With the free agent starting pitching market consisting of a few pricey aces and then a glut of arms with age or injury concerns (or both), John Danks' name has appeared in more Tweets, status updates and MLBTradeRumors posts than just about anyone this offseason. The 26-year-old lefty, eligible for free agency after 2012, didn't seem long for the South Side with the White Sox looking to pare payroll after losing 83 games last season and lacking much in the way of farm talent.
Instead, Chicago has locked up Danks (pending a post-holiday physical) with a five-year, $65 million contract extension covering his last year of arbitration and four free agent seasons. Whether or not the ChiSox intend to keep Danks for the long haul (there's no word of a no-trade clause yet), the deal looks eminently fair for both sides and won't be a burden if Chicago looks to trade him in future years.
The term "ace" is rather subjective, and Danks doesn't seem to fit the archetype. He doesn't spit fire in the upper-90s, possess a best-in-baseball breaking or offspeed pitch or lead the league in a particular category. But his mix of an average K rate (seven per nine innings during his career), solid control (2.9 BB/9) and durability (he has averaged about 195 innings over the past four years, though he did serve his first DL stint last summer for an oblique strain) has made him one of the best in recent years. Since 2008, Danks ranks ninth among starting pitchers in Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement:
Danks isn't a huge "stuff" guy, but he has three solidly above-average pitches in his low-90s fastball, high-80s cutter and low-80s changeup (he also throws a high-70s curve, but probably shouldn't considering how hard it gets hit). Check out his opponent batting average, OBP and slugging percentage with those three offerings since' 08, and then the average for starters:
Fastball: .270/.348/.424 for Danks, .283/.357/.452 MLB average
Cutter: .245/.280/.367 for Danks, .260/.315/.410 MLB average
Changeup: .213/.255/.335 for Danks, .251/.293/.398 MLB average
Danks' cutter (thrown about 18 percent of the time since '08) and changeup (19 percent) are his bread-and-butter pitches. The former Rangers farmhand, acquired in a rare prospect challenge trade for Brandon McCarthy in December of 2006, picked up the cutter from Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. Hitters have an awfully hard time laying off the Cooper cutter, especially those zipping away from lefties and in on the hands of righties:
Opponents have chased 41% of Danks' cutters out of the zone over the past four years. Jon Lester, Josh Tomlin, Jon Niese and Dan Haren are the only starters with more enticing off-the-plate cutters.
Danks also gets a bunch of chases with his changeup, as right-handed batters stretch for pitches well off the outside corner:
Hitters have chased 37% of the time Danks has pulled the string. While that's not elite, it's comfortably above the 34% league average.
Danks' contract gives him $8 million during what would have been his last year of arbitration, and then $14.25 million each season from 2013-2016. Assuming that a win presently costs about $5 million and there is 5% inflation each year, the contract basically requires him to be worth 10 Wins Above Replacement overall during the 2013-2016 period. The Hardball Times' Oliver projects around 12 WAR over the time frame, so there's a good chance he earns his cash if he stays healthy.
One could question whether an also-ran club with few building blocks outside of Chris Sale should be locking a guy like Danks up instead of turning him into trade goodies. But Danks is young enough that he could be part of the next contending White Sox team, and they won't have a hard time finding a trade partner later on if they decide to move him, considering his new deal is a market-value contract that might have some surplus value. This isn't a coup for Kenny Williams and company, but it locks up one of the few long-term assets the Sox have at a rate reasonable enough to be marketed later on.