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 The Pitch Doctor (Rick Knapp) Will See You Now

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Number of posts : 57424
Age : 58
Location : Eastern Ohio, near Wheeling WV
Favorite Current Tiger(s) : JV, Hunter, Jackson, Porcello, Avila (really ALL of em!)
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Registration date : 2007-10-05

PostSubject: The Pitch Doctor (Rick Knapp) Will See You Now   Fri Aug 07, 2009 9:55 am

The Pitch Doctor Will See You Now
After 26 Years in the Minors, Pitching Coach Rick Knapp Turns Around the Tigers


With his retro-style glasses, unfashionable gray crew cut and a gut that has stomached too many greasy dinners in two-stoplight towns, pitching coach Rick Knapp doesn’t look like anyone’s sexy offseason acquisition. But to the Detroit Tigers, that’s exactly what he’s turning out to be.

With two months and 56 games to go in the season, the Tigers are sitting atop the American League’s Central Division, on pace to win 11 more games than last year. That’s when the team ranked in the bottom third of Major League Baseball in three important pitching categories — earned run average (27th), opponent’s batting average (23rd) and runs allowed (27th). So far this season, the Tigers have moved up at least 13 spots in each of those categories.

The pitching staff’s ace, Justin Verlander, is currently 12-5 after going 11-17 last year. Veteran Edwin Jackson, who arrived from Tampa Bay, has cut his ERA by 40% heading into Wednesday’s game. And in his rookie year, 20-year-old flamethrower Rick Porcello looks well worth the record contract the Tigers gave him out of high school in 2007.

Much of the credit, if not all of it, belongs to Mr. Knapp, who before this season was one of baseball’s invisible men. For 26 long years, he toiled in the game’s backwaters as a classic baseball lifer, waiting for a call-up to the Major Leagues. Now, at age 47, he is finally here.

“There were times I thought about doing something else,” Mr. Knapp said as he sat on the dugout bench at the largely empty Comerica Park this week, four hours before the Tigers took on the Baltimore Orioles, “but then I could never figure out what that might be.”

For decades, a leading qualification among major league-pitching coaches was that they were the longtime drinking buddies of their managers. (Think Art Fowler and Billy Martin). Little known even to avid baseball fans, Mr. Knapp served as the minor-league pitching coordinator the past dozen years for the Twins, a team that operates on a shoestring budget but year after year produced efficient and effective pitching staffs the only way it could afford to —through its farm system.

In an era when middling starters cost $10 million a year, a pitching coach like Mr. Knapp, with a knack for developing young talent, is a symbol, even a necessity, of his time.

A successful pitching coach today is part scout, part teacher, and part sports psychologist. He has to be enough of an organizational strategist to set the franchise’s course for the development of pitchers—the most in-demand and expensive commodity in the game—but flexible enough to understand each pitcher’s unique needs, talents, and tendencies.

“The best guys are able to use their methodology around different styles,” said Ron Darling, the broadcaster and former standout pitcher. “You don’t have everyone try to do the same thing. When I see that, I know a guy is bad.”

Bob Apodaca, the veteran pitching coach for the Colorado Rockies, said his job is to digest all the data, from the computer analysis of arm motions to what happens when his pitchers throw first-pitch curveballs with runners in scoring position, and come up with the simplest possible plan for success.

“When I first get a pitcher I don’t touch him,” Mr. Apodaca said. “I just watch him and then I see what he likes to do and what he has trouble with. Then I ask him questions. What’s your stronger side? What’s your best pitch? Do you always throw it well? Why only sometimes? When you miss, where do you miss? I get him talking.”

Jim Rantz, the director of the Twins’ minor-league operations, said Mr. Knapp made an immediate impression on him in 1997, his first season as the club’s minor-league pitching coordinator, when he produced a computerized log of every pitch by every pitcher in the organization—this at a time when baseball was resisting statistical analysis.

“He did all this profiling and had all these records,” said Mr. Rantz. “I knew he was a guy who’d be at the major-league level one day.”

Just when that day might come was unclear. Despite his success with the Twins, Mr. Knapp has been somewhat out of step with recent conventional wisdom. While baseball executives everywhere were falling in love with hulking, power-pitching prospects who could throw the ball through the door of a bank vault, Mr. Knapp preached control, first-pitch strikes and the ability to change speeds.

Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz crafted Hall of Fame-caliber careers with the assistance of split-fingered fastballs. Mr. Knapp frowned on it, viewing the splitter as a “trick pitch” that harmed young arms more than it helped them.

“If you spread your first two fingers out and extend your arm as you throw the ball as hard as you can, that doesn’t feel real good,” he says.

After years of seeing Mr. Knapp develop pitchers for a division rival in Minnesota, Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland finally gave him a promotion to the big leagues in October, hiring the coach to oversee a staff filled with talented young arms in need of development and fine-tuning. The old school Mr. Leyland, who keeps a pack of Marlboro Reds on his desk, usually withholds compliments about his coaches. But he couldn’t help himself with Mr. Knapp, with whom he clearly shares a kinship since Mr. Leyland himself spent almost two decades in the minors.

“I just let Rick Knapp do his job, and he’s doing a hell of a job,” Mr. Leyland says.

That job can be vastly different depending on the pitcher. Ask Mr. Jackson, now in his seventh year in the big leagues, what he likes about Mr. Knapp, and he says it’s the way Mr. Knapp lets “us find ourselves.”

“ ‘Stay smooth,’ that’s what he keeps telling me,” Mr. Jackson said. “Really simple. Everything in one motion, just stay smooth.”

But at a locker 20 feet away, rookie Fu-te Ni from Taiwan, describes a completely different pitching coach.

“He tells me what pitch to throw in every situation,” Mr. Ni said. “He’s very hands-on.”

For Mr. Porcello, the young sensation with the blazing fastball but a jerky delivery, Mr. Knapp has set two goals that have little to do with blowing hitters away—learn to repeat his delivery on each pitch so he can fall back on this motion when he gets into trouble, and throw a more-effective curveball to mix up his speeds.

“The elements of success don’t have anything to do with velocity,” Mr. Knapp said. “Velocity is just one element of domination.”

Mr. Knapp’s transition from career minor leaguer to the big-league dugout has had its bumps. Tigers veteran pitcher Bobby Seay said early in the season Mr. Knapp tried to get his pitchers to show up to the ballpark early and stretch as a group.

“He learned pretty quick that sort of thing wasn’t going to fly with major leaguers,” Mr. Seay says.

Still, Mr. Knapp’s handiwork was evident Monday night, when the Orioles shelled Mr. Verlander for five first-inning runs. After designated hitter Luke Scott crushed a two-run double, Mr. Knapp trotted out to the mound with a simple message. “Just make a good pitch and we’re going to get out of this mess,” he told Mr. Verlander. “It starts with one good pitch.”

For Mr. Knapp, the trip to the mound was more a stall tactic than a pep talk, since he was merely trying to get Mr. Verlander to do something they have been talking about and working on since the spring—slow down.

Two batters later, Mr. Verlander was out of the jam. He then pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing the Tigers to win on Clete Thomas’s walk-off home run in the bottom of ninth.

In the locker room after the game, Mr. Verlander said he was as proud of his performance as any in his career, and while he didn’t mention Mr. Knapp by name, he might as well have.

“When I was younger, if I did bad in the first inning I would never make it out of the fourth,” he said. “This is the first one like this for me. The whole time I just tried to slow it down, slow it down, that’s the key for me because usually it’s been about speed it up, speed it up. Instead I just slowed it down.”

Write to Matthew Futterman at
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