For a while, and it seems like years but it was probably only one or two, the Rangers had the vaunted trio of pitching prospects known as DVD – Danks, Volquez and Diamond. After being heralded for so long, it came as somewhat of a shock to the minor league system when Opening Day 2007 showed Thomas Diamond on the DL with Tommy John surgery that will cause him to miss at least the season, Edinson Volquez relegated all the way back to A ball, and John Danks traded to Chicago for Brandon McCarthy. In a confluence of events, this week will see both the return of Danks, who will pitch Thursday night against the Rangers, and of Volquez, who worked his way back through the system and will start against Anaheim on Saturday. It will be interesting to see if Danks and Volquez meet up and discuss old times. Perhaps they will talk about Danks’ comments about the DVD moniker after he was traded, saying that they hated it and felt expectations were too high and they couldn’t live up to them. What he didn’t realize is that any Rangers pitching prospect who does anything in the minors is automatically labeled as the next Nolan Ryan (witness Kasey Kiker, or Blake Beavan, who hasn’t even thrown a professional pitch yet), or the next savior of the team, simply because the Rangers are starved of pitching success. Since Danks got Rangers fans’ backs up over those comments, my two cents is that if he can’t handle the pressure of fans in the minors, how is he going to handle them in the majors?
This was intended as a comparison of Danks and McCarthy, the centerpieces of the trade in the off-season. It is really unfair of me to be comparing them so soon, because less than a year is not enough time to judge a trade, unless it’s a deadline deal intended to put a team over the top, and even then it can have repercussions later (trot out comments about the Alexander-Smoltz trade). In this case, both pitchers are jigsaw pieces, intended to grow and develop for their teams over the next several years (and beyond), so looking at them at this early stage is merely fun, short-term what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type thinking that a lot of fans and most media types do regularly.
McCarthy is 24, made his debut in 2005 for the White Sox pitching 10 starts, then moved to the bullpen in 2006. The Rangers traded for him for the rotation, which he had stated was his preference. So far in his short career he has been about league average, in fact his ERA+ is 101. If you look at his numbers on Baseball Reference you’ll see his ERA has gone up and his ERA+ has gone down each year, these trends would be worrying if you didn’t know more than that. In particular, something I have stated several times in the past, is that his ERA since May 1 this year is 3.41, and he has been pitching very well since getting off to a horrible start with his new team. His home run rate has dropped, which is good, but his walks are up and his strikeouts down, which is bad. Worst of all, he’s had a string of injuries which have combined to allow him just 19 starts and 94 innings, and at best he might be back from the DL for a couple of starts to end the season. Given his workload this year though, it may be a good transition to a much higher number of innings next year.
Danks is now 22, and of course made his major league debut this year for the White Sox. He’s gotten 130 innings as the fifth starter, but his 5.51 ERA gives an ERA+ of 83, and his record is 6-12. He’s allowed 26 home runs (compare to 8 for McCarthy), which as we all know can be a killer when you’re pitching in The Ballpark In Arlington. He has suffered pretty badly in run support, in fact in 11 of his 24 starts the White Sox have scored two or fewer runs for him. His run support average is 3.85 runs per game, compared to 5.30 for McCarthy.
What’s interesting about Danks is that he is the opposite of McCarthy in terms of performance. McCarthy had a horrible April and has been excellent since, whereas Danks started very well and has been bad lately. Splitting his season into two halves of twelve starts each, his first twelve through June 13 gave him a 3-6 record with a 4.34 ERA, but the second twelve had the same 3-6 with a 6.72 ERA. Curiously enough there is little in the detail stats to explain the change in ERA: his innings, hits given up, strikeouts and home runs are all almost identical, and he’s actually walked fewer (29 down to 20). OBP is about the same, at .355 to .349, but his SLG went up from .481 to .551, which with two extra home runs, three extra doubles and one extra triple is apparently enough to make a big difference in a small sample. Without delving deeper into his data, I can’t really tell what’s going on to increase his ERA by two full runs.
I can however show you his pitch chart for the year. I have a large number of pitches for him in my Gameday database (1386 with full detail to be precise, out of 2200 overall), and they clearly show what he is throwing. It’s your standard set really, a fastball (red in the chart), curve (blue) and changeup (green). Some people have compared him to Zito with what he throws, although he doesn’t feature the curve as much as the other pitches. Of my tracking, he threw 253 curves, 828 fastballs and 291 changeups (no, that doesn’t add up to 1386, I’m not counting intentional walks or a couple of off-the-chart pitches that Gameday just messed up on), which means he throws about 60% fastballs and around 20% of each of the others.
His curve doesn’t seem to have a great deal of bite to it, either horizontally or vertically (in this chart horizontal is the darker and vertical the lighter color of each pair), and what stands out of all these pitches is how high the fastball goes. The vertical break on the fastball is averaging 10.8, and regularly going above 15, and that may explain why he is giving up so many home runs. The higher it goes, the more likely it is to get up as a fly ball, and thus as a home run.
There is really not that much to differentiate between the two pitchers right now. McCarthy seems to be somewhat ahead, but he’s also a couple of years older. Danks has the advantage on health this year, but McCarthy’s numbers overall are a little better, and McCarthy is trending down while Danks is trending up. Danks’ fastball rides high, which means it may have been a good thing not to expose him to TBIA from the Rangers perspective. Now, having said that, McCarthy actually has a similar vertical on his fastball, but he’s kept it in the yard much better, despite pitching in Arlington. Just a statistical oddity, or a sign of something good? I don’t have immediate access to ground ball/fly ball ratios, to see if anything is happening there.
So Thursday’s start will be interesting for Danks, and for Rangers fans. Will it be a what-might-have-been kind of night? And if so, will that be good or bad? Will Danks be trying to throw every pitch at 200mph, to show his old team what they let go? How many shots of McCarthy sitting on the bench will there be, and for that matter how many shots of Volquez? All will be revealed soon. And I apologize for the title, I’m sure it has been and will be used thousands of times over the years.