How scouting school helped mould Blue Jays’ Shelley Duncan

Shelley Duncan as a member of the Indians in 2012. (Ben Margot/AP)

TORONTO — Alexis Brudnicki was working as a statistician and scoreboard operator at Rogers Centre in 2011 when she witnessed one of the most majestic home runs of her life.

Shelley Duncan connected on a 1-0 offering from Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes and launched it to the stadium’s fifth deck. It was quite the impressive display of power from the Indians designated hitter, who became part of an exclusive group of sluggers to have ever deposited a ball there.

A mere five years later, though, Duncan and Brudnicki were suddenly classmates.

The two enrolled in a development program run by MLB’s scouting bureau and Duncan was looked at almost like a second professor by his peers, many of which came from a front office background with no professional playing experience.

“Shelley was always a few steps ahead of at least me, if not everyone,” Brudnicki recalls. “We were there trying to get the basics of what to look for when you’re scouting and Shelley had already figured out what to look for, how to fix it, how to implement those changes, how to adapt, how to make your player better and how to win a World Series.

“He was just five steps ahead of all of us.”

The time at scout school proved integral in Duncan’s transition from playing to managing to his current position with the Blue Jays — the 39-year-old was hired in November as major-league field coordinator, a new role for the club.

Duncan, the son of renowned pitching coach Dave Duncan, was a second-round pick by the Yankees in 2001 and ended up spending parts of seven seasons in the majors, tallying 43 home runs over 330 games with New York, Cleveland and Tampa Bay. However, his managerial career has proved much more successful.

The Tucson, Ariz., native spent the past four seasons managing at different levels in the Diamondbacks’ system, capturing league championships in both low-A and double-A. After his second campaign as bench boss, Duncan told the organization’s front office that he felt something was missing from his repertoire. Sure, he’d played the game at the highest level and learned and observed a great deal from his father, but he wanted to attend scout school and got the organization to sponsor him to attend classes in the fall of 2016.

“I needed to see through a scout’s eyes,” says Duncan. “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.”

Current baseball personnel are no longer afforded the same opportunity that Duncan received — MLB shuttered its scouting bureau in early 2018 and doesn’t operate a scout development program anymore. However, “the core functions of the MLB Scouting Bureau have become a part of other MLB departments under a reorganization,” according to a league spokesman.

Billy Owens, assistant GM and director of player personnel with the Athletics, is another former player who attended the school after hanging up his jersey in the late 1990s. One of his assignments in the program was to scout and write reports on the University of Arizona baseball team, which featured a young Duncan. Owens remembers making note of the “majestic” power that Duncan displayed and says his time in scout school helped add structure and organization to his evaluation process.

“Evaluation is the language of baseball,” says Owens. “Whatever aspect — whether you’re coaching, scouting or front office — the evaluation aspect is the language that people talk.”

He says the program also placed a strong emphasis on report writing, which is a skill that Duncan sought to improve, years later. It took him time and practise to learn how to concisely articulate his thoughts. “When you watch a player, you can sit there and write 300 words,” says Duncan. “But you’ve gotta learn how to put it into four lines. You have to say the right thing that paints a picture for everyone to see, because the front office people are going to look at hundreds and hundreds of reports.”

Duncan expects that members of the Blue Jays front office will spend plenty of time reading his reports this season, too. Relationships from his baseball life — he knows Toronto GM Ross Atkins from their time in Cleveland and played for manager Charlie Montoyo on the 2013 Durham Bulls — helped Duncan land an interview with the club this off-season and when he was eventually offered the job, there was plenty to consider.

Duncan was in line to manage the Dbacks’ triple-A club and stepping away from his passion took some thought. The position of major-league field coordinator is relatively new in MLB, but he was encouraged by the fact that it helped Rocco Baldelli, who filled the same role for the Rays last season, land the Twins’ manager job in October. Montoyo was bench coach in Tampa Bay and worked on a regular basis with Baldelli.

“It’s funny,” says Duncan with a smile, “When I was trying to get some clarity of the position, one of the things Charlie said was, ‘Just do what Rocco did.’ I don’t know what Rocco did, so I gave Rocco a call and he let me know all the responsibilities he had.”

Such responsibilities with the Blue Jays in 2019 aren’t exactly clear at the moment. Duncan says he’ll have a better understanding of the minutiae of the role by mid-season, but envisions it as somewhat of a Swiss-Army gig, consisting of tasks including assisting players, coaches and front-office members, schedule making, plugging holes and aiding preparation.

“You’re helping keep everything together,” he says. “The ability to dive in and be a part of so many things, and not really responsible for one thing, is going to allow me to broaden the knowledge base … I’m here to serve and I’m here to help Charlie be as successful as he can be.”

Baldelli’s new appointment illustrates the impact being a field coordinator can have on a career trajectory and Duncan does aspire to one day become a MLB manager. But not just yet, he says — there’s still work he needs to accomplish.

“There’s always stuff to learn,” says Duncan. “Once you become manager, you’re judged right there. There’s no, ‘Let me learn on the job.’ You’re judged, so you need to be prepared.”

Thanks to his time in scout school, Duncan knows exactly what judging, or evaluating, can look like.

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