Of all the narratives to have emerged from the Yankees’ winning tear since the All-Star Break, one of the most unexpected has been the emergence of Shelley Duncan, an unlikely hero just up from the minor leagues on a team with a score of highly-paid, established players.
He quickly turned himself into a talking point for Yankee fans by homering in his second game for the Yankees on July 21, adding two more by the end of that weekend, and launching a total of five over his first 24 at bats. His statistical line since coming up is straight out of a video game—a .304 batting average, a .375 on-base percentage and a .758 slugging percentage.
The question Yankee fans must be asking at this point is whether he can possibly be for real; whether he’s the next Mickey Mantle, or the next Kevin Maas.
For his part, Duncan has never heard of Maas, the home run hitter who streaked across the Gotham sky, hitting 10 home runs in his first 77 at bats in 1990—but finishing his ultimately brief career in the majors with a .230 batting average.
“I never set expectations for myself in my life,” Duncan said in the tunnel beneath the Yankee Stadium playing field last Thursday afternoon, a night after hitting his fifth home run in just 24 major league at bats, good for an eye-popping .917 slugging percentage. “People who do that, who build up what they expect in their minds, have a tendency to experience letdowns. And if you set the expectations too low, it can lead to complacency.”
It’s probably a healthy attitude for him to have—and for the fans to have as well. Despite the 27-year-old’s pedigree (his brother Chris Duncan is an outfielder with the Cardinals, while father Dave Duncan played 12 seasons at catcher for the Athletics and Orioles), there are plenty of signs that his hot start may turn out to have been something of an anomaly.
Duncan was drafted in the second round (sixty-second player chosen overall) in the 2001 draft out of the University of Arizona. The Yankees assigned him to Staten Island of the New York-Penn League, where he hit a pedestrian .245, though his 8 home runs in 273 at bats yielded a .542 slugging percentage. Still, he was old for the league—the lion’s share of NY-P players are straight out of high school—and a future major league standout would be expected to dominate younger competition. Duncan, for all his power, was erratic, striking out 62 times—roughly once in every five plate appearances.
As Duncan slowly climbed the organizational ladder, the twin weaknesses of strikeouts and low average continued to plague him. As a 25-year-old in his first exposure to AA (where the average age hovers around 22), Duncan hit .240, with 34 home runs, but with 140 strikeouts in 537 at bats. Hitters with holes in their swings big enough to be exploited by AA pitching tend to be completely overwhelmed at the big league level. His second go-around at AA was no better—.256, 19 homers, 77 strikeouts in 351 at bats. His role as minor league roster filler seemed set.
But players like Duncan, commonly known as organizational soldiers, keep at it for a reason—in case a roster spot should open up, giving them a fleeting chance to make a major league impression.
He got a step closer in 2007 when he moved to AAA, raising his batting average to .295 with 25 home runs in 336 at bats, albeit with 82 strikeouts.
Still, that gave Duncan the distinctly unspectacular career minor league batting average of .257, with a .340 slugging percentage. (Maas’s numbers, by comparison, were .280 and .370, with fewer strikeouts.)
But then, suddenly, things starting falling into place for Duncan. Yankee designated hitter Jason Giambi fell victim to a heel injury, and has yet to return. Other candidates to take the DH spot, like Josh Phelps, Johnny Damon and Miguel Cairo, went cold. So on July 20, the Yankees reached into their system, and promoted their organizational soldier.
Duncan’s even-keeled approach immediately served him well over the course of three starts at DH during his first weekend in the big leagues. Off of Tampa Bay’s weak pitching, Duncan had four hits in twelve at bats, including three homers. (He also struck out four times.) His startling power, along with his obvious enthusiasm, made him an instant fan favorite.
Duncan thinks that his newness has helped.
“I think it gives me an advantage—I’m not coming to this as such a young player,” he said. “I’ve had lots of experience adjusting to pitchers, and reacting to the way they adjust to me.”
Of course, he has yet to face quality pitching, getting his big hits off of the likes of Jon Danks, a rookie with a 5.06 ERA, and four other pitchers with ERAs ranging from 6.64 to 10.05. The Yankees have just embarked on a 20-game adventure against three of the American League’s top four pitching staffs in ERA (Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto), along with an impressive young staff in Baltimore, and the defending American League champs, Detroit.
And Duncan’s time with the Yankees may be short anyway, with Giambi already preparing to reclaim his spot by playing rehab games down in Florida.
Duncan, at least, is unfazed by any of this.
“I can’t tell you what the future will hold,” he said. “I’m just going to take advantage of every opportunity I have along the way.”