The Chicago White Sox announced on Tuesday their finalized major league coaching staff for the 2021 MLB season. On it included new skipper Tony La Russa, new pitching coach Ethan Katz, and possibly most intriguing to White Sox fans, new Analytics Coordinator Shelley Duncan.
The position in itself is a new addition to the White Sox major league coaching staff as they continue an organizational approach towards becoming an analytically-driven franchise in the modern era of professional baseball.
Duncan, 41, is not new to baseball, however. Duncan — the eldest son of legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan — played at the big league level for seven seasons, making stops with the Yankees, Indians, and Rays before calling it a career following the 2013 season.
In seven seasons Duncan played 330 games, slashing .226/.305/.419 with 43 home runs and 117 RBI as an outfielder and designated hitter.
After his playing days came to an end after the 2013 season Duncan started his coaching career in 2015 in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization where he spent four seasons managing at different levels in the Diamondbacks’ system.
During his time in the Arizona system, Duncan won titles at the Low-A level and the Double-A level in 2018 when he led the Jackson Generals to a Southern League Championship. At the request of Duncan, the Diamondbacks sponsored him in his attempt to enroll in Major League Baseball’s now-shuttered, “Scout School.”
The program was overseen by Major League Baseball’s scouting bureau. In a 2019 story by David Singh for Sportsnet, Duncan had this to say about his time in the program;
“I needed to see through a scout’s eyes,” Duncan told Singh. “To be good at anything, it’s important to be able to speak the language of all the departments. Scouts speak in a different language; analytics people speak in a different language; coaches speak in a different language. To speak all those languages — to go and sit in the cafeteria with all those guys and understand how they watch a game and what’s important to them, will help you do your job [as manager]. Because in the end, you’re collaborating information from everybody to be successful.”
After his tenure with Arizona in their affiliate system, Duncan took a major league job with the Toronto Blue Jays when they hired current skipper Charlie Montoyo in November of 2018 as the “Major League Co-Field Coordinator.”
I spoke with Alexis Brudnicki to try to gain some insight into Duncan. Brudnicki, who attended scout school with Duncan, is currently a Baseball Development and Special Projects reporter for MLB Advanced Media.
When the two attended scout school together Brudnicki observed a student of the game with an unquenchable thirst for more knowledge, even after already playing Major League Baseball and spending time as a successful coach and manager at the minor league level in Arizona’s farm system.
“Shelley immediately stood out among our group of scout school classmates. Not only was he the longest-tenured big leaguer in the room, but he had a thirst for knowledge that was impressive and enviable. In the classroom, he was asking questions that were five answers ahead of any question I might think of to ask, at least, and even during our meals and bus rides and at games, he had questions for everyone we were around. He wanted to understand everything and everyone around him, despite already having what seemed to me like a huge head start.”
With the analytics coordinator position a new position at the major league level for the White Sox, the immediate question is, what will Duncan’s responsibilities be? With the White Sox largely mum right now, that’s not likely a question that will be answered until we get closer to Spring Training in a couple of months.
However, I asked Brudnicki what she and Duncan might have picked up during their time at scout school that could help Duncan thrive in an analytical-specific position with the White Sox.
“While I learned an immense amount during scout school and it changed my way of looking at the game, I don’t know that Shelley necessarily needed it as much, so I can’t say for sure that his experience there will make a huge dent in the work he’s going to do for the White Sox.
“What I can say for sure is that everything I saw of Shelley at scout school and with the Blue Jays — his passion and dedication for the game and his desire to always want to learn and be better — is going to help him in any job and any place. His ability to understand the game at different levels and from multiple perspectives likely made him an easy choice for the position.”
As I mentioned earlier, Duncan’s most recent job was with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was hired in November of 2018 to serve in an on-field capacity, but according to Brudnicki, he was moved into a front-office role recently.
“Shelley’s role changed during his time with the Blue Jays, and he moved from being on the field to being in the front office,” Brudnicki said. “Whenever I’d run into him I would have baseball questions for him and from role to role, the transition in his answers for me was seamless. It’s pretty rare that someone can fit into both of those spheres and have something to offer in either realm, but Shelley understands the game from an on-field perspective as well as from outside the white lines. I’m sure if we gave him some more time, he could take both of our jobs and run with them too.”
Despite shifting areas of focus during his tenure with Toronto Duncan appeared to do so with ease according to Brudnicki who believes that Duncan has a special mind for both inside and outside of the white lines of a baseball diamond.
“Shelley is incredibly passionate, dedicated, and hardworking. Scout school was a short time but he left a big impression and it continued as I got to see him working with the Blue Jays. I have little doubt that his brain works 10 times faster than mine and has a much larger capacity, but he’s definitely the kind of guy who you can’t help but appreciate for it. I’m glad to know him, fortunate to have shared baseball chats with him, and believe he’ll find success with the White Sox.”
While the attention on the new White Sox coaching staff has been firmly focused on their Hall of Fame manager who is actively dealing with his second drunk-driving arrest as he transitions into his new role with the club, and up-and-coming pitching coach Ethan Katz who takes the reigns of a young pitching staff packed with immense talent — the hiring of Duncan will fly largely under the radar but might turn out to be one of equal significance for a franchise looking to catch up with the times.
While the initial thought by many was that Duncan was merely another typical insular hire by the White Sox with a dash of nepotism sprinkled in, it seems that Shelley Duncan brings much more to the table in Chicago than just a family name.
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