Dave Duncan, the 1982 Mariners and lost glory

Pitching coach extraordinaire Dave Duncan has stepped down from his position with the St. Louis Cardinals. Chances are he has coached his last game, leaving as a world champion. But he’s been more than a great pitching coach. He has left in his wake a multitude of pitchers who turned their careers around, tapped into their potential, and had their best seasons under his tutelage.

In his time as a coach for the White Sox, A’s and Cardinals, four different pitchers won Cy Young Awards. (LaMarr Hoyt, Bob Welch, Dennis Eckersley and Chris Carpenter.) He turned a journeyman into one of the best postseason aces of all time (Dave Stewart.) He made a Hall of Famer out of one washed-up starter-turned-reliever (Eckersley) and a top setup man out of another (Rick Honeycutt.) And he transformed a reliever into a 20-win, Cy Young-contending starter (Adam Wainwright).

Pitchers like Storm Davis, Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan, Matt Morris and Joel Pineiro all became millionaires many times over after reviving their careers under Duncan’s watch. Twenty times one of his pitchers received Cy Young consideration. He has a remarkable resume of success with three different playoff-bound franchises (and world championships in both leagues.)

And to think, the team that could have benefitted from this wisdom was the Seattle Mariners.

The potential turning point of 1982

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In 1982, Duncan spent his first and only season as pitching coach for Seattle. At the time, the Mariners had played five seasons and had lost 100 games in two of them.

Managers Darrell Johnson and Maury Wills couldn’t turn the team into a .500 club, let alone a contender. But when manager Rene Lachemann brought Duncan onto his coaching staff, things began to turn around.

The Mariners were contending at the All-Star break and had a winning record going into August before tailing off. But their 76-86 record was by far their best season to date.

The main reason for the turnaround was the pitching. With Duncan in charge of the staff, Seattle led the league in strikeouts and finished second in saves and shutouts.

Seattle’s 1982 season was best remembered for an ancient Mariner. Gaylord Perry earned his 300th win (and cemented his Hall of Fame resume) in the Kingdome that year. But it was their young pitchers that gave the team hope.

Twenty-seven-year-old Floyd Bannister was starting to fulfill his talent. Jim Beattie already had World Series experience and success but was also only 27 and pitched to a good 3.34 ERA. Twenty-five-year-old Bill Caudill was the bullpen ace, winning 12 and saving 26 with a 2.35 ERA.

Left-handers Bryan Clark and Ed Vande Berg were both excellent that year out of the pen. And a trio of youngsters, Edwin Nunez, Mike Moore and Gene Nelson, all struggled but showed promise. Moore, at age 22, was the elder statesman of the three. Jerry Don Gleaton and Larry Andersen, both of whom would pitch for many years to come, were also on the staff.

The staff that could have been

What if Duncan were allowed to mold this group? Picture the same coach who transformed so many careers using his wisdom and turning around the franchise.

Moore would spend years being agonizingly inconsistent in Seattle before becoming an ace after joining the A’s (and Duncan’s supervision.) Nunez never quite put it together in his career, shuttling between the rotation and the bullpen before bouncing around as a mop-up man for the next 12 seasons. Perhaps Duncan could have been his anchor.

Meanwhile, the Mariners farm system included future ace Mark Langston and the talented, but inconsistent, Matt Young.

Imagine the Mariners pitching in the mid 1980s with Duncan on the coaching staff. As history actually unfolded, neither Moore nor Langston could synchronize their solid seasons. One was always off when the other was on. Could Duncan have made them the devastating 1-2 punch in the AL West?

Along with Bannister and Young in the rotation and Caudill, Gleaton, Nunez and Andersen in the bullpen, the team could have had the best pitching staff in the division. Nelson would become an effective pitcher under Duncan in Oakland. Why not in Seattle?

Remove Duncan’s influence from the 1983 White Sox and the 1988-1992 A’s, and the AL West would have been a very winnable division.

No team other than the LaRussa/Duncan White Sox had even a winning record in the West in 1983. The 84-win Royals were the lone winning AL West team in 1984, and 91 wins were enough for the Royals to win in 1985. The Twins won the AL West (and eventually the World Series) with just 85 wins. And then the LaRussa/Duncan juggernaut went to Oakland.

Sure, this change in history would have meant that Ken Griffey, Jr. would have been drafted by another team, but the foundation of a good offense was there as well.

Big leaguers Dave Henderson, Julio Cruz and Todd Cruz were all on the 1982 squad. Future major leaguers like Spike Owen, Phil Bradley, Harold Reynolds, Alvin Davis and Jim Presley were already in the Mariners system. And Danny Tartabull was acquired between the 1982 and 1983 seasons.

None of those players were superstars, but they could have given Seattle a good infield and a powerful outfield to compliment their deep pitching.

A great pitching staff could have finished in first one of those years. The franchise that had 15 of 16 losing years to begin their existence could have found the postseason around the same time as their partner in expansion, the Toronto Blue Jays, did in the mid 1980s.

The ugly truth

Alas, that didn’t happen. Mariners owner George Argyros was notoriously cheap and wouldn’t give Duncan more than a one-year contract. Duncan went to the White Sox in 1983 in time for their first postseason berth since 1959. The Mariners regressed to a 100-loss team and even Dick Williams couldn’t turn the squad around.

As Duncan collaborated with LaRussa on 14 playoff teams, six pennant winners and three world champions, the city of Seattle remains the only current big-league city never to have hosted a World Series.

(The Nationals/Expos franchise has never won a pennant, either. But the city of Washington was host to the 1924, 1925 and 1933 World Series, and Montreal is no longer a big-league city.)

Could the Mariners have won in the mediocre West of the 1980s? Nobody will know for sure. But it is safe to guess that a pitching coach who could win a World Series starting Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan and Anthony Reyes could have done a good job Mike Moore and Mark Langston in their primes.

Alas, more reasons to cry in Seattle’s coffee.

References & Resources
SB Nation, Lookout Landing, Baseball Reference

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Comments

  1. AaronB said...

    I’ll 2cd Ryan’s Stephenson & throw out perhaps his greatest accomplishment:

    getting 18 wins out of Kent Bottenfield (a really nice guy BTW), which then allowed the Cards to flip him to the Angels for some guy named Jim Edmonds prior to the 2000 season. 

    In hindsight, maybe that’s why the Angels were so hellbent on getting Pujols, to try to save some face after making that deal.

  2. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    There were a bunch of pitchers that I could have included as well. Even players like Octavio Dotel or Cal Eldred who had nice runs as middle relievers with the Cardinals.

    As for Matt Morris, I agree that he was a top prospect as was Adam Wainwright. But I will still give Duncan some credit there.

    Morris was a top prospect but he came back from a season long injury to come back to elite status. Coming back from missing an entire season to becoming a Cy Young contender is by definition a career revival. And his production went on a nose dive when he left the team.

  3. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    As for Wainwright, I know he was a top prospect. But on my blog before Strasburg’s debut in 2010, I wrote about a can’t miss ace from all 30 teams that missed badly.

    http://sullybaseball.blogspot.com/2010/06/30-cant-miss-aces-who-missed.html

    Of course there are the Van Poppels, Taylors and Bullingtons.

    And the Paul Wilsons and Adam Loewens and Matt White’s $10 million pay day.

    Having great talent is one thing.
    Having the organization use your talent correctly is another thing. They can make you a great pitcher or essentially destroy your career (see Chamberlain, Joba)

  4. Todd said...

    Agreed, but crediting a pitching coach with the successful development of a top prospect is a very different thing from crediting him with turning a scrapheap veteran into a valuable pitcher, and your descriptions of Morris and Wainwright read (to me) like the latter.

  5. Todd said...

    Dave Duncan is pretty awesome.

    But Matt Morris did not “revive” his career under Duncan. He came up as a top prospect under Duncan.

    Similarly, saying that “he transformed a reliever into a 20-win, Cy Young-contending starter (Adam Wainwright)” implies that Wainwright was just some schmuck reliever, not a top prospect who was added to the bullpen as a way of acclimating him to the majors, just like Dan Haren a few years earlier.

    Duncan may well deserve credit for how Morris and Wainwright performed, but not in the sense of turning nobodies into somebodies, but in the sense of successfully turning potential into production.

    However, he and Walt Jocketty did turn Kent Bottenfield into Jim Edmonds. Now THAT was a case of nobody into somebody.

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