The sight of John Danks pitching on Opening Day last week surely disoriented some White Sox fans. For the past decade of Opening Days (except 2007), Mark Buehrle was as certain as dirt on the mound for the Sox. But Buehrle followed Ozzie Guillen to Miami this winter, leaving Danks to fill his job.
Since his breakout season in 2001, Buehrle led the Sox staff on and off the field. Along with Paul Konerko, the durable Buehrle served as a face of the franchise for much of the 21st century. Though his stuff was never much more than ordinary, he compensated with quiet professionalism, stellar defense (his kick save and subsequent Patrick Mannelly-like between-the-legs flip to Konerko on Opening Day 2010 still garners a gasp when I watch it two years later), and unmatched consistency.
Last year, Buehrle tossed more than 200 innings for the 11th straight year. Two hundred innings isn’t as flashy as 200 strikeouts, but the ease with which Buehrle and his rubber arm ate up innings and produced quality results was remarkable. Consider: Since 1980, only four pitchers have had more 200-inning seasons than Buehrle: Greg Maddux (18), Roger Clemens (15), Randy Johnson (14), and Tom Glavine (14).
And only Maddux did it in more consecutive seasons, putting a 14-year stretch together from 1988–2001. Buehrle isn’t a Hall-of-Famer, but he is one of this generation’s most reliable pitchers. Between 2002 and 2010, 370 pitchers made trips to the disabled list, but Buehrle never missed a start.
As the Sox begin 2012, they have a Buehrle-sized hole to fill at the top of their rotation. Enter Danks. Sixteen days after Buehrle signed with the Marlins, the Sox announced a new five-year, $65 million contract extension for Danks.
The similarities in appearance between the two hurlers—both under-sized lefties—make the comparisons easy, but they don’t stop with physical dimensions. Danks’s 2008 breakout campaign as a 23-year-old (3.32 ERA, 195 IP, 159 K and 57 BB) drew comparisons to Buehrle’s 2001 campaign at 22 (3.29, 221, 126, 48)—and the numbers over their first four years as full-time starters match up fairly closely.
What worries Sox fans is Danks’s 2011 season, when he didn’t record a win until June 6, and a summer oblique injury shelved him for a month. But what is overlooked during Danks’s winless April and May was that six of his 11 outings were quality starts (at least 6 IP and 3 or fewer ER allowed). While quality starts half the time a pitcher takes the mound isn’t great, it more accurately reflects his value than his 0-8 record.
From June through September, Danks looked more like the pitcher the Sox grew accustomed to over the previous four seasons. Despite his month on the DL, Danks made 16 starts and tossed 100 innings, striking out 89, while allowing only 21 walks and eight home runs. Compare that to the 25 walks and 11 homers he allowed in the first two months (70 1/3 innings) of the season.
Danks’s return to consistency after his rough start to 2011 only adds to the reasons for optimism this year and beyond. He threw more than 200 innings in both 2009 and 2010, showing he can be a workhorse, and in last year’s down season, he still posted a career-best 2.93 strikeout to walk ratio. On Friday, despite taking the loss, he looked sharp in his first Opening Day start, tossing six strong innings, giving up three runs, while striking out six and walking none.
Danks is a former first-round pick with a history of success and durability. He has a better fastball than Buehrle, and crisp change up to go with a Don Cooper-taught cutter. His raw stuff gives Danks a higher ceiling than Buehrle.
The Sox made the right call in letting Buehrle walk. Four years and $58 million for a pitcher who will be 36-years-olds by the end of his contract was too much for a team looking to cut payroll and build for the long haul. If they had to choose between Buehrle and Danks, they chose wisely.
Danks may never throw 245 innings in a season like Buehrle did in 2004, and I’m not betting on 11 straight 200 innings seasons. But I will bet on a healthy Danks taking a step forward in 2012, looking more like the Danks of 2008-10 than the one from early 2011, and putting up better numbers in Chicago than Buehrle does in Miami.
But don’t expect any kick saves.
|Top Ten White Sox Pitchers of All Time (By Sahadev Sharma)|
|#1: Ted Lyons — White Sox career leader in bWAR (58.8), innings pitched (4161.0) and complete games (356). In 1927, he completed 30 of the 34 games he started, tossing 307 2/3 innings.|
|#2: Ed Walsh — Only White Sox to ever strikeout more than 250 batters in a season, which he did four times. Led the league in both ERA (1.27) and losses (20) in 1910.|
|#3: Red Faber — Led the league in ERA in 1921-22. Played 20 seasons with the White Sox, appearing in 669 games, the most of any South Side pitcher.|
|#4: Billy Pierce — The six-time All-Star is the White Sox all-time leader in strikeouts, with 1796.|
|#5: Ed Cicotte — Staff leader of the 1917 World Series winners and infamous 1919 Black Sox.|
|#6: Mark Buehrle — Tossed two no-hitters (one perfect game) and sets the standard for modern-day White Sox hurlers.|
|#7: Wilbur Wood — White Sox single-season leader in bWAR (10.7), which he achieved in 1971 when he went to his first of three All-Star games and led the league with a 189 ERA+.|
|#8: Doc White — Completed more than 70 percent of the games he started for the White Sox.|
|#9: Jack McDowell — Last White Sox to win the Cy Young (1993). Led the league in complete games twice (1991-92) and shutouts once (1993).|
|#10: Lefty Williams — Started his White Sox career with four straight sub-3.00 ERA seasons, peaking with a 2.64 ERA and a league leading 40 starts in 1919. Banned from baseball for his role in the Black Sox scandal at the age of 27.|
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SAHADEV SHARMA is a regular contributor to ESPN Chicago covering the Cubs and White Sox. If he’s not spending his free time with his wife and one-year old son, you’ll likely find him appreciating Starlin Castro’s ability to hit, defending Adam Dunn and watching YouTube clips of the Illini’s 2005 tourney comeback against Arizona. Follow him on Twitter @sahadevsharma.
STORY ART: Main image and infographic made in-house using lightly re-mixed photos by Keith Allison/cc.