Dave Duncan Finds His Limit

Dave Duncan is a tremendous pitching coach. He’s taken on countless reclamation projects and has somehow turned the scrap heap of the major leagues into legitimate, MLB quality pitchers. This season, Duncan received the ultimate test of his resurrection abilities when the Cardinals brought back Jeff Suppan, a member of the 2006 World Series team who won the NLCS MVP that season and has done nothing else of note whatsoever over the course of his entire career. Suppan was finally released of the worst contract in Milwaukee Brewers history in early July after posting a 4.89 FIP and 5.06 xFIP – numbers that are bad, but not jettison worthy, until you consider that they came in 13 relief appearances against only two starts. Basically, Suppan was the definition of replacement level in Milwaukee.

The Cardinals rotation has suffered injuries and had to deal with incompetence from the back-end all season, despite the stupendous trio of Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and Jaime Garcia at the front. I was sure that Jeff Suppan’s career was over after the Brewers mercifully released him, but the Cardinals decided to bring their former player back into the organization and give him a shot as the #5 starter.

If Dave Duncan had some sort of voodoo magic surrounding him, Jeff Suppan might be pitching well, or at least above replacement level. Instead, it appears that 35 year old, no stuff, no control pitchers are Duncan’s limit. Suppan made his 7th start of the season against the Cubs this afternoon. He entered the start with 13 strikeouts, 12 walks, and four home runs allowed in 30 innings – yet again, essentially defining replacement level. Against the Cubs, Suppan threw six innings, allowing 10 hits, three home runs, three walks, and striking out nobody. Somehow, the Cubs only scored five runs off of this barrage, but that was more than enough, as Randy Wells shut down the Cardinals lineup.

This isn’t meant as a slam against Dave Duncan at all – nobody with any sort of rational expectations for Suppan would’ve expected anything significantly above replacement level, and this terrible performance today should push Suppan’s WAR with St. Louis well into the red. If anything, seeing Suppan continue to perform terribly is a relief. As a fan of an NL Central team, it’s painful for me to see a pitcher sign with St. Louis, knowing that Duncan could turn them into this year’s version of 2009 Joel Piniero. At least this gives me the comfort of mind to know that Dave Duncan can’t fix everybody.

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19 Responses to “Dave Duncan Finds His Limit”

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  1. Chris says:

    He is the reason why I believe the Cardinals do not need a Dan Haren or Roy Oswalt this trade deadline. The Cardinals can spend pennies compared to Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt to get a guy like Fausto Carmona. His deadly sinker (what used to be) would be a perfect reclamation for Duncan. Carmona has had the sinker before, and is still young enough, to become a very solid #3 pitcher for the Cardinals (even though he would be a #4). If Duncan could figure out the sinker and give him his expert analysis, I think this is a realistic expectation.

    Duncan saves millions for the Cardinals. The Cardinals have the luxury of not paying for “aces” on the trade market and free agent market because of Dunc. Take advantage of him while you still can. Oswalt and Haren are not needed, use that money on Pujols.

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  2. yayforme says:

    While the results aren’t exactly encouraging, I don’t think 36 IP is enough to write off Dave Duncan.

    Having said that, those 3 HRs Suppan gave up today were thrown in the 3 exact spots you want to avoid with Colvin, (outside), Soriano, (low), and Soto, (middle-in).

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    • Jason B says:

      Enough to write off Duncan? You’re correct; it’s absolutely not.

      Enough to write off Suppan? Yes. He’s more done than that meatloaf mum forgot about.

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  3. Cardinal70 says:

    Of course, he wouldn’t have likely given up the Soriano blast if the defense behind him could have turned the tailor-made double play that he’d provided the batter before. The fifth run scored on a two-out popup around the mound on a windy day that the catcher (nor Suppan, though LaRue was coming at it) should have caught.

    In other words, if the defense does its job today, Suppan probably only gives up 2 runs in six. Not superb, of course, but not as bad as his line looks now.

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    • Todd says:

      Additionally, the defense was responsible for the 1 run he surrendered over 6 in his last start against LAD. That’s just over his last 2 starts, too. My memory of his prior start to that against Houston isn’t as good, but I’m pretty sure the defense cost him there, too.

      All things considered, I think the results actually *are* encouraging, relative to expectations. The peripherals don’t support it, but right now his ERA is 4.20 with the Cardinals, and that’s not accounting for how the defense has hurt him. I doubt it’s reasonable to expect Dave Duncan to cause a pitcher to dramatically out-perform his peripherals. But to this point, by luck or design, the Cardinals have gotten reasonable 5th starter type performances from Suppan, and given that the sample is so small anyway, I don’t think it’s fair to simply conclude that Duncan has failed.

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  4. Dylan says:

    The fact that they even signed him is a testament to how good Duncan is at what he does. Of course he didn’t work out, but the fact that Duncan has done enough to make them try it is damn impressive. Best I’ve ever seen at that job.

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  5. intricatenick says:

    Carmona would be a great get. Unless DeWitt wants to commit to a payroll over $120 million I don’t see how Oswalt fits. I’m just not sure what package gets him that does not include Shelby Miller. They can’t give him up. I see his peak as 85% Carpenter.

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  6. Mark says:

    Suppan notwithstanding, this topic makes me wonder what Dave Duncan makes. If a guy allows you to sign troubled reclamation projects for next to nothing (or acquire them for very little talent), and turn them into league-average starters more often than not, he’s saving you millions. No doubt he does not make millions.

    Where would Duncan fit into Dave Cameron’s 50 best assets list if we pretended he was a player?

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    • Tim in Missouri says:

      I don’t remember exactly how much he makes but I remember the Post Dispatch saying that he was the highest paid “coach” in the majors. And worth every penny. People totally love or hate LaRussa and he has done for St. Louis what almost no other manager has done for his teams. However, I think it would be even more difficult to replace Dave Duncan. Based on cost vs. results I think no other pitching coach is so valuable to his team. As Chris says “Duncan saves millions for the Cardinals.”

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  7. Geffen says:

    Nice piece. Suppan has been nothing but a mess for quite some time now. One has to wonder why he was even given a chance with the Cards. Guess they really had nothing to lose.

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  8. cjett says:

    Has there been any research into what Duncan might be doing to make pitchers more effective? I’m just skeptical that he does anything when so many of the pitchers he supposedly improves implode after having one good year.

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    • Todd says:

      Oops, I accidentally down-voted your comment while trying to reply. Is there a way to undo that?

      Anyway, it seems possible that whatever Duncan does, it only works for awhile, because the underlying ability to sustain it just isn’t there, and eventually the league/opposition figures it out. But that would still be valuable.

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      • Matthew says:

        Except for Jason Marquis in ’06 and Todd Wellemeyer last year, the Duncan reclamation projects sustain their success as long as they stay in St. Louis (discounting Kyle Lohse due to his struggles being injury-related). It’s only after leaving the Cardinals and Duncan that some of them regress.

        Anyway, a 4.20 ERA is still a lot better than what he did with the Brewers and about what I expected of him after reuniting with Duncan. He makes a decent stopgap in the rotation until we trade for someone (which won’t be Oswalt) and/or get our injured starters back.

        By the way, don’t forget that Duncan couldn’t do a thing to help Kip Wells back in ’07, so he’s not perfect.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        The pitcher also has to be willing to work on something new. Just having Duncan give advice doesn’t make the change happen on its own. He also has to be able to apply it.

        If Suppan can’t throw strikes like he used to, then he won;t be as successful.

        Duncan gets pitchers to increase their effectiveness by [1] not walking guys, [2] without grooving pitches that don’t move.

        I would LOVE to get a look at Duncan’s couting binders and compare them to the information that other pitching coaches use. My guess is that he also “sees some things” that some other guys don’t.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Simple. Pound the zone with late-breaking pitches. Stewart and the splitter. Eck and the slider. Pineiro with the sinker. Suppan (1st time around) the 2-seamer.

      [1] Throw strikes.
      [2] Do it with late breaking pitches

      Or, he might just get really lucky … over and over … and over and over …

      I do think their might be something to the “pitcher’s park and defense” thing though. But, it’s not like some of the pitchers we’re talking about went from crappy to “decent”, some of things guys went from crappy to outstanding.

      Obvoiusly, Chris Carpenter, Dave Stewart, and Dennis Eckersley (as closer) are the 3 biggest success stpories in the Duncan Book.

      Duncan sure does a really good job at helping pitchers make more money elsewhere (Suppan, Weaver, Looper, WWilliams, Pineiro, etc). I wonder if he gets any kickback?

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  9. Ender says:

    I think having a good defensive team most years and playing in a pitchers park has as much to do with this as Duncan. Almost none of these pitchers sustained their improvement either. He is a good pitching coach but I don’t think he is nearly as good as people make him out to be.

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    • Tim in Missouri says:

      Busch II and the New Busch stadium are not considered pitcher’s parks. In fact, St. Louis is considered to be very fair. However, your point about defense is true. Duncan preaches to rely on defense. If the pitcher gets a strikeout that is great but only as a secondary aspect to keeping the ball down and your pitches located.

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    • Zach says:

      The Cards don’t play in a pitcher’s park and the defense has been pretty brutal this season – and the Cards pitching staff has been terrific. You can argue TLR is overrated but IMO, you cannot say Duncan isn’t on another level in maximizing a pitcher’s talent

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