As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the most likely candidate to fill the Tribe’s outfield hole: Shelley Duncan.
Background: The New York Yankees picked Duncan, now 32, out of the University of Arizona in the second round of the 2011 MLB amateur draft. He burst onto the scene in 2007 when he hit five home runs in his first eight MLB games. His performance tapered off quickly after that; he gained a reputation for being a Quad-A player and was released after the 2009 season. He came to the Indians on a minor-league contract two years ago and has remained in the organization ever since.
Last year: Duncan had the best year of his career in 2011, hitting .260 with 11 home runs, 47 RBI, 29 runs scored, all of which set or equalled personal bests. His plate discipline wasn’t quite up to his norm (7.7 percent walk rate), but he showed the most power we’ve seen from him (.224 ISO, .862 Power Factor) since his flashy MLB debut and his 118 wRC+ put him on par with names like Andre Ethier, Freddie Freeman, and Brandon Phillips. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs estimated his value at 0.8 and 0.9 wins above replacement, respectively, while Baseball Prospectus had him at a more generous 1.3 WARP in just 76 games.
Key factor: Was Duncan’s improvement legitimate? Duncan’s power potential has been known for years; that was the only major factor driving his breakout, so it’s not as though he’s in for a BABIP regression or something like that. On the other hand, he’s 32 years old and has no prior history of sustained success in the big leagues.
If he really has finally figured out how to handle MLB pitching, he’s at least an average corner outfielder. If, instead, he looks like a Quad-A player again—well, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Ezequiel Carrera.
Quite a bit of variation here. Bill James sees Duncan playing even better in 2012 than he did in 2011 (fueled mostly by a 10.7 percent walk rate), while ZIPS sees him regressing beyond even his 2010 performance and becoming a below-average hitter. (ZIPS also projects him to play 112 games at that level, which isn’t a huge vote of confidence for Cleveland’s outfield.) The mean projection essentially splits the difference between his 2010 and 2011 levels of production.
Best-case scenario: Duncan’s power really picked up in September (.602 slugging percentage), and that wasn’t just statistical variation. The 2012 season sees him not just maintaining his new level of production but building on it. He emerges as one of the most powerful hitters in baseball, which helps bring up his walk rate too. Within a few weeks he’s firmly entrenched in the middle of the order and he keeps his starting job even after Grady Sizemore comes back.
Worst-case scenario: Duncan’s strong showing last year was just as fluky as his rookie debut. He hits for above-average power but his slugging ability is significantly diminished and that’s the only remarkable aspect of his game. His walk rate remains stagnant while his strikeout rate returns to the 30 percent range. The Indians end up better off with Aaron Cunningham or Ryan Spilborghs.
Most likely scenario: The mean projections above look pretty good to me, though the reasonable range of possibilities is probably skewed below that given that Duncan has never played as well as he did last year and is old enough to be entering the decline phase of his career. He’ll be a decent hitter and he’ll fill in admirably wherever he’s needed in the lineup, but don’t expect much more than that.