Knapp to take hurlers back to basics
Tigers' new pitching coach believes in throwing strikes first
DETROIT -- Rick Knapp will never forget the first time he watched Justin Verlander on video.
It was a few years ago. He had just been assigned to work with the Twins' first-round pick from the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, Matt Garza. He had just happened to see some footage of Verlander, then a rookie, at work.
"If I can make Garza like this guy, this will be pretty exciting," Knapp recalled Wednesday. "They're both tall, thin, athletic, [have a] power fastball with the power curveball. I know Matt was an extremely driven individual. He was a man on a mission from the first day. There was no going to be no denying him. You could see that from the very first day."
Knapp was hoping to make Garza a lot like Verlander. Now that Knapp is in charge of the Tigers pitching staff, he could arguably use Garza as an example for Verlander.
While Garza became the Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series with his two victories over the Red Sox, Verlander became one of the more befuddling stories in the Majors, going from 35 wins over his first two seasons to tying for the Major League lead with 17 losses this year while battling issues ranging from velocity early in the year to pitch counts late.
Now, he's one of the new students for Knapp, who earned high regard around baseball for his ability to connect with Minnesota's young pitchers and preach the value of hitting the strike zone.
As he would like to say in that role, a pitcher who goes to the big leagues and struggles while missing the plate isn't going to make as good of an impression as a pitcher who struggles but still hits the strike zone. The instruction doesn't change now that Knapp inherits a pitching staff made up of mostly established Major Leaguers.
"Does the teaching change? I think that's one of the strangest phenomena in sports," Knapp said. "My philosophy has always been there's no such thing as a finished product, and it's really important to remember that at the Major League level. The teaching never stops."
In order to teach the Tigers' pitchers, Knapp said, he'll have to earn their trust first. That process starts in the coming days as he tries to reach some of them by phone. He'll see Jeremy Bonderman next week when he's in Detroit for organization meetings and Bonderman is there as part of his rehab process.
Knapp has heard from some of his former students in the days since the Tigers hired him last Friday, including Garza, to congratulate him on the job. They're the Major League examples of his work.
The Twins' philosophy on throwing strikes, Knapp said, began with the scouting process. When scouts went out looking for young arms, command and delivery would play a role in their evaluation process.
Once they were in the system, they received a consistent message up and down the organizational ladder, from Knapp through the individual pitching coaches at the various levels and up to Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson.
"In every talk, in every meeting, we tried to de-emphasize velocity," Knapp said, "in the fact that velocity would take care of itself if we concentrated on delivery and location."
Make opponents hit the ball rather than missing the strike zone, and you'll make a good impression.
"That's how I feel as the Major League pitching coach of the Tigers," he said. "If you're going to make an impression on me, throw the ball over the plate. It was told to me a long, long time ago: If you throw the ball over the plate, you have a chance. If you don't, you don't have a chance. That's always been our philosophy, and I hope that it can translate."
That doesn't mean Knapp has a steadfast coaching style. Part of the job of teaching, he said, involves learning as well and keeping up with the times.
"There's a range of ways to do it, as well as a depth," he said. "I'm sure I'm going to be just as wide-eyed listening as well as teaching. I'm constantly trying to learn new ways. I think that's the fun part of teaching. The teacher needs to learn."
Knapp's keeping that in mind as he goes about the process of learning his new staff. As much as he loved his job as an instructor, he always wanted a shot at a Major League job. After more than a decade in his current role, Knapp has his chance. He doesn't have the big league name, but his track record speaks for itself.
"The only way I'm going to get them to trust me is through tireless work ethic," he said. "I'm not going to get them to trust me because of a Hollywood name or 1,000 scoreless innings. If they know that my primary motivation is to try to make them better, then hopefully they'll be motivated to make themselves better. There's not a Major League pitcher alive, in my opinion, that wouldn't want to be the best that he could be."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.