The Best of Dave Duncan

Reports as of Thursday night indicate Dave Duncan will be stepping down (on an as-yet-undetermined basis) from his job as the St. Louis Cardinals' official mad pitching scientist for family reasons—given Duncan's enduring love for turning batting practice pitchers into targeted groundball delivery systems and his wife's health problems those family reasons are probably very serious indeed, and it seems trifling, by comparison, to worry about where this puts the Cardinals right now.

In honor of where he put the Cardinals, though, we interrupt our regular cooling-stove updates for a Dave Duncan Crazy Pitching Season Mixtape, biased heavily toward the recent and the crazy. (With all apologies to Dave Stewart and Chris Carpenter, respectively.)

Joel Pineiro 2009: The first time someone with clubhouse access reported it and started the meme I was a little surprised that Duncan did little in the way of mechanical adjustments—that this ostensibly enormous part of every pitching turnaround was left to the rest of his staff. Sometimes I wondered if that meant that his job was just making really obvious and potentially ridiculous suggestions about pitching while cloaked in his long run of success.

Anyone who's played a baseball video game has wondered what would happen if your cannon-fodder fifth starter decided to just throw every pitch into the bottom half of the strike zone; Dave Duncan was able to actually get his cannon-fodder fifth starter to do it, because he was Dave Duncan, the Kent Bottenfield Guy.

At one point, as a result, Joel Pineiro had a strikeout rate of 3.79 and a walk rate of 0.91. Dave Duncan didn't do the mechanics stuff, I guess, because he was too busy telling non-roster invitees, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if you could just act like you were pitching in the Dead Ball Era?" and walking away.

Honorable mention: In 2010 Duncan apparently made the same suggestion to Brad Penny, who went 5.7/1.5 in nine starts before his own grand slam broke the spell.

Braden Looper: Hey, wouldn't it be neat if you hadn't been a relief pitcher since high school?

Kent Bottenfield, 1999: Kent Bottenfield is proof that the thought has at least crossed the mind of the rest of baseball that Dave Duncan is an actual sorcerer. I know it was 1999, and that 18-7 is a very impressive win-loss record, and that teams were not as smart then as they are now.

But Kent Bottenfield was 30 years old, did not have particularly impressive stuff, and had, after the All-Star Break, finished the season 4-4 with an ERA of 4.25—and if there's one form of statistical analysis teams have always been willing to use, it's drawing conclusions from tiny, arbitrary sample sizes. Look, I'm willing to be convinced that the Angels didn't trade Jim Edmonds for him with the intent of creating a Dave Duncan cargo cult out of Bottenfield jerseys, mullet wigs, and coconut bullpen-phone fetish objects, but I won't be easily persuaded.

Andy Benes 2002: In 2001 Andy Benes was worth -2.9 bWAR in 107.1 innings.

Wells, Kip and Brett Tomko, et al: This one goes out to all the times we as Cardinals fans thought, "If Dave Duncan can turn Woody Williams into Woody Williams, imagine what he could do with a guy who has a real fastball!"

Woody Williams: In 2001 I was 14, just beginning to understand "advanced stats" (read OPS), and the world's biggest Ray Lankford fan, and it killed me that Woody Williams so quickly became the perfect Dave Duncan pitcher. I don't think I ever forgave Dave Duncan for it, let alone Woody Williams.

Lankford wasn't just my favorite player, he was my first chance at that intoxicating early-sabermetrics feeling of complete, undeserved superiority—he wasn't having a bad year, after all (.235/.345/.496) just an ugly one, and the Cardinals were trading him at the bottom of his value for some boring pitcher with a 4.97 ERA. Lankford went on to have a great second half in San Diego, which would have fit that narrative just perfectly.

Unfortunately, I hadn't, at 14, perused the two-year-old research on defense-independent pitching, or else I would have been less surprised by Williams's infuriating 7-1 finish to the season. He carried a 2.75 K:BB ratio into the trade, and he was almost exactly the same pitcher in St. Louis, with one important exception—not ground balls, Duncan's most immediately apparent fascination, but pitching to (even weaker) contact.

The part of me that read up on DIPS a few years later is nervous about saying this, but the Woody Williams for whom the Cardinals traded allowed a ton of fly balls, and a ton of home runs on those fly balls—as frequently as 10%, against a league average of 8%. The one the Cardinals got, the Dave Duncan model, allowed a ton of fly balls—fewer than he had before, but more than the league average—and gave up home runs on them a little more than half as frequently as he had that year in San Diego.

Williams was a weird pitcher in general—both before and after St. Louis he had a much lower BAbip than you'd expect (a career mark of .280), and his career FIP was 0.44 higher than his career ERA. While he was with St. Louis things got weirder still; his FIP fell to met his ERA, and together they hovered about half a run below his xFIP—the fielding-independent ERA you'd expect him to have with an average number of fly balls turning into home runs.

Williams confounded casual observation, and early-aughts sabermetrics, and two different brands of contemporary sabermetric thought, and that—in addition to his 45-22 record—makes him the perfect Dave Duncan pitcher. And that's what I'll miss most about Dave Duncan: As long as he was around, I was willing to believe—no matter how much I thought I knew about baseball—that he and a thirtysomething waiver claim were about to prove me terribly wrong about something.

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