Tigers dismiss pair of coaches
Pitching coach Hernandez, bullpen coach Jones won't be back
DETROIT -- The Tigers grew up as a pitching staff around pitching coach Chuck Hernandez two years ago, and they ended up in the World Series. When their World Series aspirations dissipated this year, Hernandez became the first of the expected changes.
The Tigers have one game left, but the news was already out. Manager Jim Leyland announced after Sunday's loss to the Rays that Hernandez and pitching coach Jeff Jones will not be brought back for next season.
Both will stay on board for Monday's makeup game at Chicago, where they're expected to talk with reporters about their situations. Jones is expected to be offered a job within the organization.
"It's one of the unfortunate things," Leyland said. "In situations like this, you know somebody's going to pay. If it was next year at this time, it would be me."
The moves are the coaching fallout from a season in which the Tigers, whom many forecast to contend for a World Series berth, will finish in or near the cellar in the American League Central. Though pitching was never expected to be the strength of the club, not with a star-studded offensive lineup, Detroit's 4.87 ERA ranked third-to-last in the American League and 27th among 30 Major League teams.
More changes will be coming in the offseason with the pitching staff itself.
With three seasons in charge of the Tigers' pitching staff, Hernandez is the only pitching coach that some of Detroit's young arms have known in their brief big league careers. His focus on preparation and individualized scouting reports, detailing a plan of attack for each particular pitcher against an opponent, was widely credited with helping Detroit's staff emerge in 2006 on the Tigers' way to 95 wins and the World Series.
Detroit led the Majors with a 3.84 ERA and 16 shutouts two years ago. The bulk of the strength was in the rotation, which accounted for 75 victories and better than six innings per start. Justin Verlander won 17 games and AL Rookie of the Year honors, while Kenny Rogers provided the veteran presence with 17 more wins. Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman had some of their more solid performances to date.
"He taught me how to be a pitcher," Verlander said of Hernandez on Sunday, "and that's not as easy as it sounds. I think we had gotten to the point where I was able to repeat my delivery and pitch. I think he was a little bit hands-off. He didn't try to overload me with information. He just let me go out and pitch. When he saw something that needed correction, he told me, and he worked on it."
The Tigers' team ERA rose to 4.57 last year, then took a further bump this season. A now-veteran staff headed by Verlander and bolstered by Dontrelle Willis struggled throughout the year, while an injury-plagued bullpen led to 13 losses in games the Tigers led after seven innings, most recently on Sunday.
"It was probably the most glaring part, along with our defense, that struggled," Leyland said of the pitching. "Somebody pays the price."
That said, Leyland didn't want to place the blame squarely on his coaches.
"When you're in a managing position, you almost feel like I'm pushing the blame from my shoulders to theirs," Leyland said. "And that's not the case. I feel terrible about it."
For a team that hadn't had any dismissals since Leyland came on board and had just one coaching change since he assembled his staff in 2006, it was a jarring move, though not necessarily a surprise.
"That's the way the business is," Verlander said. "It's tough, because I know I'm partially to blame for this. But I really learned a lot from [Hernandez], and I think what he's taught me in three years -- being a pitcher and how to use my stuff -- I think it'll have a lasting influence on my career."
Jones joined the Tigers for his fifth stint on the Major League staff last year, filling the opening created when Lloyd McClendon moved from bullpen coach to hitting coach. The Detroit-area native has been in the organization in some instructional capacity for close to two decades, starting as a pitching coach at Triple-A Toledo in 1990.
His reputation at Toledo was solid, and he carried that into the big leagues. The Tigers' bullpen struggles, however, proved difficult -- if not impossible -- to solve, from injuries to Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya to ensuing control issues among them and others.
"They were definitely the two most influential pitching coaches I've had in pro baseball," said Zach Miner, who began the season as a reliever before joining the rotation. "It's unfortunate that because we didn't get the job done, that they've got to suffer for it. They haven't hung a single pitch. They haven't walked a guy."
The decisions, Leyland said, came out of meetings with president/general manager Dave Dombrowski last week. Jones asked about his situation on Friday and was informed he wouldn't be back. The Tigers informed Hernandez on Sunday morning. Both have a year left on their contracts.
The search for their successors, meanwhile, will begin promptly. The team is expected to look outside the organization to fill the spots, and it will most likely not involve a former pitching coach in the bullpen role.
"I feel bad for Jeff Jones being a pitching coach and a bullpen coach and not wanting to step on anybody's toes," Leyland said. "It was a weird situation, and I won't say for sure, but I doubt that I'm going to have a pitching coach as my bullpen coach. It's worked very well in some places, but I think it makes people uncomfortable from time to time."
Asked what kind of pitching coach would be needed for the current pitchers, Leyland paused, then allowed himself a moment of pointed humor.
"I would have to say at least one of the apostles," Leyland said.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.