Right(or Left)-Hand Man: Dave Duncan and the Perfection of the Pitcher
The Milwaukee Brewers released former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan last week after a vastly disappointing and highly overpriced stint in Brew City.
This year, Suppan is, in a word, sad. He has given up 50 hits in only 31 innings and has an abysmal 7.84 ERA. Now the struggling hurler is coming back to St. Louis.
Suppan had his best years as a Cardinal—he went 44-26 with a 3.95 ERA. Sure, the seasoned right-hander was younger then, but he was not good because of youth (he was still over 30) or luck.
The real reason Suppan had success with the Cards? Pitching coach Dave Duncan.
In his 27-year coaching partnership with Tony La Russa, MLB's third-winningest manager of all time, Duncan has been mentor to some of baseball's best arms, including four Cy Young Award winners like Cardinal ace Chris Carpenter.
Duncan's stellar record and three World Series rings are impressive, but his acute ability to reform a struggling pitcher has been the most remarkable part of his career as Dean of Pitching in MLB.
The following is a list of players whose careers have flourished at the Dave Duncan School of Pitching.
Before he went to the Oakland Athletics (where Duncan and La Russa coached from 1985 to 1995) in 1986, Dave Stewart had a rough three years with the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies, posting a 12-22 record.
With the Athletics, Stewart went 119-78 with a 3.73 ERA. Stewart won 20 or more games in each year from 1987-1990 and was the World Series Most Valuable Player in 1989.
Bob Welch was not a terrible pitcher when he joined the Athletics in 1988, but he did have his best years with Duncan.
In 1987, Welch earned the AL Cy Young Award, going 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA. No pitcher has won more games in a season since.
Like Bob Welch (and unlike Jeff Suppan), Dennis Eckersley was not a terrible pitcher before his years with Duncan.
In fact, his first ten years were impressive.
As a starter, Eckersley had only three losing seasons. But during his ninth and 10th years in MLB, Eckersley's talent started to wane.
With the Chicago Cubs (1984-1986), Eckersley was barely over .500 (27-26).
Eckersley was not completely finished, however, when he joined Duncan and La Russa, who made him a closer.
As a closer, Eckersley became one of the deadliest pitchers in MLB. In 1992, he recorded 51 saves with a 1.91 ERA. These incredible numbers earned Eckersley the AL Cy Young and the AL Most Valuable Player awards.
In 2004, the Hall of Fame welcomed Dennis Eckersley in his first year of eligibility. In just the second half of his career, Eckersley accumulated 390 saves; he is now sixth on the all-time saves list.
Before his tenure with Duncan and the St. Louis Cardinals, Andy Benes had only recorded two winning seasons—his record was a sub-par 76-77.
In each of his years as a Cardinal, Benes had a winning record. In 1996, his first year with Duncan, Benes went 18-10 with a 3.83 ERA. He was third in the voting for the NL Cy Young award.
Benes ended his career 155-139—not terribly impressive, but not shameful. This winning ratio would not exist had Benes not benefited from the assistance of Dave Duncan.
Chris Carpenter is indisputably one of the deadliest pitchers in MLB. In 2005, he won the NL Cy Young award—he went 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA and 213 strikeouts.
But Carpenter was not always the skilled practitioner he is today.
As a Toronto Blue Jay, Carpenter went 49-50. As a Cardinal, Carpenter is 75-25.
Talk about a bird of a different color.
Carpenter is perhaps the best example of how Dave Duncan can turn a losing pitcher into an All-Star.
During his long (and continuing) career in MLB, Dave Duncan has famously given many pitchers the best professional years of their lives.
Not every graduate from the Dave Duncan School of Pitching has a redemption story like Chris Carpenter, but many hurlers can say they at least improved under Duncan's counsel.
These players include:
LaMarr Hoyt (74-49 and AL Cy Young Award with the Chicago White Sox)
Todd Stottlemyre (35-29 with the Cards)
Kent Bottenfield (22-13 with the Cards)
Matt Morris (101-62 and two-time All-Star with the Cards)
Garret Stephenson (31-30 with the Cards)
Jason Marquis (42-37 with the Cards)
Joel Pineiro (28-23 with the Cards)
Adam Wainwright (54-28 with the Cards)
Will the 64-year-old Duncan be able to repair Jeff Suppan again? Who will be Duncan's next pet-project?
Regardless of who it will be, the guy will improve.
That's just the Dave Duncan way.
If Duncan continues to wow the baseball world with his excellent coaching, he could just be the first non-manager to enter the Hall of Fame.