I’m often confused—I’ll admit that up front. Since I like to follow the Cardinals, and especially the Cardinals’ minor-league system, I’ve been more confused than usual this season.
Mostly, I’m confused about Chris Duncan. As I write this, he has a major-league batting average of .305, a .374 on-base percentage, and a .597 slugging percentage, good for an OPS of .971. Anyone can look at his numbers and see they’re completely skewed by a monster August: .368/.438/.747.
The fact he’s declined fast in September, and put up dissimilar numbers in May, June, and July in mostly part-time opportunities, prompted Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus to write that “the league seems to have caught up with Chris Duncan with a vengeance.”
Another BP writer, Kevin Goldstein, wrote this: “Chris Duncan has 16 home runs in 229 at-bats, but he's 25 years old and nothing in his minor-league track record speaks to this ability. I wouldn't get too excited Cardinals fans--this is basically akin to Shane Spencer's 1998 showing.”
They could very well be right; they’re certainly better-informed than I. But still, the Chris Duncan I’ve seen in 2006 doesn’t look like a fluke. When he had a monster spring training, I figured that was a fluke, and that the real Chris Duncan was the one who hit .271/.359/.448 in 52 games at Memphis this year, after hitting an eerily similar .265/.358/.469 in 128 games at Memphis in 2005.
That Chris Duncan was rated the Cards’ 15th-best prospect by Baseball America, which put him eight slots behind Travis Hanson and two ahead of Juan Lucena. When a guy projected to be closer to Lucena than Hanson in value puts up a .368/.438/.747 line in any month, at any level, my first instinct is to shrug it off.
But my second instinct is to question my assumption, which I’ve held more or less constantly since 1999; that Duncan doesn’t figure to be a successful major-league ballplayer. I can’t remember ever once imagining that Duncan would someday hit 18 major league home runs in a season, much less nine in a single month in the middle of a pennant race.
So what if I’ve been wrong about Duncan? What did I miss in his minor-league numbers, and how can I avoid missing them again?
Let’s start at the beginning. Duncan was the Cards’ third pick in the 1999 draft, 46th overall. He was (and still is) a big, strong kid, and the son of our pitching coach. So his $900,000 bonus (a significant chunk of the $5.3 million the Cards shelled out to that year’s draft class) looked like a combination investment in his talent and reward to his father.
By the end of the ’99 season, in which he hit .214/.300/.353 at Johnson City, the nepotism thing looked like the safer bet.
The numbers barely got better at Peoria in 2000, when he hit .256/.318/.384 in a lineup that included future major leaguers Albert Pujols, Coco Crisp, Ben Johnson, and Eliezer Alfonzo. His performance was so discouraging that Baseball America didn’t even include him in its list of the Cardinals’ top 30 prospects. (T.J. Maier, a second baseman, was #30.)
But let’s stop the tape there: Why, after barely hitting his weight at Johnson City, was he playing in the Midwest League to begin with? Why didn’t the Cards hold him back in extended spring training, and let him have success in a short-season league before they threw him into a more advanced full-season league?
It gets worse: After watching their $900,000 investment fizzle at two levels in his first two seasons, the Cards promoted him again, this time to Potomac in the Carolina League. Predictably, he hit just .179/.229/.268 in 49 games before getting a mercy demotion to Peoria.
And there, as a 20-year-old, he hit a perfectly fine .306/.386/.529, with 13 home runs in 80 games. He also, for the first time in his short professional career, had a respectable strikeout-to-walk ratio: 55 whiffs and 36 walks. Before, it had been an ugly 3-1: 220 Ks, 71 BBs at three levels in parts of three seasons.
Clearly, though, the Cards saw that performance as a fluke. At a time when they routinely promoted everyone a level no matter how they’d performed at the previous stop, they sent Duncan back to Peoria for a third season. He fulfilled their expectations by reverting to form. In 129 games, he hit .271/.337/.437, with an ugly 118 strikeouts and just 44 walks. His 16 home runs merely equaled his 2001 totals at Potomac and Peoria. In fact, his 45 extra-base hits in 2002 were two less than the 47 he hit in 2001, in the same number of games.
Still, that third-time’s-a-charm performance in Peoria was enough to get him a promotion to Palm Beach, the Cards’ new high-class A affiliate, for the 2003 season. But, once again, he underperformed. Even if you discount for the fact that the Florida State League is notoriously unkind to young hitters, especially young power hitters, there’s no denying the hideousness of his stats: .254/.322/.315, with 115 strikeouts and 44 walks in 121 games. Home runs? Two.
In the 2004 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, he not only wasn’t ranked among the Cards’ top 30 (outfielder Matt Lemanczyk got the final slot), but he was listed on a depth chart as the Cards’ fourth-best prospect at first base. You could see why he’d rank behind John Gall and John Santor, both of whom were whacking the ball after slow professional starts. But J.P. Davis? (I follow these things obsessively, and even I’d forgotten about him. John-Paul Davis was a throw-in along with Evan Rust, who came from Tampa Bay in return for Tino Martinez and $7 million. Davis, a 25-year-old who played for Peoria and Palm Beach in 2004, hit .296/.387/.479 in Peoria but just .237/.355/.271 at the higher level. He was eventually released and returned to the Devil Rays’ system.)
If we were talking about any other prospect in all the years I’ve followed prospects, this would be the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Duncan went to Tennessee in the Southern League in 2004 and hit an un-Duncan-like .289/.393/.473. That was almost as good as his previous high-water mark in a partial season at Peoria. If you believe the conventional wisdom that a player’s performance at the AA level is the truest indication of his potential, then you had to believe this Duncan kid could play. Granted, he was 23 and playing his sixth professional season, but it was also his first exposure to AA ball, aside from 10 at-bats to close out the previous season.
BA listed him as the Cards’ eighth-best prospect heading into the 2005 season, and jumped him all the way up to the top of the depth chart at first base. (John Gall was moved to left field, John Santor fell to fourth, and J.P. Davis was gone.)
Here’s how BA explained the improvement: “Duncan … finally made some adjustments at the plate, harnessing his power and hitting to all fields. He got shorter and quicker with the bat, hitting balls harder and more consistently.”
Once again, let’s stop the tape and rewind, this time to imagine a different career path for Duncan.
Let’s say he starts off in ’99 with the exact same line in Johnson City. But let’s say the Cards hold him back, as they did Daryl Jones in 2006, and make him hit his way out of the short-season league. It’s easy to picture him putting up decent numbers in his second go-round at JC, and entering the 2001 season with some confidence and momentum. Maybe he starts slowly at Peoria, but picks up and has a huge finish, as he did that year after his miserable start at a higher level.
That puts him at Potomac in 2002, instead of Peoria. Let’s say he struggles there, and gets another season at that level in 2003 to straighten himself out. That would still place him at AA in 2004, but my guess is that he would have had dramatically better career numbers, and generated much more optimism about his future.
To most people, it doesn’t matter. Clearly, he figured things out at the AA level, and went on to put up decent numbers at AAA in 2005--.265/.358/.469, with a career-best 21 homers. He capped the season with 10 at-bats for the varsity, one of which became the final regular-season homer hit at Busch II. And we all know what happened in 2006.
But, to me, it does matter. I hate being wrong, and I was wrong about Duncan from 1999 through spring training of 2006. I didn’t believe he could actually play at the major-league level until I saw his at-bats with my own eyes this summer. I don’t get to see a lot of Cardinal games here in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and I only saw his biggest hits on SportsCenter. But the guy I saw looked like a big-leaguer. His stat sheet shows that he’s averaged four pitches per plate appearance, and has grounded into just three double plays all season, and the guy I watched looked like the patient hitter those numbers suggest.
Here’s a bigger question, and the fact I don’t have an answer for it is the reason I sat down to write this: If Chris Duncan, after all his flailing around and un-prospect-like performances from ’99 through ’03, turns out to be a legitimate major-league regular, what does that say about all the guys who put up better numbers than he did in the lower levels of the minors?
Is the lesson that a guy with a single outstanding tool always merits patience? In his case, we’re talking about power, and since that’s the rarest and most valuable tool for a position player, maybe it’s always worth the wait to let the strongest hitters put all the pieces together. It rarely works out, as all of us who got excited about Dee Haynes after he slugged .510 at AA New Haven in 2002 remember. But if there’s a possibility, you give it a chance to happen.
Still, that doesn’t seem to be a useful metric for assessing future prospects. Lots of single-tool players have entered the system, and I have to go all the way back to Vince Coleman in 1985 to think of another one who emerged as an impact player. Coleman, though, was younger (23; Duncan is 25) and had spent just three seasons in the minors after getting drafted in 1982 out of Florida A&M. Worse, if Coleman is the example of a single-tool player making it to the majors, then we’re right to be skeptical. This is the guy who followed up his Rookie of the Year season with a .301 on-base percentage in 1986. As the saying goes, you can’t steal first.
So I return to my original question: How does Duncan’s mostly disappointing minor-league career account for the solid major-league hitter we see on the Cardinals today? Does the Cardinals’ pre-2003 mishandling of his progression—promoting him twice before he’d succeeded at any level—render some of his stats irrelevant?
Or is it possible that I’ve been fooled twice, and the guy I now judge to be a solid and promising major-leaguer really is the same guy who spent four seasons in A ball? That’s the Baseball Prospectus position, and those guys are pretty good at reading stat sheets.
But maybe there’s a third possibility: Maybe Duncan is the type of player who thrives on coaching, and the better the coaching he receives, the better he plays. I’ve always wondered how big a role his AA hitting coach, Steve Balboni, played in his sudden emergence as a professional hitter in 2003. Could Hal McRae be having the same effect?
And if he is, think of the weirdness it implies: Two of the Kansas City Royals who beat our Cardinals in the ’85 World Series have been instrumental in helping us develop a guy who could someday help us win our first championship since 1982. The only thing weirder would be if Don Denkinger planned it that way.