What was different about John Danks on Saturday?


Saturday was an awfully good time for John Danks to display some of his sorely missed top-end form.

He threw eight innings of one-run ball against the red-hot Oakland A’s, retiring the last 21 batters he faced after allowing four of the first six to reach. It wasn’t just a good enough start for even the White Sox moribund offense to sneak out a victory on, it was one of the most impressive pitching performances for any South Sider this year, which is actually saying something.

It also pushed away questions of what John Danks’ place on the roster should be, which might have started creeping in had he continued the path he was on. Through his first three starts, Danks had cobbled together 16 innings of work and displayed the expected changes of someone who had lost at least two miles off their fastball and, relatedly, two miles off his cutter as well.

His changeup had taken the role from his cutter as primary secondary pitch and while it brought the whiffs necessary for such a job (24.3% swing-and-miss rate), Danks allowed four home runs in those 16 innings, along with a .524 slugging percentage. His mistakes were getting clobbered, and three of those four home runs were high changeups that didn’t get thrown where or how they were supposed to be, if you want some anecdotal evidence on why he might have been struggling. Command could have been the issue, but this could have also be the by-product of forcing his changeup into a larger role while his cutter and fastball depreciated in efficacy due to the velocity loss.

On Saturday, Danks’ changeup simply lacked the mistakes of previous outings. He threw it 35 times for 24 strikes and seven of his 10 swings-and-misses on the day and he definitely knew he had it working, since he threw it in equal measure with his fastball (35 times). A crisp day for Danks’ changeup is certainly nice to see, since he’ll need many more days like that to be successful until his ability to bust right-handers inside returns, but it’s happened before on many occasions.

The pursuit of a tell-tale difference in Danks’ approach Saturday inevitably leads to his curveball, which he threw–according to Brooks Baseball–12 times out of the 96 pitches he racked up on the day. That’s an unremarkable contribution, but a much bigger role than it has played in the last four years of his career. 2009 was the last time Danks was tracked to throw his curve as often as 7% of the time.

Danks concurs with the data on this matter.

"From JJ Stankevitz at CSN Chicago:“I think I threw more curveballs today than I’ve thrown my whole career,” Danks joked. “That’s just the way it’s going to be for a little while. You’ve got to find a pitch and ride it. Fastball command was kind of hit or miss, it was different inning by inning, and I’ve got to have something to get them off the changeup. And fortunately I was able to throw the curveball for strikes and kind of ride that for a bit.”"

Sure enough, 10 of those 12 curveballs went down for strikes.

Variety is the spice of life, especially when trying to throw off muscle-bound men armed with bats. But this, much like the changeup use, is move prompted by trying circumstances. Danks’ curveball was billed as his best pitch when he was a prospect and was still a prominent part of his arsenal early in his career, but it’s been a while. While it grabbed strikes on Saturday, it’s a big, loopy offering that didn’t display a very tight break and didn’t garner any swing-and-misses either.

With Danks relying so much on making hitters think a fastball is coming with his cutter-change-heater trio, it stands to reason that a big curve that’s 15-16 miles slower elicited more stares than swings, but it looks like a show-me pitch for now–something that surprises by its mere presence more than it baffles–which would already represent a lot of progress from the rushed work Danks put into developing it during his rehab.

When talking about Danks’ need to grit-and-guile his way through post-surgical velocity and command loss, finding a fourth pitch to steal strikes and take some pressure off his fastball with is a perfect example of what kind of measures are necessary to keep him viable.

Danks’ curve may not be sound, but the thought process that led him back to it certainly is.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan