Tigers name Knapp new pitching coach
Spent the last 12 years supervising Twins' young pitchers
The Tigers saw a team with 2008 World Series expectations fall to a last-place finish thanks in part to a pitching staff that finished second in the American League in walks allowed.
The Twins defied expectations and came within a one-game playoff of winning the American League Central with a young pitching staff that issued the fewest walks of any team in baseball, despite losing ace Johan Santana last offseason.
So when the Tigers went about finding a pitching coach, Twins Minor League pitching coordinator Rick Knapp was somebody on their list. A few days and an impressive interview later, he's now their new pitching coach.
It was a grueling decision to make, Leyland said Friday, but it couldn't have gone much better.
"This wasn't the safest way out," Leyland said. "We could've gone in a different direction, probably a safer direction."
They went this way, Leyland said, because they believe Knapp has the potential to be an excellent coach for them. And if Minnesota's success is any indication, Knapp's lack of Major League experience shouldn't mask his abundance of player development results.
Knapp spent the last 12 years of his 20-year coaching staff as Minnesota's Minor League pitching coordinator, handling the instruction for a pitching corps with an emphasis on developing young strike-throwers through the farm system.
That development has helped Minnesota stay competitive over the course of the decade despite being outspent by their AL Central brethren. With the help of young arms such as Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins, Minnesota rebounded from the much-bemoaned Santana trade to win 88 games this year.
Those five young starters combined for 52 victories last year. All but one of them won at least 11 games.
"I think he's got a great track record," Leyland said.
Those credentials and recommendations from around baseball earned Knapp the interview. He was the first of four candidates -- two of them from outside the organization -- to talk with the Tigers over three days this week at the team's Spring Training complex in Lakeland, Fla., where team officials were meeting this week to discuss the farm system.
The lengthy interview Tuesday, Leyland said, showed him something.
"I thought he was very impressive," Leyland said. "I could tell he was telling us what he believed, not what we wanted to hear. His passion for the game shows."
So did his approach. Sometimes, it's not necessarily the message, but how it's delivered.
"Sometimes I think the whole key to it," Leyland said, "is a lot of pitching coaches are saying the same thing. They just say it different. With some coaches, it drives home to the players. Something just clicks."
The Tigers believe Knapp can deliver the message.
Knapp inherits a Tigers pitching staff that battled control issues en route to a disappointing season-long performance. Foremost among the troubled was Justin Verlander, who lost 17 games last year after racking up at least 17 wins in each of his first two full big league seasons. In addition, left-handers Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson battled their command for much of the year and eventually lost their rotation spots before returning to starting roles at the tail end of the season.
Willis had the most high-profile struggles after signing a three-year contract last winter. Part of the Tigers' challenge next spring will be to continue working on his delivery until he can consistently pitch around the strike zone. He showed signs of that in his final start of the season Sept. 27 against Tampa Bay.
The struggles, as well as Detroit's disappointing record, led to the dismissal of pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and bullpen coach Jeff Jones. Knapp and Leyland will meet next week during the second stage of the team's organizational meetings, this time in Detroit, to hire a bullpen coach and fill out the staff.
There's a good chance that coach will come from inside the system.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.