Cards benefit from Duncan Effect
Longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan deserves credit for the Cards' success
Duncan has taught the sinker the way Einstein did relativity or Newton gravity
Someday, Duncan could be the first coach ever inducted into the Hall of Fame
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Game 1 of the World Series had concluded only for a matter of minutes -- Chris Carpenter, the winning pitcher for St. Louis, had not yet even showered --- when a tall, angular man silently walked out the clubhouse door in his jeans and street clothes, pulling his wheeled bag stuffed full of secret notebooks like an alchemist with his dog-earred, leather-bound books of potions. Just like that, leaving the loud music and laughter to his back, the quiet man who has had as much to do with stifling the mighty Texas Rangers as anyone, was gone into the night, never to bask in the glow of victory.
"Superman," St. Louis pitcher Jake Westbrook called him for his ability to disappear as fast as a speeding bullet.
"Happens all the time," said former Cardinals outfielder Chris Duncan. "He actually is home in time to watch the game highlights on TV."
Duncan was talking about his dad, Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. The days are always long for Dave Duncan, who routinely arrives at the ballpark at 10 a.m. for a 7 p.m. game, such is the diligence and depth of his preparation. But these October days are heavy, too.
Here is Duncan, 66 years old, in his seventh World Series --- one as a player and six as manager Tony La Russa's Dumbledore of the mound. This may be the most improbable one yet, with St. Louis getting here without a 15-game winner, a bullpen virtually remade on the fly during the season with its fourth shot at finding a closer, and a team that stood 10˝ games out of the playoffs with 32 to play.
The joy of deep October, however, is severely muted. Duncan's wife, Jeanine, underwent surgery in August for a brain tumor, at which time the club announced her "spirits remain very high" and that she has no memory loss and no difficulty communicating. She continues to undergo treatment, Chris said, including a round of treatment the day of World Series Game 2.
"This has put everything into perspective," Chris said. "You have to understand how tough my dad is and how important sports have been to our family. Competing and doing your absolute best was always number one. My dad wasn't there the day I was born [in 1981] because he had a game that day [as Indians pitching coach]. When my grandmother died I played in my football game that night. That's what we did. Never missing a game was always important for my family. This has really put things in perspective."
Dave Duncan left the Cardinals upon Jeanine's surgery in late August. Bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist took over, and with the help of Cardinals video coordinator Chad Blair, maintained Duncan's system.
"They did a great job keeping it going," Chris Duncan said. "When I played, I was thoroughly amazed at how much went into it, and how prepared the pitchers were." As the Cardinals mounted a September comeback, Jeanine encouraged him to return to the club. Duncan was reluctant.
"The team was playing well," Chris said, "and my dad knows how superstitious Tony is. He didn't want to jinx it."
Said LaRussa, "I know if it wasn't for Jeanine wanting him to be here, he wouldn't be here. She told him, 'Go. You should be a part of it.' Everybody knows Dunc as this real tough, hard man. But the Dave you don't know has as big of a heart as you will find."
Duncan returned to the team on the final day of the regular season. The Cardinals, tied with Atlanta for the wild card, were about to play the Astros in Houston. Carpenter, the starting pitcher that night, hugged Duncan and told him, "Dunc, I'm going to make your job real easy tonight. I'm going nine. You don't need anybody else tonight."
Carpenter threw a two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts. The 8-0 win, coupled with a Braves loss to Philadelphia, put the Cardinals in the postseason.
"I was just happy he was there," Carpenter said. "The situation he's going through, there are no words I can give him, because unless you are in that situation yourself, there is no way you can know what it is like. There are no words."
Duncan has been a pitching coach for 34 years -- with Cleveland, Seattle, the Chicago White Sox, Oakland and St. Louis. You cannot come up with another pitching coach who has left a bigger imprint on the game, a status that someday could lead to Duncan becoming the first coach ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. His greatest expertise is not so much coaching talented Cy Young Award winners (four of them) but more in taking journeymen and turning them into confident winners, boosting their place in the game and their earnings. "He's made millions for a lot of guys," Carpenter said, "and a lot of them who weren't as good once they left here."
In 16 years in St. Louis, Duncan has tutored 14 different pitchers who have won 15 games. No other franchise has had more than 11 different 15-game winners in that time.
This World Series has been a thrilling one, a battle waged not one run at a time but 90 feet at a time, such are the difficulties and importance of any advancement on the bases. Duncan is one major reason why we have seen only eight runs in two games. You have to go back 61 years to find a World Series in which runs were harder to come by after two games.
The entry narrative to this World Series was the offensive firepower, particularly on the Texas side. The Rangers bludgeoned teams down the stretch and through the postseason. In 35 games in September and October entering the World Series, the Rangers averaged 6.3 runs per game while playing .743 baseball (26-9).
And then suddenly, upon meeting Duncan's staff of groundball specialists armed with reams of intelligence, the Rangers simply stopped hitting. Texas is hitting .186. It has two extra-base hits, none in a 2-1 win in Game 2. Of the 53 outs the Rangers have made in this series, 23 have come on the ground and 16 by strikeout. Only 14 outs were recorded in the air.
If the Rangers are going to win the World Series, and especially as the series moves to their ballpark for the next three games, they will have to defeat the Duncan Effect. They will have to find a way to make St. Louis pitchers elevate the baseball in order to play their power game. Duncan's history tells you how difficult that task will be.
While baseball became a power game, and strikeouts became a bigger part of the game than in any other era in its history, Duncan zigged while everyone else zagged. He has taught the sinker the way Einstein did relativity or Newton gravity; to him it is a basic, immutable element of life.
The Cardinals pitch to contact. For 23 straight years, Duncan's staffs never have finished in the top three in strikeouts. Here is where the Cardinals have ranked in the NL in strikeouts since 2001: 11, 12, 12, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 13, 13, 13. You might think a team that strikes out so few batters would have trouble winning many ballgames. But over those same 11 years Duncan's pitchers have the best record in the league.
This year the Cardinals ranked first in getting groundball double plays (they have been first or second three straight years) and first in the highest rate of groundballs. Throwing the sinker is only part of Duncan's curriculum. He spends hours breaking down opposing hitters -- scribbling notes by hand in notebooks he organizes by teams -- and then tailors a detailed game plan for each pitcher.
"You take the mound with full confidence," pitcher Jake Westbrook said. "He puts together a game plan that is different for each pitcher -- what pitches work in certain situations with certain hitters -- and it's easy to trust it, especially with Yadi [Molina] behind the plate, because he knows it just as well."
Consider Carpenter and the game he pitched in the World Series opener as Duncan 101. The movement and command of his sinker and cutter were so acute that he had virtually no need for his wicked curveball that night. He threw only two curves for strikes.
"The classic Dunc game," Carpenter said. "Keep the ball at the bottom of the strike zone and you're going to make it harder for the other team to score. It's not so much about trying to hit corners as it is pounding the bottom of the zone with movement. The one time I did leave one up, they hit it 700 feet [a home run by Mike Napoli]."
Carpenter's success under Duncan is a story often repeated in St. Louis with others. Carpenter came to St. Louis a strong-armed thrower who lived mostly by a four-seam fastball and curve. In six years in Toronto he was 49-50 with a 4.83 ERA. Duncan showed him the ways of the sinker -- throwing the pitch not just to his arm side of the plate but also to his glove side, including the comeback version that starts at a lefthander's hip and nips the inside corner. Pitchers such as Kyle Lohse, St. Louis' Game 3 starter, and Joel Pineiro have made the same transformation under Duncan.
"I don't want to slight a lot of great people who were very instrumental early in my career," said Carpenter, who rattled off the names of coaches and teammates such as Mel Queen, Rick Peterson, Karl Keuhl, Woody Williams, Pat Hentgen, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Charlie O'Brien and Mike Matheny. "But there is no doubt that I would not be the pitcher I am today without Dunc. When I came here I was kind of lost. I had some ability but didn't know what to do with it. "Let me put it this way. If it was not for Dave Duncan, I believe I would have been the same pitcher I was in Toronto: very inconsistent and very average. He helped me become the pitcher than I am."
Asked if he ever beat his coach to the ballpark, Carpenter laughed and said, "Are you kidding? No way. The only way I beat him is when he's not there."
Tonight all may seem right and familiar with how the Cardinals prepare and pitch. Duncan will get to the ballpark in the morning to prepare for a night game. He will give Lohse a detailed game plan with the almighty sinker as the foundation. And win or lose, because there is nothing more that can be done, he will be out the clubhouse door almost as soon as it is over. It's been like this for 16 years in St. Louis, an amazingly long and successful era of equilibrium.
These days, though, are also very different. Jeanine needs treatment and care. Shelley Duncan, Chris' brother and an outfielder with the Cleveland Indians, returned home early from his season to help. Dave Duncan, with so much more on his mind than the Rangers, is here at the World Series. It is where Jeanine wants him to be.