GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A byproduct of John Danks’ improved health is his ability to be specific on where to focus this spring.
Whereas the White Sox left-handed pitcher spent last spring improving arm strength and concurrently preparing for the season, this year Danks isn’t worried about the former. His arm feels good and the ball is coming out of his hand better than it did in 2013.
With his focus directed toward preparation, Danks is very clear if he wants to get his career back on track he needs to rediscover his cut fastball.
“If I can get the cutter to be consistent the way it was before the injury I should have a lot easier time getting back to where I want to be,” Danks said.
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Danks aims to be more like the pitcher who went 40-31 with a 3.61 ERA and averaged 202 2/3 innings per season from 2008-10. He earned a $65 million contract extension, of which $42.75 million and three seasons are left to go, largely off his work from those three seasons.
Over that period, Danks threw his cutter 2,257 times -- 24.39 percent of his pitches -- according to brooksbaseball.net. In that span, batters had a .245 average and eight home runs against Danks’ cut fastball.
Last season, when he went 4-14 with a 4.75 ERA, the cutter wasn’t nearly as big a part of Danks’ repertoire. He threw it 17.4 percent of the time (380 pitches) and hitters had a .280 average with three homers.
While only time will tell how much he has rebounded, and Danks believes he’s not far off, the early reports have been good.
“It’s nice him coming in feeling like he’s a complete pitcher going out there as far as strength and everything else,” manager Robin Ventura said. “Last year coming in he probably wasn’t as strong as he would like to be. … Where he’s at right now is a lot better off.”
Pitching coach Don Cooper sees some parallels to Danks’ 2007 and 2013 seasons. As a rookie in 2007, Danks was needed in the majors and forced to learn a lot on the fly. It didn’t always go smoothly and Danks finished with a 5.50 ERA over 26 starts.
Last year, Danks didn’t quite have the velocity he needed. The cutter wasn’t effective. He was forced to rely more on a curveball he had rarely used in the past and turned to his changeup even more.
But Danks endured 2013 and Cooper believes he can take the lessons he learned with reduced arm strength and use them to his advantage.
“What John showed me (in 2007) was he was mentally tough enough to do all of that, take his lumps and come back even stronger the next year,” Cooper said. “I’m hoping that this is kind of similar to that. John took some lumps last year. He had some really good games, quality starts, good games, lowered the walks. But he wasn’t at full strength, and we’re hoping that this year, being a little further past surgery, he’s back at full strength.”
Danks allowed 28 home runs in 138 1/3 innings last season. There were more than a handful of games where he couldn’t contain his disappointment in postgame interviews.
But there were positives.
He lowered his walk rate. He can turn to his curve now to get a strike, though it’s not an outpitch. He also competed even though he rarely felt like he had the arsenal to put away opposing hitters and made every start.
Those pluses and the good feeling he has have made Danks excited about the prospects for this season, especially if the cut fastball returns.
“Between that and the changeup it opens up that side of the plate for me, which makes my changeup that much more effective,” Danks said. “I don’t feel like I’m that far off. Throughout the whole season I felt like I was on the cusp of breaking through. I think a full offseason and health is only going to help.”