The Danks-Pettitte ComparisonBy
Over the last 14 months or so, the Yankees have had a fairly questionable rotation, with a number of slots they could improve via the trade market or free agency. This has led to a million and one trade proposals from fans that have touched on every decent pitcher in the sport. Other than Felix Hernandez, who is Moby Dick to this fanbase’s Ahab, the most frequently raised name has probably been that of John Danks. In the course of various online discussions about Danks, a number of Yankees fans, myself included, have compared him to former Yankee Andy Pettitte. Whether it’s the fact that both are lefties from Texas, the nature of their repertoires, or their established levels of performance, there is something about these two pitchers that connects them in the minds of some fans. Let’s take a closer look at the two men to evaluate whether the comparison has merit.
While Pettitte was actually born in Louisiana, he played his high school ball in Texas like Danks. Pettitte has a larger frame than Danks (6’5/235 v. 6’1/215), but both are reasonably large lefties with durable frames. The real similarity comes in their repertoires, particularly when comparing Danks to the Pettitte who returned to the Yankees in 2007. Both work off a fastball that sits around 90-92 MPH, and use the fastball to set up their breaking pitches. Most notably, they use their cutters more than 20% of the time and experience great success with the pitch. They each round out their arsenals with a curveball and a changeup, although Danks focuses more on the changeup while Pettitte was significantly more dependent on his hook.
Danks has been in the majors for five seasons, so it would be useful to compare his first five seasons to the first five from Pettitte. In his first five years, Andy Pettitte pitched 1044.1 innings with a 3.92 ERA, for an ERA+ of 119. Danks did not come out of the gate quite as hot as Andy did, with a 5.50 ERA in 2007 resulting in a slightly worse overall line of 917 innings to a 4.03 ERA (111 ERA+). However, when it comes to peripheral statistics, Danks actually comes out slightly ahead, with a better K/9 (7.0 to 6.1), BB/9 (2.9 to 3.2), and H/9 (8.8 to 9.4). Danks allowed a .727 OPS against to Pettitte’s .730, but Pettitte was superior at coaxing double plays (15% to 12%), which was due to his significantly greater penchant for drawing grounders (1.07 GB/FB to .76). Pettitte was better at suppressing home runs (0.7 to 1.1 HR/9), and it is important to note that the peripherals are not adjusted for era, which is important considering that Pettitte was pitching at the height of the steroid era. Overall, this comparison seems fairly close, and it is reasonable to say that these two pitchers performed at a similar level.
Another interesting comparison can be made between Danks and Pettitte’s last five years, which may be the years that are causing people to make the connection between these two hurlers. In his last five seasons, Andy threw 957 innings to the tune of a 4.11 ERA, good for an ERA+ of 109. His peripherals during this period actually look a lot like those of Danks, with a 6.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, and a H/9 of 9.6, and the two players notched these numbers while playing in the same league at the same time. Again, it seems that a reasonable person could conclude that these two pitchers were of similar ability.
While some will surely raise postseason success as a defining element of Pettitte’s career and something Danks lacks, it is hard to blame him for not being on a club that makes the postseason every year. For what it is worth, his one postseason start was quintessential Pettitte, as he allowed a bevy of baserunners (10) but limited the damage to 3 runs in 6.2 innings and notched the win.
Editor’s Note: Danks did throw an absolute gem in Game 163 against the Twins in 2008, allowing just two hits and zero runs in eight shutout innings. It’s technically a regular season start, but we all that know that’s a playoff game.
While the parallels between the two are not perfect, they are close enough to explain why Danks is somewhat reminiscent of Andy Pettitte. Both are lefties from Texas who thrive on a fastball-cutter mix, and both were likely miscast as aces when they performed more like good #2 starters. Neither was much of a power pitcher, succeeding by allowing plenty of baserunners but finding a way to limit the damage and give their teams a chance to win. If Danks ever does end up in New York, Yankees fans might find that he brings back memories of a certain dimple-chinned fan favorite from the South.