If there was ever an unappreciated job in baseball, it is the pitching coach. It is not glamorous. The coach gets no credit when things go well, and a ton of blame when the pitching staff fails to perform.
Unless you are Dave Duncan. Then you get a peculiar silence. The truth is that the position rarely gets noticed unless things are going terrible wrong. In Duncan’s case, that reality is a shame, because he has been the best pitching coach in Major League Baseball for the last 30 years (and counting).
Here are some facts that help demonstrate how great of a pitching coach the St. Louis Cardinals have in Dave Duncan:
- Dave Duncan has coached four Cy Young award winners over three decades, including LaMarr Hoyt in 1983 (White Sox), Bob Welch in 1990 (Oakland Athletics), Dennis Eckersley in 1992 (Oakland Athletics), and Chris Carpenter in 2005 (St. Louis Cardinals).
- Between the years of 1988 and 1990 his pitching staffs had the lowest ERA in the American League. For three straight seasons.
- Coached the St. Louis Cardinals to the lowest staff ERA in baseball in 2005.
The facts are impressive (not to mention the two World Series rings), but the key to his success is his expertise. Duncan’s expertise consists primarily of reclamation. What one team no longer values, Duncan can coach into a solid contributor – and sometimes a Cy Young winner.
Dave Duncan’s manager, Tony La Russa, may have said it best when he told the USA Today in June of this year that Duncan is so good because, “…10, 15, 20 things can go wrong. Most pitching coaches can fix a dozen things. Dave is a 10 in every category.”
Coming into the 2007 season the Cardinals has Joel Pineiro, Todd Wellemeyer – and two time Chicago Cubs reject and a waiver claim from the Florida Marlins – and Kyle Lohse has starters three four and five on the staff. Experts claimed the Cardinals were in for a long year with that group and an injured Chris Carpenter still on the mend.
Wellemeyer, in particular, was a question mark because he had virtually no success in the majors. In three seasons with the Cubs he had an ERA that hovered over six, and with the Marlins his ERA was just below six. After joining the Cardinals in 2007, he posted a 3.11 ERA, and a 3.71 ERA (along with 13 wins) in 2008.
Since 2007, the aforementioned starters have won 53 games against just 31 losses.
Duncan has had several successful reclamation projects, from his transformation of Dave Stewart and Kent Bottenfield from decent to great in the last 1980’s and early 1990’s to the most recent example with John Smoltz.
When future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz received the ignominy of being released by the Boston Red Sox after giving up 25 runs in his final four starts, many experts believed his days as a Major League pitcher were completely over. Not Duncan. So the Cardinals acquired the veteran who was still recovering from major surgery on his arm. After a five minute conversation with Duncan, Smoltz learned the real reason his appearances were ineffective – he was unintentionally tipping pitches. After suffering through problems in Boston where he gave up eight home runs and five walks in his final four appearances in Red Sox Nation, he has given up two home runs and just one walk in his four starts with the Cardinals. Still think the veteran is out gas?
Smoltz is just the most recent example of Duncan’s reclamation genius. He has also cultivated MLB’s third best pitching staff this season with a team ERA of 3.61 and the fewest number of walks given up all season (388). Despite battling injuries for several consecutive years, Duncan has starter Chris Carpenter back at the top of his game with a 2.16 ERA for 2009, staff ace Adam Wainwright has an ERA of 2.59, and third starter Joel Pineiro has a 3.28 on the strength of streak where he won seven consecutive starts. Closer Ryan Franklin has an ERA of just 1.67 on the strength of 37 saves while set up man Trever Miller’s ERA is just 1.86. These are not accidental occurrences. The achievements of these pitchers are tied to the tutelage of their great coach.
As great as some other pitching coaches have been throughout the years, no one has combined Duncan’s capacity for rebuilding a player coming off of injury or and cultivating a young talent into a dominant pitcher. What separates Duncan from all other pitching coaches, besides his amazing consistency and ability to create success no matter what team he coached on, is that he did not have the luxury of working with some of the game’s greatest pitchers. He turned mediocre pitchers into Cy Young winners, or washed up veterans into solid contributors. Simply put, Duncan is the best pitching coach in the last 30 years.