Tigers' Knapp making an impression
New pitching coach enjoys first workouts on big league staff
LAKELAND, Fla. -- New Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp is a big note-taker, he confesses. He keeps a pad with him during Spring Training to jot down observations each day. He'll carry an index card during games to write down a few observations for his pitchers. It goes back to something he heard years ago, that a person remembers 10 percent of what they hear, but half of what they write down.
As he prepared for his first official day on the field as Detroit's pitching coach Saturday, the first day of formal workouts, his first observation was more mental.
After that many years in the Minors as a player and coach, it's something he wouldn't easily forget. It's something manager Jim Leyland never forgot from his years waiting for a chance at the Majors.
"I love guys who took that path," Leyland said Saturday. "One thing about them, they love the game."
Like Leyland, Knapp never reached the big leagues as a player. He pitched just two games above the Double-A level and finished with a sub-.500 record over five seasons before he became a coach in 1988. In two decades since, he has a better record helping develop young arms into effective pitchers, especially in his previous 13 years as the Twins' pitching coordinator.
That success earned him a look from the Tigers, which eventually earned him the job of succeeding Chuck Hernandez as Detroit's pitching coach. But the call didn't make him forget what made him so successful with the Twins in the first place.
To Knapp, it wasn't about the coach. It was about how the coach and the pitchers fit within the system. And as Knapp takes his opportunity to put his stamp on a Major League pitching staff, he isn't losing that sight.
"I wasn't the reason why the Twins had success," he said. "I was part of the reason, but the talented players are the reason why teams are good. I might have straightened them and pointed them in the right direction and then they developed. But as far as saying I made those guys good, that's not true. That's never, ever the case. ... We tried to streamline the development process, and we got a bunch of guys to the big leagues at one time with a bunch of guys to follow.
"How would I replicate? Well, the first thing I have to do is to open up a line of communication. I hope I've done that with everybody in the Minor Leagues. Somebody asked me what it's like to be a Major League pitching coach. I don't know. I'm just a coach. I have a hard time getting used to seeing Major League beside my name still, because I don't view myself as different. I see a fellow having issues with a particular thing, and well, this is how we're going to try to attack the problem. "
It was fitting, then, that Knapp met with the Tigers' pitching instructors and Minor League coaches Friday. On Saturday, Knapp did a lot of observing while the staff ran drills. As pitchers ran to cover first base on ground balls, Knapp was down the line, offering encouragement. When pitchers threw their scheduled bullpen sessions, Knapp wanted his pitchers to go on their normal progressions, not where they think the Tigers want to see them.
It's much the same stuff that every team does at the start of camp. All the while, though, Knapp was watching.
"Knowing what you're looking at is so important," Leyland said. "He knows what he's looking at. He made a few comments about some guys."
Where Knapp will make more of a stamp will be individually, especially when pitchers work their way into games in a couple weeks.
"If you want to work, he's going to be there for you," said reliever Juan Rincon, whom as a Minor Leaguer with the Twins had Knapp as his first pitching coach Twins years ago.
Knapp has already made his impression on the pitchers who have been here for several weeks. When Joel Zumaya talked about his rehab, he said Knapp set up the "perfect program" for him, one with a lot of long-tossing. Knapp doesn't want Zumaya throwing as hard as he can, but to see how well he can throw without a lot of effort.
The plan also involves Zumaya working on a changeup, one he'll hopefully throw more often than in previous seasons. Considering eighty percent of the pitches Zumaya threw last year were fastballs, a higher percentage than he had even in his rookie year of 2006, he has room to mix.
It's not something Zumaya never heard before. The Tigers talked about it last year. The important part is that Zumaya has to buy into it. Sometimes it's about the messenger as well as the message.
"My belief has always been that if you have something important to say or if you have something worth hearing, then you'll have somebody that'll listen," Knapp said. "There's a fine line, and sometimes it isn't the quality of what you say as much as it is when you say it."
To that end, the Tigers plan on using Zumaya for two to three innings per outing this spring. Part of it is meant to test Zumaya's arm and see if he's ready, but also give Zumaya the chance to work his changeup and breaking ball rather than throwing fastballs for an inning.
Knapp hopes to do one similarly long outing for closer Brandon Lyon, where he can throw 45 pitches -- a little bit of everything -- in mid-to-late March.
"It may be on this field or it may be on one of those [back] fields," Knapp said, "but we will send him out for three innings of 15 pitches or two innings of 20, so he gets a chance to really extend himself. ... I think that every finishing pitcher has to, at some point, be in a position to refine their secondary stuff."
That fine line on Knapp's messages is in effect as he tries to help Dontrelle Willis in his comeback. He's working with Willis, but he isn't smothering him. Knapp's early message was meant more for confidence than mechanics, to get Willis to find a rhythm where he can throw without thinking too much about throwing.
"When I called Dontrelle the first time," Knapp recalled, "I told him, 'Look, I know you had a tough year. The only thing I want you to concentrate on is, I want you to be yourself. I don't want you to be a mechanical robot. I don't want you to consciously try to make your delivery perfect. I don't want you to lose your personality.' And it is my opinion that Dontrelle's personality is what separates him. And my hope was that it would make him feel more comfortable."
Willis' comments and body language reflect some comfort so far this spring. Many others in camp are growing comfortable with Knapp, too.
"I can tell you this: [Knapp's] going to be good," Leyland said. "He'll fit right in. I can tell why he's been successful, and he'll be successful right here. He's very insightful, very humble, and most importantly, very knowledgeable."
And amidst all the razzing that Detroit's established coaching staff has given its first-year pitching coach, Leyland -- the similarly lifetime Minor Leaguer given a Major League chance -- might have given Knapp the best compliment.
"You've been a big league pitching coach," Leyland recalls telling Knapp. "You've just had a Minor League uniform on, from what I see."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.