him a rather conservative Grade B- in the 2004 book, noting that Danks was extremely athletic, already threw in the low-90s, and had a good breaking ball, but that we needed to see if he could stay healthy. His high school workload had been large enough to concern some scouts and I was worried he might have an elevated injury risk.
Danks began 2004 with Clinton in the Midwest League, posting a 2.17 ERA with a 64/14 K/BB in 50 innings, with just 38 hits allowed. These numbers were outstanding, and scouts were full of praise for his 90-93 MPH fastball and wicked curve. His changeup was inconsistent, and this gave him some trouble after he was promoted to the California League, where he posted a 5.24 ERA in 13 starts with a 48/26 K/BB in 55 innings, 62 hits. Of course, he was 19 years old and pitching in the Cal League; you have to cut him some slack for that, and the Rangers seemed to be doing a good job managing his workload. One scout told me that he had problems with his pacing within games, slowing down too much when in trouble and losing the rhythm on his pitches, nibbling too much, basically a problem with experience. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2005 book, ranking him the Number 39 pitching prospect in the game.
Danks returned to the Cal League to begin 2005, posting a 2.50 ERA with a 53/16 K/BB in 58 innings for Bakersfield. Promoted to Double-A Frisco, he was crushed by older competition, posting a 5.49 ERA, 4-10 record, an 85/34 K/BB in 98 innings, and giving up an unsightly 117 hits. He was still throwing 90-93 MPH, but his curveball regressed slightly and his changeup was pretty awful when I saw him pitch. He was clearly over his head against the older hitters. The odd thing here was that the public scouting reports like you'd find in Baseball America said that his changeup was improving, so maybe I just saw him on a bad day. I still gave him a Grade B+ and ranked him at 38, but wrote that he really needed a consolidation season to catch his breath.
2006 was split between Double-A Frisco (4.15 ERA, 82/22 K/BB in 69 innings, 74 hits) and Triple-A Oklahoma (4.33 ERA, 72/34 K/B in 71 innings, 67 hits), which was highly credible performance considering the league contexts and his age. Best of all, his changeup got a lot better, giving him three effective major league pitches. I gave him another Grade B+, but moved him up the rankings to Number 14 on the pitching list. He was traded to the White Sox that fall, and I wrote that it would be wise for Chicago to give him additional Triple-A time to put the finishing touches on his game.
They didn't listen to me of course, and Danks spent 2007 in the Sox rotation, getting killed (5.50 ERA, 160 hits in 139 innings, 28 homers allowed). Many young pitchers would be harmed by such an experience, but Danks wasn't: he stayed on an even-keel mentally and turned things around completely in 2008, going 12-9, 3.32 with a 159/57 K/BB and 182 hits in 195 innings. He suffered some slippage in his components last year, spiking his FIP from 3.44 in '08 to 4.59, but still won 13 games. This year he's 8-7, 3.29 with a 86/37 K/BB in 112 innings, 90 hits. Career marks thus far are 39-40, 3.93 with a 117 ERA+ in 646 innings, 503/221 K/BB, 616 hits allowed.
Danks has been consistent velocity-wise, averaging 91.5 MPH as a rookie, 90.7 in '08, 90.3 in '09, and 91.3 so far this year. The changeup is now his most-commonly-used secondary pitch, which is quite interesting since it was often troublesome for him in the minors. Fangraphs points to considerable variation in his breaking ball over the last three years, showing less frequent use of the curveball over time, but increasing use of his slider and cutter. Aside from a blister problem last year, he's been quite healthy.
Looking at historical comparisons:
SIM SCORES through age 24: Randy Lerch, Ken Brett, Tom Murphy, Randy Wolf, Bruce Ruffin, Bob Owchinko, Frank Viola, Ron Bryant, Mike LaCoss, and Tony Armas.
PECOTA Comps: Jose Rosado, Barry Zito, Greg Swindell, Richard Dotson, Mark Mulder, Carlos Zambrano, Scott Erickson, Wilson Alvarez, Steve Avery, and Cole Hamels.
No bad pitchers there and some excellent ones, though there were also some guys with injury problems. So far that hasn't impacted Danks yet, and given his athleticism and clean delivery, I'm hopeful that he can be one of the durable examples.
As a prospect, Danks was pushed very quickly by both the Rangers and the White Sox, never being allowed a full season at any level. He paid for that with a bad rookie year, but since then he's been quite good. He's an example of the Nietzschean "That which does not kill you makes you stronger" approach to prospect development. It worked in his case.