Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A sign of panic in Detroit?

The American League Central has been weak enough this year that the Twins can have the second-worst record in the league on July 4 and still have visions of winning another divisional title.

Rick Knapp was
Detorit's pitching
coach for 2 1/2 seasons.
But on the face of it, the team with the best shot is the Detroit Tigers. They're in second place, just behind the surprising Cleveland Indians. The Tigers were seen before the season as a legitimate contender, the Indians weren't; on paper, the Tigers ought to be the current favorite.

But one wonders about their self-assessment now. They fired pitching coach Rick Knapp over the  weekend. Dumping a coach in midseason, short of something scandalous, smacks of panic. Canning a manager sometimes turns a team around. The pitching coach? Not likely.

The Tigers hired Knapp after the 2008 season in a naked attempt to replicate the Twins' success in developing control pitchers. Knapp had been Minnesota's minor league pitching coordinator for 12 years, and Jim Leyland is supposed to have told Knapp during the job interview: I don't  know anything about you, but I know the Twins keep bringing up pitchers and they all throw strikes, and I want some of that.

But there's a fundamental difference between the two organizations. The Twins develop control pitchers in no small part because they begin the process with prospects who throw strikes. They have a long history of prioritizing command over raw stuff in the draft. The Tigers have a history of drafting and signing power arms.

In some cases, Knapp seems to have improved the pitcher. Justin Verlander is said to have taken his step forward this year because he finally brought into Knapp's advice to throttle back early in games. Al Alburquerque was signed as a minor league free agent and turned into a prime setup man.

But I suspect the organization is displeased with the regression of Rick Porcello, the inconsistency of Max Schurzer and the failure of the Phil Coke experiment. They had a string of embarrassing starts last week, which apparently resulted in the decision.

So Knapp is out. He told the Detroit Free Press on Monday that he's already heard from three general managers and expects to land a new job. Which he should, perhaps not as a major league coach but at least in player development. He has a pretty impressive track record in grooming pitchers.

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