Duncan continues rapid rise as manager

Ex-player headed to Double-A in just fourth season with D-backs

Shelley Duncan is honored by San Jose executives Lance Motch and Dan Orum prior to the 2017 Cal League All-Star Game. (Tim Cattera/MiLB.com)

By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com | December 14, 2017 10:00 AM

Shelley Duncan admittedly "thought it would be easy" to make the professional transition from playing to managing, and though the seven-year Major Leaguer now acknowledges it hasn't been, at times, he's made it look that way.

Duncan is ticketed to take on the head role with Double-A Jackson in the Arizona system in 2018, his third level in four years as one of the fastest-rising stars in the Minor League managerial ranks.

"When I got the news, I was extremely excited," Duncan said this week, while munching on his sweet potato, carne asada, pico de gallo, guacamole and cotija burrito from a Tucson-area Whole Foods -- a new offseason ritual. "To bump up a level from high-A to Double-A, go to a league that I've never spent any time in, move up another level in the organization along with some coaches I've shared some time with ... to hear all that stuff, it got me fired up. I'm excited to get there."

The 38-year-old's Generals coaching staff will include hitting coach Vince Harrison, who served in the same role alongside Duncan with Class A Advanced Visalia last year, as well as pitching coach Doug Drabek and assistant coach Javier Colina, both of whom worked with Duncan in Class A Short Season Hillsboro from 2015-16.

After spending parts of seven seasons in the big leagues from 2007-13 with the Yankees, Indians and Rays, Duncan signed with the D-backs ahead of the 2014 season, aiming for "one last hurrah" and chance at the Majors. After that season bore just 14 games with Triple-A Louisville in the Cincinnati system, Duncan retired and moved on to the next phase of his baseball life.

"Managing is something that I've wanted to do since I was a little kid," said Duncan, whose father Dave served on coaching staffs for the Indians, Mariners, White Sox, A's and Cardinals from 1978-2011. "I had my dad to watch and listen to all these years. I got to sit in the office with Tony La Russa after every game ... picking his brain on decisions he made, listen to how he dealt with players and the media, spending time with GMs all my childhood, learning from them and also getting to play for some extremely successful managers. I got a chance to play for Joe Torre, Joe Girardi, Joe Maddon. These are some great guys to watch and learn from."

The younger Duncan figured the transition would be relatively painless but still learned some quick lessons.

"Just like every player out there, you watch the game and think it's going to be easy-peasy managing," he said. "You always want to second-guess your own manager. You always want to think making decisions is an easy thing to do, but you don't realize how much really goes into it. Fortunately, I got to start off in short season where I had a chance to go to extended (spring training), be with some other coaches and managers in their first year, be with some coaches that were doing it before. We developed a great relationship all the way around. We went through some bumps and bruises.

"I learned that managing's not just necessarily about one person leading a bunch of players. It's about one person joining forces with the coaches, creating a good environment for everybody. It's about servitude. It's not about yourself. It's about serving others. Then you go to the game, and you have so many things to look at, so many decisions to make that you didn't even realize existed when you're a player. There's a million things that go into it ... and I'm very fortunate with the path I've taken so far."

Duncan debuted with a flourish, leading the 2015 Hillsboro Hops to the Northwest League title, the franchise's second straight championship in just its third year of existence.

Offseason MiLB include

"You can't ask for any better place to go play short-season baseball than Hillsboro," Duncan said. "What they've got going in Hillsboro is one-of-a-kind. It's a Major League media market over there with no baseball team. They pack out the place. They know baseball, and they do it right."

On a staff with Drabek and with a roster bolstered by that year's first overall selection, shortstop Dansby Swanson and right-hander Taylor Clarke -- now the D-backs' No. 3 prospect -- Duncan jumped into his managerial career with immediate success.

"I've heard Tony La Russa say it before, heard a lot of people say it before," he said. "Sometimes the manager is only as good as the players. I was only as good as the players and the coaches around me. You couldn't have asked for a better first year."

Another playoff appearance for the Hops in 2016 led to Duncan's promotion to Visalia last year, and he jumped over the Class A level straight to Class A Advanced, where he could employ a wider focus on his team.

"When you're playing a short season, it's a sprint to the finish," he said. "It's extremely quick. You really have a chance to slow the process down for these guys in a full season and really focus on development, focus on the little steps that they need to take to where they want to go in the end."

The Rawhide pitching staff led the California League with a combined 3.79 ERA and finished the year 69-71, missing a playoff spot by three games in the North Division's first half and two in the second half. The full-season perch also provided Duncan an opportunity to utilize more resources in his team's development.

"I think high-A is the first level where you can really take advantage of analytics in this sport," he said. "Low-A, it's hard to because you have really good talent, but execution-wise, it's not really there for guys. In high-A, guys are starting to slowly become a little more polished. The talent might not be there as it is in Double-A. You might not have a bunch of salty vets that really understand the game, but these guys have a track record. They've shown consistency. They've shown patterns. Pitchers are able to execute pitchers more, so you're able to get a lot out of the players. You're able to start preparing the mentally for the game of baseball.

"That was one of the fun things that we did this year. We took advantage of that aspect. Analytics is a huge part of our organization, and it's fun to dive into. It's fun when you have loads of data that you can play with, and high-A is probably the first level where you really get to do that."

In Jackson, Duncan will pilot many of the same players he's seen through their early development. The Generals' 2018 roster could include such top D-backs talent as right-hander Jon Duplantier (Arizona's No. 2 prospect), who went a combined 12-3 with a 1.39 ERA for Class A Kane County and Visalia last year on the way to the MiLBY Award for Top Starting Pitcher, outfielder Marcus Wilson (No. 9) and righty Jose Almonte (No. 25) -- all of whom have played for Duncan in their careers.

"The funnest part about it is the relationships," he said. "You really get to know guys, what motivates them, what drives them, why they play the game. You start learning their off-the-field behaviors or personalities. The communication is a lot easier. It's fluid. That's one of the best things. You don't need to have a 'get to know you' phase in a season. When you can skip that, you can really get into the work, and the trust is there. The work starts happening. It starts flowing at a good pace."

With his third different setting in four years, that work will start again soon.

Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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