Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Overlooked but undoubtedly important
By Jerry Crasnick
GLENDALE , Ariz. -- Jake Peavy has a Cy Young Award on his résumé. Mark Buehrle is the proud author of a no-hitter plus a perfect game.
The two veterans have a combined six All-Star Game appearances and a 230-155 record in the major leagues, and will earn an aggregate $29 million for the Chicago White Sox this season. For what it's worth, they're also fan-friendly, popular in the clubhouse and eminently quotable.
Against that daunting backdrop, lefty John Danks and righty Gavin Floyd have every reason to feel overlooked as the Nos. 3 and 4 starters in the Chicago rotation. After combining for 53 wins the past two seasons, they're generating less attention than manager Ozzie Guillen's Twitter account.
Not that they care. In the big picture, there are a lot worse things than being young, talented, on the rise and under the radar.
"Jake and Mark truly deserve all the attention they get," Danks said. "That said, Gavin and I know we are a big part of this rotation. If we don't go out there and do our jobs, it doesn't matter how good those guys do. We all have to pull our weight."
After throwing a combined 794 2/3 innings the past two seasons, Danks and Floyd will be prime weight-pullers for a Chicago rotation that projects among the best in the game. As former first-round draft picks, they're fulfilling the promise they showed in high school -- Floyd at Mark Teixeira's alma mater, Mount Saint Joseph High School, in suburban Baltimore, and Danks at Round Rock (Texas) High School. They're a testament to the ingenuity of White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, who acquired them both during a productive 17-day span in late 2006. On Dec. 6, Williams traded Freddy Garcia to the Phillies for Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. Two days before Christmas, he sent Brandon McCarthy to the Rangers for a package featuring Danks.
Think about that: Most executives consider it a coup to land one affordable, durable young starter in a trade. If Williams had waited 24 hours longer, he could have scored a pair between Pearl Harbor Day and Christmas.
They're the gift that keeps on giving.
|John Danks is only 25-20 over his past two seasons, but both years he has come in with an ERA under 4.00.|
A pair of prodigies
Danks, 24, is accustomed to the expectations that come with being the scion of an athletic family. His father, John, played guard for coach Abe Lemons on the University of Texas basketball team that won the NIT championship in 1978, and his younger brother Jordan played outfield for the Longhorns and is currently a prospect in the White Sox farm system.
The Rangers chose John Danks with the ninth overall pick in the 2003 draft, then sent him on his way too soon. Since arriving in Chicago three years ago, Danks has averaged 7.02 strikeouts per nine innings, and the lefty been slightly tougher on righties than lefties. He credits pitching coach Don Cooper with introducing him to the cutter, and catcher A.J. Pierzynski with helping him navigate American League lineups.
"Danks is like Buehrle," Pierzynski said. "He doesn't want to think about pitches -- he just wants to think about execution. He lets the catcher do the thinking."
Lots of people regard Pierzynski as an antagonist extraordinaire; Danks sees him as future manager material.
"I bet I've shaken off A.J. three times in my career, and two of them are home runs," Danks said. "He can have the reputation of being a jackass, or whatever, but he's one of the smartest baseball people I've ever met."
Floyd originally signed with Philadelphia as the fourth pick in the 2001 draft -- one spot ahead of Teixeira -- and then morphed from hotshot prospect to walking cautionary tale. He listened to too many people, tinkered excessively with his mechanics and was more consumed with the process than the result. When he should have been focusing on the catcher's mitt, he was more concerned with his leg drive, arm slot and follow-through.
"When you don't know who you are mechanically as a pitcher, you lose all confidence," said Floyd, 27. "It was just crazy. I would be thinking about my mechanics when I was pitching in a game. I was about to throw the ball and I'd think, 'I've got to compete,' and you're not going be able to compete that way. It was a real battle for me."
Floyd made 24 appearances with the Phillies over three seasons, and it was painful to watch him dissect his performances in the clubhouse as the TV cameras rolled. Some markets aren't conducive to learning on the job, and Philadelphia ranks high on the list.
"You have to have a little thick skin to play in Philly," Floyd said. "I remember sitting on the bench one game when Billy Wagner hit 100 on the radar gun and everybody was cheering. Then he hit 99, and they all booed. I was like, 'Wow.'"
Upon Floyd's arrival in Chicago, Cooper made a mechanical tweak or two. But Cooper and Pierzynski were more concerned with making Floyd feel comfortable and helping him trust his instincts and his stuff on the mound.
Floyd's ultimate breakthrough came internally. One day, White Sox reliever Scott Linebrink handed him David L. Cook's book "Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia." The more Floyd read, the more his mind felt freed. And his right arm soon followed.
"I know this is a sensitive subject," Floyd said, "but I put complete trust in God that there's a plan. To take that pressure and give it to Him, it gives me the confidence and the strength and the fearlessness I need.
"When you're in professional baseball and you're 18, your identity is baseball. That book opened up my eyes. In the big scheme of things, when you die, do you want to be known for your baseball career or the relationships with your family and your friends? It kind of put things in perspective for me."
|After struggling with Philadelphia, Gavin Floyd has found a comfort zone with the White Sox and pitching coach Don Cooper.|
More work to do
In spite of their progress, Floyd and Danks still aren't finished products. After winning 17 games in 2009, Floyd suffered through a horrendous stretch last May. He eventually pulled it together, but his season ended prematurely in September because of a sore left hip.
Danks, a fly-ball pitcher, is a less-than-ideal fit for cozy U.S. Cellular Field. He allowed 28 home runs in 2007 and 15 in 2008 before surrendering 28 again last year. Keeping the ball in the yard is a top priority for him this season.
In comparison to their first season in Chicago, when they competed for the fifth spot in the rotation, Floyd and Danks now have the luxury of tinkering in camp. Regardless of their Cactus League stats, they know they're going to line up behind Peavy and Buehrle, with Garcia in the fifth spot and young Daniel Hudson next in line.
Off the field, Floyd and Danks have developed a close friendship, and they spend a lot of free time playing the science fiction video game "Halo." Although Floyd is generally acknowledged as the superior player, he has a little Gaylord Perry to his game.
"Gavin is the best, but Gavin cheats," Danks said. "He's the biggest dork on the team, so he knows all the cheat codes, and where to hide and how to look on our screens."
Because of his self-professed status as a "big, clumsy, dorky guy," Floyd is a favorite target for ribbing throughout the Chicago clubhouse. Not surprisingly, Pierzynski is the master agitator.
"He cheats at crossword puzzles, too," Pierzynski said of Floyd. "He thinks his crossword skills are good, but they're really bad."
Floyd can take solace in the knowledge that his teammates kid him only because they love him. Like his buddy John Danks, he found opportunity and a sense of comfort in Chicago , and showed that even first-round draft picks can benefit from second chances.
It's no surprise that Jake Peavy and Mark Buehrle are attracting most of the attention in White Sox camp. It shouldn't be long until the two pitchers behind them begin receiving their fair share.
Gavin and I know we are a big part of this rotation. If we don't go out there and do our jobs, it doesn't matter how good [Peavy and Buehrle] do. We all have to pull our weight.
-- White Sox starter John Danks
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.