Former Cards coach Dave Duncan awaits word on his future in … – STLtoday.com
Longtime Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan isnât exactly sure if a pro baseball career, which began in 1963 when he was 18 years old, is coming to an end.
Hired as a pitching consultant by then-Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers in 2013 after Duncan had finished 17 seasons with the Cardinals, Duncan maintained that position through the Tony La Russa-Dave Stewart regime in the Arizona front office.
But, with La Russaâs power seemingly having been eroded and Stewart having been fired, Duncan said he had heard nothing yet from new Arizona general manager Mike Hazen â fresh from Boston.
âI imagine after the first of the year, heâll talk to me and decide whether he wants to keep me around,â said Duncan, 71. âIâd like to stay around if I could stay around under the same conditions. I donât want to do anything more than Iâm doing now. I donât want to do a lot of traveling.â
Duncan was out of the game in 1977, between his retirement as a player and his first pitching coach job with the Cleveland Indians. And, though he technically was on a leave of absence from the Cardinals, he was out again in 2012 as he cared for his wife, Jeanine, who died of brain cancer the next year.
Duncan, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., said he didnât know if he would continue if he isnât retained by Arizona.
âI donât know if thereâs another team that would be the right situation,â said Duncan, who had surgery for a herniated disc a year or so ago. âI would listen if somebody was interested.â
Duncan watches all Arizonaâs games on television and tries to watch as many as 40 Cardinals games. He has come to the conclusion that baseball has turned into a âfly ball-hittingâ game.
âThe hitters are trying to hit fly balls and the pitching is trying to depend on velocity rather than movement,â Duncan said. âSo now, if youâre throwing belt-high fastballs that are straight, youâre vulnerable. The pitchers who are having the most success are the ones with downward movement.
âThat high velocity fastball … has got to be above the belt. And itâs got to be in the right counts. A lot of hitters are chasing high fastballs with two strikes but theyâre not chasing them before two strikes.â
Duncan also is witnessing the continuing evolution of the bullpen.
âIt wasnât that long ago that a 11-man pitching staff pretty much was the norm,â he said. âAnd then it went to a 12-man pitching staff. Now, oftentimes, youâll see clubs carrying 13 pitchers. So the more bodies you have, the easier it is to use guys earlier in the game. And starting pitchers are very willing to accept a six-inning outing as a really good one.â
Another change is the gradual disappearance of the split-fingered pitch.
âFor a long period of time,â Duncan said, âeverybody was throwing it. But when the hitters stopped swinging at them and the pitchers had to throw them for strikes, then it wasnât such a good pitch anymore. Youâve got hitters who could (not) care less if they strike out. What they want to do is hit the ball in the air.
âAnd, actually, thatâs how you score runs â extra-base hits. You donât get very many extra-base hits hitting the ball on the ground.â
When he watched the Cardinalsâ staff last year, Duncan saw something different, too.
âLosing Lance Lynn really hurt them a lot,â he said. âAnd they lost (Michael) Wacha for a while. But the thing that stood out to me more than anything was their all-around lack of defensive play in the infield and outfield.
âThat club always had been known for solid defense. And they not only made physical mistakes but they made a lot more mental mistakes than you expect from a Cardinals team.â
Before he took the consultant job with the D-backs, Duncan said he was offered the teamâs pitching coachâs position.
âIt would have been really difficult to take that job because I would look at it as a long-term project where it would take three, four or maybe even five years to put together the kind of pitching staff that you have to put together to win a championship,â he said. âThey had no No. 1 or No. 2 then. I didnât want to go through the headaches and everything. But since then, I thought they made some good trades.â
One of the deals that hasnât turned out well for the Diamondbacks was their swap with Atlanta for former Cardinal Shelby Miller. Arizona gave up outfielder Ender Inciarte, shortstop Dansby Swanson â who was the top pick in the 2015 draft â and pitcher Aaron Blair to get Miller.
Inciarte hit .291. Swanson hit .302 in 38 games for the Braves. And Miller was 3-12 with a 6.15 earned-run average for Arizona, had a stint in the minors and seemingly became very confused.
Duncan said he had called Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell, for whom Miller had an impressive season in many categories in 2015 â albeit with a 6-17 won-loss record.
âI had him explain to me what Shelby was doing when he was pitching well and what he was doing when he got into trouble,â Duncan said. â(McDowell) said Shelby started using his two-seam fastball (sinker) and started throwing a lot more ground balls and getting out of jams.
âI had read something about that in an interview Shelby had done â that he had included a two-seamer. I told Roger that and he said that in Shelbyâs next-to-last start, he had gotten beat on a sinker and started cussing the sinker. So he didnât throw it all in his last start.â
In spring training last year with Arizona, Duncan told Miller he had read about the righthanderâs success in throwing the sinker and he said Miller insisted, âI never threw a sinker.â
Duncan said he then went to the analytics and discovered that Miller had thrown about 40 percent sinkers in 2015.
Duncan was further perplexed.
âHe needs to go back to weapons he can pitch with,â Duncan said. âHe canât go out there and throw straight fastballs and have an erratic breaking ball and no changeup. You canât survive that way. I think he lost confidence and got a little skittish trying to throw strikes. Heâs got enough arm to be a major-league pitcher. Whether heâd be a top-of-the-rotation guy … I donât see him doing that unless he makes some big changes.â
Duncanâs elder son, Shelley, a former big-league outfielder, is managing for the D-backs at Class A Visalia. Former Cardinals outfielder Chris Duncan, the younger son, is immersed in a radio career (at WXOS, 101.1 FM in St. Louis). He has survived his own battle with brain cancer. Papa Duncan, who once wanted to manage, wondered if he would have survived that grind.
âI always thought I would end up going from player to coach to manager,â he said. âBut the more demands that were put on the manager, the less I wanted to do it. Itâs pretty much become a 12-month-a-year job.â
Then, drawing out the words very slowly, Duncan said: âAnd … youâve got … to talk … to the media … twice … a … day (before and after games).
âThat was never a strong suit for me,â he said, laughing. âTalking to the media every now and then, I could deal with. But I donât think I could deal with them twice a day. I would have said something that would have got me fined.â
Before he embarked on a stellar coaching career that enabled him to win a total of three World Series rings in Oakland and St. Louis, Duncan hit 109 home runs and batted .214 in a nine-season big-league run as a catcher, winning a World Series title with the Aâs.
But he has some regrets.
âI wish I had taken better care of myself,â he said. âI think I could have played a few more years if I hadnât beaten my body up the way I did. I was done at 31.
âMy priorities were scattered,â Duncan admitted.
Another piece of advice Duncan would offer is to Shelley, father of 4-year-old twin sons who are hitting off the tee in their Arizona back yard every day.
âDonât be like your dad,â he said. âAll your dad did was have you hit. He forgot to hit you any ground balls or fly balls. So, make sure you hit your kids ground balls and fly balls.â
Dave Duncan, more than perhaps anyone else, knows how important good defense can be to good pitching.
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