INDIANAPOLIS — On the doors that lead out of the clubhouse, there are typically several pieces of paper taped to the back.
They’re sign-up sheets, looking for players to volunteer their free time. Some tasks are simple meet-and-greets prior to a game. Others take a little more time, such as a visiting a children’s hospital.
Frank Duncan’s name has been scribbled on just about every paper that has been taped onto that door. He’s helped with the simple activities, such as catching a ceremonial first pitch. Then there are the more intense events, like visiting a local children’s hospital to meet children with cancer or helping with various camps for people with special needs.
And so it goes. Duncan is arguably the most accommodating player with Indianapolis. He downplays his efforts, noting the organization makes it easy to give back to the community.
“We have a bunch of guys that are good about getting out in the community,” Duncan said. “It’s takes no time out of our day and it makes such a big difference. I don’t have a reason not to do it. I put myself in a position to do as much as I can.”
Make no mistake, volunteering for charitable events won’t land Duncan in the major leagues. But Indianapolis Manager Dean Treanor hinted at the idea of karma playing a role, as good things will happen to people who do good things.
The organization keeps track of how many times players donate their time to a charitable event, giving out an award at the end of the season. Treanor said that he wants every player that comes through Indianapolis to make at least one visit to a children’s hospital.
“Some guys feel like they want to and need to go to everything,” Treanor said. “[Duncan] is one of those guys that his name is always up there wanting to go and it is a matter of giving back.”
As for Duncan’s work on the mound, well, that is what will get him to the major leagues in the future — and that future may be much sooner than anyone would had expected at the beginning of this year.
Duncan began the season as a reliever in Double-A Altoona, but can now be labeled a Triple-A All-Star. He initially arrived in Indianapolis as an injury replacement and there were not necessarily any long-term plans to keep him at the level and in the starting rotation.
But a myriad of factors — injuries and promotions — have led to Duncan solidifying his spot with the Indians’ starting rotation. He’s pushed the issue to remain a starting pitcher, but at the same time, Duncan realizes his long-term future may include a transition back into relief.
“I think anybody would tell you they want to be a starter as long as they can,” Duncan said. “I feel that I have the tools and the mindset to be a good starter and pitch a long time in the big leagues.”
Duncan has a 2.06 ERA in 17 starts with the Indians this season, allowing 86 hits in 96 innings. He won’t overpower hitters with a sinking fastball that sits in 89-90 MPH range. But his command and movement of his other pitches is excellent. He’s walked 22 batters, but a large portion of those were during the first three starts he had after missing one start due to a mild thumb sprain against Louisville on July 17th.
Because he was promoted earlier this season, Duncan doesn’t have enough innings to qualify — he’s about 10 innings shy — but if he did, his 1.13 WHIP would be tied for fifth in the International League. Newly acquired Drew Hutchison also has a 1.13 WHIP this season between his time with Buffalo and Indianapolis, while Tyler Glasnow ranks fourth with a 1.12 WHIP.
“[Duncan] has a feel for pitching,” Treanor said. “He mixes really well. I think, again, the command is the biggest thing for me. He has to keep that ball out of the middle of the plate. And he has to be able to command that breaking ball. If he can do that and not leave some over the plate, he has a chance of being a sleeper and becoming a factor.”
Duncan steps on the mound with two general goals in mind: keep the ball on the ground and eat up innings. He knows he needs to use his slider on both sides of the plate, including down and away to right-handers and down and in against left-handers.
“But the struggle is being able to backdoor consistently enough to where I’m not missing middle, and where lefties can’t have bad swings and still barrel balls,” Duncan said.
Duncan only missed one start due to the injury, but allowed ten walks in his first three starts back after the thumb sprain. That’s maybe not all bad in the long run.
“One of the things I’ve taken away from my three starts being back from the DL is that my stuff is better than it’s been all year,” Duncan said. “But with that, I now have to control the better stuff. It’s not just form-throwing, I’m actually having stuff. I think that’s just something that comes with the more repetition.”
Duncan’s velocity had typically been in the 86-88 MPH range earlier this season, but now sits in the 89-90 MPH range. But it took some time for Duncan to gain a good command of his increased velocity.
The repetition kicked in during an outing on Aug. 12th. Duncan allowed just three hits in eight shutout innings at Lehigh Valley, throwing a no-hitter through 5.2 innings. And it carried over to his most recent start — six shutout innings against Louisville on Aug. 17th.
Duncan is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, and said he has to work on staying back in his delivery. And he more he can do that, the better his velocity and the more pitches he can execute.
“It’s constantly working on maintaining and sharpening what’s there,” Duncan said. “What separates guys from this level to the next level is their ability to recreate pitches every time on the mound. It’s not just about my slider, and my ability to locate on both sides, but all of my pitches. But if I can do that with my breaking ball, my changeup, and my fastball, it’s obviously going to make me a better pitcher in the long run.”
Duncan made just two relief appearances in his first two professional seasons, but transitioned to being a sinkerball pitcher and began this season as a reliever in Altoona. He was used as a reliever in his first five appearances this season, but made one start with Altoona prior to being promoted to Indianapolis. And since that point, Duncan has been used solely in the starting rotation.
Duncan is one of the most consistent pitchers in Indianapolis. He’s pitched at least five innings in 14 of his 16 starts this season.
“With that being said, I know that my tools from the outside looking in may translate to more of a long relief role,” Duncan said. “But at the end of the day I believe myself to be a starter and I believe myself, if I have to be a long relief guy, will go out there to contribute and win games.”
Duncan is a pretty remarkable story this season. He’s turned himself from a Double-A reliever to a starting pitcher at the Triple-A level, earning a spot in the All-Star game. As he said himself, Duncan may best be suited for a relief role at the major league level, due partly to his stuff and the young rotation the Pirates may have going forward. But his performance this season has likely at least forced the organization to take another look at Duncan moving forward. Either way — reliever or starter — he appears to be someone who can contribute to the major leagues at some point in the future.