On Danks

With John Danks' performance the past week, and the resurgence of the campaign by some in the Fort Worth print media to run Jon Daniels out of town, replete with references to him as an "idiot" who has been "neutered," I've mulled writing something about that trade.  Because, at the end of the day, that's the centerpiece to the complaints...the awful (and indefensible) San Diego trade is farther back in time, and the other complaints are more minor.

But John Danks winning a playoff game yesterday, while Brandon McCarthy has done nothing...that's a rallying point.

I don't have to do this, though, because Keith Law has:

I've seen a lot of revisionist thinking in the last week regarding the Rangers' trade of the new White Sox ace, John Danks, a deal that two years later has left Texas with almost no return in exchange for one of the 10 best starters in the American League this year. This line of thinking completely ignores the state of the two pitchers at the time of the deal.

 

Danks was primarily a two-pitch lefty without a good breaking ball and who had just given up 22 homers in 140 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. That lack of a plus curveball or slider meant he fared worse against left-handed hitters than a typical left-handed pitcher might, allowing nearly as much power to lefties (an "isolated power" figure, equal to slugging percentage minus batting average, of .176) as he did to righties (.202) during 2006. With Texas' home stadium a good hitters' park and particularly friendly to left-handed power hitters, it didn't appear Danks would be a good fit. Danks was still a top prospect at the time Texas traded him (I ranked him as the 24th-best prospect in baseball before the 2007 season), but there were valid reasons for Texas to be concerned.

 

After the White Sox acquired Danks, they added a cutter to his repertoire, and the cutter is the difference between the high-probability fourth-starter prospect he was at the time of the deal and the top-of-the-rotation starter he is today. The cutter is effective against hitters on both sides of the plate, helps him miss more bats, and has made him less of a flyball pitcher and thus less homer-prone. The White Sox have made teaching the cut fastball an organizational core competency, and more than half of the pitchers on their major league staff throw cutters. Identifying Danks as a pitcher who could learn the cutter, and who would become a more complete pitcher by doing so, is to their credit, but he is not the same pitcher whom Texas traded in December of 2006.

 

It's also worth bearing in mind the Rangers traded him for a prospect who was just as promising and perhaps a better fit for their park, Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy, a right-hander, was prized enough for the Red Sox to try to acquire him in the abortive Manny Ramirez/Alex Rodriguez/Magglio Ordonez trades of the 2003-04 offseason, even though he had yet to pitch above short-season ball. He boasted plus fastball command and a plus changeup, making him more effective against left-handers than against right-handers, while he threw an average curveball with good depth. His one flaw was that, like Danks, he was a flyball pitcher, something that has only become more severe since the deal. That McCarthy has spent most of the last two years on the DL with three separate injuries -- a stress fracture in his shoulder blade, elbow/forearm inflammation, and a sprained finger on his pitching hand -- is no indictment of the original deal, as McCarthy had had no health issues prior to the trade.

Law then goes on to talk about Derek Holland, who he raves about, and to shower praise on Daniels and the organization for developing an incredible stock of pitching talent in the minors right now.

Demanding that Daniels be fired over the Danks trade sort of misses the point.  If, in retrospect, it was so clear that one player was so much better than the other, and was reasonably foreseeable so at the time the deal was made, and no reasonable g.m. could have possibly made that trade, well, then, you've got a point.

But the "Daniels must be fired because of Danks" mindset instead seems to be punitive...the idea that he has to be punished because of the trade, or, in a more innocent guise, there is the notion presented that, well, this is a results-oriented business, and it doesn't matter if it made sense at the time, it didn't work, so Daniels has to go.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you Daniels is the answer.  I can understand, and share, the concern about the organization's ability to identify and develop major league pitching talent, and I think that is something Daniels is going to have to improve upon if he is to stay long-term.

But part of the reason that I would guess that Nolan Ryan opted to keep Daniels around (much to the consternation of the Fort Worth nattering nabobs who had been counting the days until the end of the season, when Nolan would send his high heat through the front office and clean house) is that the plan that Daniels has in place for this organization is a good one. 

Are there reasonable questions about the execution of the plan?  Sure.  But it gets back to a question of how much of the problems of the execution are due to front office issues, and how much of it is due to coaching issues.  John Danks improved as a result of working with Mark Buehrle on a new pitch.  Edinson Volquez took a big step forward this year, reportedly, because of going back to the armslot he had been using before Mark Connor started making adjustments to it.

And then there's the Brandon McCarthy fiasco of the last two years, where his mechanics were altered (apparently in an effort to make him pitch "taller" and use his height), which appear to have resulted in poor results and injury problems.

There has been a consistent problem in translating minor league performance within this organization, among pitchers, to major league results.  On our last podcast, Jamey Newberg and I were marveling about how well, and how ready, guys like Chris Davis and Brandon Boggs and Taylor Teagarden and David Murphy have been when they've been called up.  Consistently, it seems like positional players are able to adjust and perform on the major league level, while pitchers aren't.  And that's probably partially due to the park...but it also probably has something to do with Rudy Jaramillo.  And the failure on the part of the pitchers to do the same is a reflection, it seems, on the pitching coaches.

The irony of McCarthy is that, as has pointed out before, if the Rangers don't trade Chris Young, there's a decent chance they don't make the McCarthy trade.  But I'm wagering that part of what made McCarthy attractive to the Rangers (aside from the positives Law outlined above) is his height, and the success they had had in altering Young's mechanics and improving his performance.  I wouldn't be surprised if the results of working with Young were a motivation in getting and working with McCarthy, in the hopes that he would have similar results and add more velocity.

(And as a side-note, speaking of Young and McCarthy, and to tie in with Law's comments about McCarthy's injuries...the difference between this trade and the San Diego trade, in terms of foreseeability, is that Adam Eaton had never been able to stay healthy.  Trading for Eaton, and him promptly getting hurt, is not a terribly unlikely outcome.  Trading for McCarthy -- a guy with no history of injury issues -- and having him spend the next two years hurt is a different story).

Now, it is interesting to note that the angry mob at the S-T has been almost unanimous in exempting Connor from any criticism.  Connor, according to that mindset, has had a "grab-butt" collection of talent to work with, and did the best he could, and it isn't his fault that the g.m. couldn't get any pitching talent in here.

But when you get a Volquez, or a McCarthy, to the major league level, and they struggle and don't perform...doesn't that have to be an indictment of the major league pitching coaches? 

Connor and Dom Chiti were scapegoated if they did the best that anyone could have done with the material they had to work with the past few years...but did they?  Is it reasonable to believe that, if Brandon McCarthy had been with any other team, he would have inevitably have broken down and sucked, and the ChiSox, who hung on to him until the Rangers made them an offer they couldn't refuse (which included a guy, in Nick Masset, who their g.m. was in love with at the time), finally parted with him finally because they realized that he sucked and would fall apart?

And why is Connor exempted from criticism, from those carrying the pitchforks and wanting Nolan to clean house?  He was one of the guys Buck brought in, and Buck is, if anything, smart about cultivating relationships in the media (and shown by his use of Peter Gammons as his mouthpiece in the leadup to the Grady Fuson backstabbing episode in 2004). 

Is it possible -- just possible -- that those folks in the media who were tight with Buck and felt he got a raw deal in getting fired, that liked Connor (who, by all accounts, is a good guy) and didn't care to look too far beyond the surface, are letting their personal relationships color their opinions?

Particularly when the person they are going up against isn't a good ol' boy from Texas, but is an Ivy Leaguer from New York who is young enough to be the columnists son, who didn't work his way up from the minors and who was brought in by the much reviled (and reviled with good reason) John Hart?

That might also help explain the level of betrayal that seems to have been felt when Nolan Ryan -- a good ol' boy, a Baseball Guy, a native Texas -- chose to stick with the Boy Nerd instead of throwing some high heat and showing everyone who is boss.  It might explain the alternate explanations -- Ryan's been co-opted by Hicks, no, wait, Ryan is really the g.m. and is just letting Daniels stay on for appearances -- that have been floated for the decision.

While these folks ignore the possibility that maybe -- maybe -- Ryan thinks things are on finally on track.

Speaking of Ryan, the best thing I can think of for him to do would be to tell Tom Hicks to STFU and turn down all interview requests.  Hicks does nothing but cause problems when he opens his mouth, and he needs to let Ryan be the mouthpiece for this organization.

The other best thing Ryan can do is tell Hicks to commit to the plan, stick to it, and quit looking for the quick fix or the easy answers.  And what bothered me so much about Hicks' comment the other day about how the Rangers weren't going to trade away first round pitching prospects any more is how asinine such a statement clearly is. 

If Hicks doesn't have people in place who he believes can properly evaluate talent so they can determine if a given deal makes sense, even if it involves trading a quality pitching prospect, he needs to get new people in place.  And if he doesn't feel he can get people in place he can trust to make such a decision, he needs to sell the team.

Trading pitching prospects is part of baseball.  Every team is going to do it.  If you want to talk about getting a Zack Greinke or a Jake Peavy or a Josh Hamilton, you are going to have to part with quality pitching prospects as part of the deal.  Part of the idea behind putting together a strong farm system is so you've got pieces available -- including pitching prospects -- you can include in a deal.

After 2002's disaster, John Hart got so gunshy he basically wouldn't make any significant move, make any big deal.  One of the things that has been refreshing about Daniels is his willingness to have the balls to make a move that has some risk to it in order to help the team.  The idea is to manage the risk, and make sure that the potential reward is enough to make it worthwhile.  And to take away from the Danks trade the mindset that, we aren't going to make any more trades of pitching prospects because one of them might turn out like Danks is, I think, self-destructive.

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