When Chicago White Sox left-hander John Danks underwent shoulder surgery last August, the hope was that he would be ready to go by the time spring training rolled around. He seems to be, and the White Sox are expecting Danks to stabilize the rotation in 2013.
So, what is the best-case scenario that Danks and the White Sox can hope for this season?
The “that's a clown question, bro” answer is 22 wins and the Cy Young Award. Realistically, the answer is more like 14 wins, a 3.75 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 175.0 innings.
In order to do that, Danks will have to pitch like it is 2010 again. This does not refer to his record—it refers his pitch selection and velocity.
See, part of the reason 2011 and 2012 were so forgettable for Danks and the White Sox is that he changed the way he pitched.
For example, the frequency he threw his four-seam fastball dropped from 54.0 percent in 2010 to 48.9 in 2011 and 48.4 during his abbreviated 2012 campaign. While not overpowering, his four-seamer sets up the cut fastball and changeup very nicely.
To compound the problem for Danks, there was also a considerable drop in his velocity differential.
In 2010, there was a 9.0 mph difference between his fastball and changeup. In 2011, it dropped to 8.2 and in 2012 the variation slipped to a mere 7.5. The closer the separation between the two pitches is to 10 mph, the better.
Without proper separation, both pitches will typically become more hittable, as evidenced by the percentage of line drives (22.0) opposing batters hit in 2012.
Simply put, Danks threw more offspeed pitches the past two seasons—which were getting squared up—and he got shelled.
If Danks can throw—and locate—a greater number of fastballs and finds the proper velocity separation, he should be able to pitch quite well en route to 25-plus starts and those 14 victories.
All of this is assuming that he can stay healthy the entire season.
Dr. Keith Meister, who is the team physician for the Texas Rangers, suggests that the expected time to recover is ”at least a year...even if all he does is go in and clean up a 'little bit' of labral tissue" (via ESPN.com).
Danks had surgery less than seven months ago. Not only is Danks ahead of the typical timeline, but shoulder procedures are notoriously finicky.
ESPN.com’s Adam Rubin noted that “shoulder surgeries generally are more difficult to overcome than elbow surgeries.” Even the routine ones can prove difficult to return from.
Is 14 victories a reasonable expectation?
Rubin used current Miami Marlins right-hander John Maine—who has not pitched in a regular-season game since 2010—as an example of how hard it can be to come back following a simple scope to the throwing shoulder.
Another example of the difficulties surrounding shoulder surgery is Brandon Webb. His return from shoulder surgery was less than successful, and, after numerous setbacks, he announced his retirement last month.
There can be serious obstacles, and it is impossible to predict how a pitcher will recover. It takes work, dedication and a degree of luck.
From all accounts, Danks seems to be making all the efforts needed to return to White Sox 25-man roster by Opening Day. He is working closely with pitching coach Don Cooper and trainer Herm Schneider to maximize his efforts, while being very cautious at the same time.
Danks is also very confident, which can only help.
General manager Rick Hahn has built the White Sox around pitching and will need Danks to be in top form all season.
The best-case scenario is that he does just that.
*Statistics courtesy of BaseballReference.com. Velocity and pitch selection courtesy of FanGraphs.com