Shelley Duncan is 33 years old now. That seems hard to believe as Duncan has always been a player that seems younger than he actually is. Why is that? It’s partially because he arrived in the major leagues late, at age 26, and was never even a semi-regular until 30 years old. But that’s not the only reason- it’s the passion and emotion that he brings to the game of baseball. He plays hard. He swings for the fences every pitch knowing that any at-bat could be his last. Maybe that has been his downfall, investing too much emotionally in every play and falling too hard when he fails. Duncan is best known for sliding high and hard into Akinori Iwamura in spring training of 2008 after Elliot Johnson had broken Francisco Cervelli‘s wrist four days earlier as he bowled him over at home plate. Was that a good decision by Duncan? Obviously Rays fans will say no, but in Duncan’s eyes, it didn’t matter that it was spring training- one of his teammates had been injured and he wasn’t going to let that go. Elliot Johnson made a statement for the Rays, and Shelley Duncan responded in turn. Rays fans can’t like what Duncan did, but his actions came from the same mindset. Duncan plays the same brand of gritty, impassioned baseball that the Rays can’t get enough of, and even if fans thought of him as an enemy, really Duncan signing with the Rays is a perfect fit. But it isn’t just his attitude that caused the Rays to give Duncan an opportunity.
Shelley Duncan’s career numbers in the minor leagues are pretty impressive. A second round pick by the Yankees back in 2001, Duncan has a .258/.347/.476 career line with 181 home runs in 976 games. For a while, though, he looked like a “Quad-A slugger,” and that was never more present than in his breakout 2005 in his first exposure to Double-A when he hit 34 home runs but managed just a .240/.323/.490 line with 140 strikeouts versus just 56 walks. But in 355 games at Triple-A, Duncan showed a marked improvement, managing a .269/.368/.515 line with with 79 home runs and a greatly-improved 293-196 strikeout to walk ratio in 1517 plate appearances. In 2009 at the Yankees’ Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre affiliate, he once again hit 30 homers, but this time his line was .277/.370/.546 with a great 94-64 strikeout to walk ratio. After Duncan got into 68 with the Yankees’ MLB team from 2007 to 2009, the Indians saw enough in him to sign him to a minor league contract following 2009 and give him an opportunity for some major league time. The last three years, Duncan was a semi-regular player for the Indians and played pretty decently, managing a .231/.309/.431 line with 37 doubles, 33 homers (11 each year), 114 RBI, and a 191-73 strikeout to walk ratio in 242 games and 770 plate appearances. In 2012, Duncan managed a .203/.288/.388 line, just a 90 OPS+, with 10 doubles, 11 homers, and 31 RBI in 264 plate appearances, but the most notable thing was Duncan’s 59-28 strikeout to walk ratio. Duncan’s power has always been present. The question has always been whether it would surface at higher levels, and thanks to his improved plate discipline, that might just continue to happen.
Duncan is a big, physical 6’5″, 225 outfielder and first baseman with big power, decent bat speed, and a strong but occasionally erratic arm. He may never hit for a high average, but he can draw some walks and hit for good power without striking out too much, and he’s about an average defender overall. Duncan is far from a great player, but as a right-handed bat with pop, he seems like a player who could conceivably see time on the Rays next season given James Loney‘s struggles with lefties and because Luke Scott is also a lefty batter (although he was fine against lefties before 2012). One issue that immediately arises is that Duncan has been pretty split-neutral for his career- he has a .217/.295/.425 line (.720 OPS) in 502 plate appearances versus righties compared to .243/.319/.428 (.747 OPS) in 231 PA’s versus lefties, but the similar OPS’s belie the fact that Duncan has been noticeably better in terms of average and OBP versus lefties and the moral of the story is that Duncan’s good power plays against pitchers from both sides, so really he might be able to be better versus lefties with more playing time. Duncan is also a player who tore up lefties in the past, managing a .296/.397/.552 line in 146 plate appearances against them in 2009 compared to .270/.365/.546 in 375 PA’s versus righties.
There’s reason to be encouraged with Shelley Duncan. He’s 33 years old and certainly not young anymore, but he has good power from the right side, has shown positive signs with his plate discipline, and has the ability to play first base and both corner outfield spots. Especially on a no-risk minor league contract, Duncan is a player who deserves a shot in spring training to show what he can do. He’s worked hard to get this point and the Rays appreciate the person he is and the player he has become. There’s no guarantee of anything for Duncan with the Rays, but the chances of him going from a player Rays fans have always hated to a player they root for as a contributing member of their beloved Rays are higher than you might expect.