At the age of 31, while pitching for his sixth organization, and after making 275 major league starts,
Penny, who signed a $7.5 million contract with St. Louis last December, has abandoned his typical four-seam fastball/curveball combo for Duncan's almighty sinker. The results, as they often are for the lost pitching souls who come to St. Louis, have been remarkable. Penny is getting grounders at about twice the rate he used to and, after a win on Monday night in Arizona, is now 2-0 with a sparkling 1.29 ERA. After giving up 22 homers last year with Boston and San Francisco, Penny has not allowed a ball to leave the yard in his three starts for St. Louis.
Duncan, who has worked a record 31 years as a major league pitching coach, has turned around so many pitchers that one GM had to ask one of his former players, a Duncan disciple, what it was about Duncan that was so special. The pitcher said that Duncan armed his pitchers with so much information and confidence that "you absolutely believe everything that he tells you is going to work."
But there is a practical side to Duncan's magic. He almost always teaches his pitchers to sink the ball -- pitch to contact while keeping the ball low. That is how he turned around Penny,
It is difficult to argue with Duncan's success. His pitching staffs annually strike out far fewer batters than the league average, and yet they win games consistently. Beginning with the 2001 season, here is where the Cardinals have ranked in the National League in strikeouts: 11, 12, 12, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 13. Not impressed? Now here is where the Cardinals rank in wins in the league over those nine years combined: 1.
You would think that the teams that strike out the most batters -- a shorthand version of measuring "stuff" -- would often wind up in the World Series. Not so. None of the last 13 NL team strikeout leaders has won the pennant. Eight of the 13 never even made the playoffs and another four never made it out of the first round. (The 2003 Cubs are the only team in the past 13 years to lead the league in whiffs and win a playoff series.) But Duncan has figured out that something that sounds counterintuitive -- don't try for the strikeouts -- is the best way for a pitcher to succeed. It's difficult to argue with his results.
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