What Is an Analytics Coordinator? The White Sox Shelley Duncan Tells Us.

© Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Shelley Duncan has a job befitting a longtime FanGraphs reader with deeps roots in the game. A big league outfielder/first baseman from 2007-13, the 42-year-old son of legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan is the Analytics Coordinator for the Chicago White Sox. Hired for the in-uniform position in November 2020, Duncan previously managed in the Arizona Diamondbacks system and served as both a field coordinator and a special assistant of baseball operations with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Duncan discussed his current role, and the way analytics are changing the way teams game plan, when the White Sox visited Fenway Park over the weekend.

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David Laurila: Your title is Analytics Coordinator. What does the role entail?

Shelley Duncan: “It’s a position that is starting to become more popular with some teams, to have somebody in the dugout that can help other staff members, and players, with information. You can translate information and be an intermediary between them and the analytics part of the front office. You’re not replacing any of the relationships, or any of the jobs, just being a source for everyone.

“There are so many areas of focus on a baseball field that involve information. Whether it’s players knowing stuff about themselves, about the opponent, decision-making during games, advance work… half of the advance work is digging into numbers and information, and then blending video. One guy can’t do all that — I can’t do all that — but what I can do is support everybody with my experience and knowledge, including the work I do with the analytics department.”

Laurila: I assume you’re consulting with the analytics department on a regular basis…

Duncan: “As much as I possibly can. Whether it’s about new ideas, new thinking, clarification of things they’re bringing to the table — it’s a relationship that grows every day. We have some really smart people in our analytics department, and the reason they’re smart is that they’re studying and learning things that we’ve never done before. They’ve got an extreme passion for the game, which is a big reason that I really enjoy the role.”

Laurila: How do you go about making ideas and information actionable?

Duncan: “Analytics, for me, is analyzing information, and information is what’s happened in the past. It’s every stat, every number, that is presented to you. If it’s not predictive analytics, it’s something that has happened. It’s history. So, instead of spending hours watching every single video on somebody, or having tons of people out there scouting, if you want to get a snapshot of somebody — to paint a picture of who they are — you can look at numbers. The numbers will give you a picture of who they are. You can look at graphs. You can look at all kinds of data.

“You put all of that together to try to predict moments, predict matchups, predict outcomes. You try to put yourself in a position to be the winner of those outcomes. That’s where the predictive stuff comes in play. A lot of people rely on their gut, which is based on experience and information that they’ve stored, but if you take in information that is more logical you can blend the two and hopefully make a better decision. You can have a better outcome.”

Laurila: That sounds a lot like advance scouting with an emphasis on analytics…

Duncan: “You could say that. But there is advance scouting for the opponents, and there is advance scouting of yourself. It’s blending the two to put everybody in the right position for success. There’s a difference between utilizing analytics in the front office, as a fan, as a staff member… there are completely different ways to utilize [analytics].

“An example is WAR. WAR isn’t a statistic you can use on the field. But you can use it in the front office. You can use it in player acquisition. You could use it in fantasy baseball. But as a player, it’s not going to tell you, ‘Do I match up well against this guy or not?’ or ‘What kind of approach should I bring to the plate?’ But groundball percentage sure does. Strikeout percentage and a guy’s fastball movement — his metrics — sure do. And they go a long way. Not only who is the right matchup between which pitcher and which hitter, but also what approach a guy should have at the dish, and what pitch a guy should throw to a hitter. So there are all kinds of different metrics out there. It’s about utilizing the right ones that have an effect on the field.”

Laurila: How movement profiles and bat paths match up are important…

Duncan: “That’s exactly right. What we’re going to see — what we’re starting to see now — is that a lot of teams are utilizing KinaTrax [and] Hawk-Eye, giving them an ability to really analyze the biomechanics of a swing. We’re getting to the point now where we’re not going to be attacking hitters, we’re going to be attacking swing profiles. We’re going to be looking at people’s swings and understanding how to attack them.

“Hitter are starting to learn that they’re going to need different types of swings in their toolkits, and what swings work with what type of pitches. We’re going to see all-around pitchers. We’re going to see pitchers who master two types of fastballs, and hitters that have the ability to hit two types of fastballs. The game is growing, and the technology and information is helping it grow at a faster rate.”

Laurila: What percentage of hitters would you say are harder to game plan for, matchup-wise, because they have adaptable swings?

Duncan: “I would say that maybe 25-30% of hitters have the ability — a good ability — to make the adjustments on completely different types of pitchers. I’ll throw Craig Kimbrel out there as an example. This is a guy who’s got a legendary fastball. The whole world knows it. He’s got one of the flattest vertical approach angles in the zone.

“When people go up there to face Craig Kimbrel, they have his fastball in their heads. You see more people change their swing on Craig Kimbrel than they do on anybody else. You see more people getting on top. You see more hitters trying to tomahawk it. I think we’re going to start seeing that more and more.

“With guys learning, ‘This guy’s fastball does this, this guy’s sinker does that,’ it will be, ‘I need to make this type of adjustment.’ And we’re seeing that. The whole launch angle revolution, with a lot of swings going straight uphill, which kind of revolutionized the impact of the four-seam fastball in the game… we’re starting to see more guys working on getting on top. There are a lot of teams out there putting an emphasis on pitchers having two sets of fastballs.”

Laurila: A pitching coach suggested to me a few years ago that the two-seam fastball is going to make a comeback. Do you think that’s happening?

Duncan: “I do. One thing I think we’ve seen more than anything is teams trying to diversify their pitching staffs with different types of pitchers in the bullpen.”

Laurila: The Tampa Bay Rays come to mind.

Duncan: “They’re one of the best at it. They’ve got a bunch of big sinker guys. They’ve got some guys with good ride. They have some guys with power sliders. They have guys that they can slot into different parts of the lineup. They are really strategic about that. I think more teams are doing that.

“The next step, as I touched on earlier, is teaching pitchers to have two sets of fastballs. It’s hard right now. If pitchers have a good feel of one fastball, and they really work on developing a feel for another type of fastball, how does that affect their good fastball? Will it take anything away? That’s a big question they have to battle with. But I think we’re going to a start seeing it go from teams having multiple types of pitchers in the bullpen to pitchers having multiple types of fastballs. There are some teams out there that do a good job of taking away the four-seam, and there are some teams where you need to have a good four-seamer against them. The game is going that way. It’s not a stale position, for sure.”

Laurila: Let’s jump to how you got your current job.

Duncan: “When I got done playing, I wanted to manage. I started managing in the minor leagues, with Arizona — this was 2015 — and they gave us access to as much information as we wanted. I saw where the game was going. I didn’t want to be dependent on people, so I dove into it full bore. I took classes on it in the offseason, and in my spare time.”

Laurila: Where did you do the studying?

Duncan: “eCornell, and all the little Udemy stuff for coding. I also developed a relationship with an analytics professor at the University of Arizona. I spend time with him in the offseason and learned as much as I could. That helped me become a better manager. My passion is still the game on the field — including leadership roles — but I also have a big joy in understanding [analytics] and bringing it to the players, helping them win every single moment that you could possibly win.

“I’ve got that baseball nerd in me where I’ll sit at night and scroll through every little ounce of data, and read Tweets and blogs. I’m absolutely fascinated by it. That’s a huge part of me.”

Laurila: How long have you been reading FanGraphs?

Duncan: “Forever. For as close to as long as the site has been around. My brother [the late Chris Duncan] was on the radio in St. Louis, and it was his main source of information. We’d always look at it. One of the biggest things about FanGraphs is that it’s been a huge teacher of what every single metric is. I’ve taken a lot of stuff off FanGraphs and thrown Excel sheets together with the formulas I’ve learned there.

“Honestly, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant are the most unbelievable free sites for people that I could ever imagine. I subscribe to FanGraphs, even though you don’t have to. It’s unbelievable to be able to access all that information. Those two sites, FanGraphs and Savant, are special.”

Laurila: Does Tony [LaRussa] read FanGraphs?

Duncan: “I don’t know. Tony is about as old school as you can get, but he’s brought so many revolutionary ideas to the game that he is new school in his own way. And he doesn’t even know it. Tony might not ever admit it, but he does a lot of reading, and digging into stuff that nobody knows about. That makes him the genius that he is. So maybe he does [read FanGraphs].”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Mr. Patientmember
6 days ago

“So maybe he does [read FanGraphs]”.

Narrator: He does not read FanGraphs.

Werthlessmember
4 days ago
Reply to  Mr. Patient

This role reminds of the scene in Office Space, where the one guy is describing his cross-functional skills.

“Well–well look. I already told you: I deal with the god damn customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?”

Shelley Duncan reads Fangraphs, and talks to the analytics team, so the other coaches don’t have to.

Last edited 4 days ago by Werthless