Anatomy of an At-Bat

Shelley Duncan

Photo by Kate Joyce.

During my first conversation with Durham Bulls designated hitter Shelley Duncan, I relayed an anecdote I heard in the press box by a local beat writer in Toledo. The reporter told me a story about a Detroit Tigers prospect who overthrew the cutoff man on a throw from right field to third base. Had he hit his cutoff man, the hitter would have been held at first rather than advanced to second. “It was a throw clearly for the scouts,” he said. The rationale behind the story was that near the end of the season, some players have to start thinking about next year and if they’re going to have a job in baseball.

When I told Duncan this story he shook his head. He was slightly amused and slightly annoyed. “That doesn’t happen,” he said.

I was skeptical, wanting to believe the writer, so I asked, “You don’t think so?”

“No,” he said. “Look, you’ve got a guy in the field who is standing there with a resting heartbeat of seventy to eighty beats per minute. Suddenly the ball comes at him and it jumps to one-forty. The player that can control his adrenaline and still do what he’s supposed to do is what makes a good player great. That’s what separates guys like Derek Jeter from everyone else.”

“So tell me something that the average fan or even someone who really thinks they know the game doesn’t understand?” I asked.

“Shadows,” Duncan said. “The average fan doesn’t know anything about shadows. They affect us more than anything else. You just can’t see the ball from the batter’s box leaving the pitcher’s hand and then suddenly it’s on you.”

I tried to think about my own youth and playing baseball and how fast a ball could get on you, but most of our games were played during the day, in shadowless high school ballparks. The only way I could think of what Duncan was saying was to imagine being at the end of a tunnel and looking into the darkness, knowing that something was headed for you but unsure of when — and where — it would arrive.

Duncan then told me to think about this: “Imagine a player in Detroit and one in New York. Both are in the same time zone, but the guy in Detroit is on the western edge of that time zone, meaning the sun won’t set until later. He will have shadows to deal with that a player in New York, whose game starts at the same time, won’t have to deal with.”

When I ask how many hits that accounts for, he says maybe five or six a week. Then he lists the other variables. “We’re not in basketball arenas with controlled climates. Air temperature, stadium differences, who’s pitching, how you’re feeling, where your confidence is versus a certain pitcher. All of these become factors.” I ask about lights, if hitting under them is easier because the shadows are eliminated. “Not really. Do you know the lights at Durham are only rated Single-A? They’re fixing them for next year, but the lights aren’t very good in the park.”

I didn’t even know lights could be rated. I didn’t even know that baseball players could know such things, but what becomes apparent with Duncan is that he is a man who has devoted his life to this one thing in the best and worst of ways. To listen to him break down a game is not much different than to hear a great teacher break down the art of writing or painting or orchestral music. The variables we miss so often as laymen are glaring and even absolute to his trained eye.

People who love baseball talk of it wistfully and passionately. It’s a game that appeals to both right-brain and left-brain thinkers with its mix of concrete numbers and abstract strategy. For talented players, this is no different; they are forced to meld reaction and instinct with situational dilemmas throughout the course of the game. Overthinking in baseball, especially during one’s at bats, can be a big problem, but it can happen to fielders too: see Knoblauch, Chuck. Duncan told me his four at-bats are large determinants of how he feels about his entire day and that those at-bats are largely out of his control. And yet the most striking thing about talking to Shelley Duncan was just how cerebral he was — how prone he seemed to be to such overthinking.

He clearly loves baseball and its physical and mental challenges, but he wonders what his devotion to the game has cost him in terms of time spent away from his family, as well as what he considers a more normal way to provide for his family. It’s a sports cliché in and of itself for writers to fall in love with athletes that read books (Duncan reads one fiction and non-fiction book at a time) and who can talk in complete sentences, but what I liked about Duncan wasn’t just his approach to baseball and his ability to talk about it. It’s the existential questions the game — and a lifetime spent playing it — have forced him to confront, and how he has not flinched from them. To see Duncan work on his game in a batting cage and then to hear him talk about his craft was a rare treat — something mesmerizing for both the initiated and the neophyte.

Duncan on deck

Shelley Duncan in on deck circle. DBAP, Aug. 2013. Photo by Hale Stephenson.

The day after he went 0-4 was, perhaps, not the most ideal time to ask him how he approaches his time at the plate, but I had explained to Duncan that I timed his at-bats in the previous night’s game. “Your average time at the plate was 52 seconds,” I said.

“That’s pretty messed up, isn’t it?” he said. Duncan shook his head — a little astonished, a little pissed off. He seems constantly vexed by the game’s maddening details, and his reply was in reference to the comparative time he works on his game versus the amount of time he actually spends on the field. For instance, that day alone began with him showing up at two in the afternoon to take treatment on his neck, followed by an hour in the cage, and then batting practice on the field after. I told him four minutes of work after being there all day did seem a bit skewed.

Duncan said that he largely has no control over his at-bats. I had watched him hit in the cage for three days straight. His sessions began with him ripping balls off a tee. He stepped forward with his left foot and pulled his left arm down and through the ball, and upon contact the arm rose back up. It mirrored a plane coming in for a landing, then pulling up at the last minute. On his follow-through, the right hand dropped off the band, giving him the look of a samurai swordsman slicing through the air more than a baseball player finishing his swing. He told me afterward there was nothing I, or anybody else, could see that he was working on. He wanted his trunk to feel more connected to his body through the swing. He was hoping for synchronicity, which I assume imparts greater kinetic energy on the bat. After the tee, he did thirty minutes of soft-toss from hitting coach Dave Myers. And all the time, it’s just one repetitive stroke after another. The process was like watching someone bone wood, stroke after stroke. And for what? Why do all the work for something that, in the heat of the moment, will be out of your control? When I asked Duncan if there was any way he could gain control, his answer proved to be a master’s class on how he approaches his trade, and he took me inside his third at-bat of the night.

In the top of the sixth in a tight 2-1 game, in which the Bulls had just scored the go-ahead run, the Mud Hens brought in reliever Jeremy Bonderman, who, like Duncan, has spent time in the majors.

“Bonderman came in and got that quick out, which meant if he recorded another quick one to end the inning, momentum would shift from us to them, and I wanted us to keep the momentum. This means I knew I was taking the first pitch no matter what because the worst thing that can happen in that situation is he comes in and I make an immediate out. The first pitch he threw me was a fastball I knew I could crush that I let go, and it’s called a ball.”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “You knew you could crush it and you let it go?”

“I had to,” was all he said as a way of explanation and immediately went on to his next point. “The next pitch he threw was a splitter for a strike. I was expecting something off-speed or the heater. He’s good at keeping the ball down and even though it was a strike and I knew it as it came toward the plate, I couldn’t take a swing at it. It wasn’t something I could drive.” Here, Duncan paused to tell me everything in hitting is confidence. So even though he let a called ball he could crush go by, he had to take a strike he knew he couldn’t get a good swing on because “if a hitter is the least bit unconfident in his swing it’s not going to produce the result he wants. You have to be able to feel your swing and know what you want to do.”

“Now it’s 1-1 and he’s probably going to throw something off-speed. He throws a slider away for a ball and now at 2-1, I’m probably going to get the heater, but I’m ready for the breaking ball, too. And when he threw the fastball, I was ready for it and I hit a great ball that just died out at the warning track.”

He sat back, proud of the at-bat. He executed his strategy and made Bonderman work, and he hit a good pitch with a powerful swing. In the press box we all thought it was a home run until it just fell from the sky into the left fielder’s glove. When I asked, again, how he could just let that first pitch go, he said it was hard to lay off those kinds of pitches but, echoing his statement the day before about controlling your emotions, he had to follow his plan.

Exactly a week later, visiting friends in Cleveland, we turned on the Indians game that had gone into extra innings. There on the mound for the Tigers was the same Jeremy Bonderman against Duncan’s old team. Armed with my new knowledge, I watched as one Indians hitter after another came up, swung at the first pitch, and let Bonderman pitch three scoreless innings, facing nine batters and throwing twenty-seven pitches. The Indians never once made him work deep into the count, set him up for a pitch to drive, or pushed him beyond what he wanted to do. It wasn’t surprising when the Tigers scored two runs in the top of the fourteenth, and Bonderman, appearing in the big leagues for the first time since 2010, got the win.

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