Detroit baseball fans haven't seen this kind of outstanding pitching since the 1984 World Championship season. That season, Jack Morris (19-11), Dan Petry (18-8), and Milt Wilcox (17-8) combined for 54 victories, over half of the team's 104 wins on the season.
Not only did starting pitching dominate opponents, the bullpen was lights out as well. At the back end of the bullpen, closer Willie Hernandez converted 32 of 33 save opportunities and posted a 1.92 ERA to slam the door shut in the ninth inning.
Hernandez wasn't the only pitcher who performed well, Aurelio Lopez went 10-1 with a 2.91 ERA and saved 14 games of his own.
Since that 1984 season, the Tigers haven't had the great pitching they once did.
In 2008, the Tigers' pitching staff struggled as a whole, posting a team ERA of 4.90 that ranked 27th in the entire Major Leagues. There was no real bright spot for pitching in Detroit. They had 67 quality starts (26th in MLB
), 857 earned runs against (26th in MLB), and 644 walks allowed (26th in MLB).
The rotation was a mess, other than rookie Armando Galarraga. Former American League Rookie of the Year, Justin Verlander, fell apart yet again in 2008. Verlander went 11-17 and gave up 195 hits in 201 innings of work.
Tigers' fans begged and pleaded for a starting pitcher as the trade deadline quickly approached. Their prayers weren't answered.
The bullpen was in shambles, expescially the back end. Detroit simply couldn't shut the door on opponents. The closer role was a mess, the Tigers had closer by committee and it didn't pan out at all.
Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, and Freddy Dolsi all had a shot to finish out games for Detroit, and none of those players stepped up and made a mark. Fernando Rodney got the ball most of the time in the ninth inning, but went 0-6 with a 4.91 ERA and blew six saves.
The Tigers needed a change, desperately. Exit Chuck Hernandez, enter Rick Knapp.
Rick Knapp played five seasons of minor league ball with the Texas Rangers
organization. He was selected in the 41st round of the 1983 draft out of Virginia Tech. He then spent 20 years in the minor leagues with the Minnesota Twins
and the Rangers as a pitching coach and coordinator.
His coaching career began in 1988 with the Single-A Gastonia Rangers and then moved to the Gulf Coast League Rangers from 1989-1992. After a few great seasons there, Knapp was promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City for the 1993 and '94 seasons.
In 1996, Rick Knapp started his twelve-year career with the Minnesota Twins as the pitching coordinator. In his time with the Twins, he worked with pitchers like; Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza, Brad Radke, Kyle Loshe, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Kenny Rogers.
In his first chance as a Major League pitching coach, Knapp has delivered thus far for the Tigers and their young pitchers. Opponents batting average against the Tigers from .274 in 2008 to .249 this season. He has the pitching staff firing on all cylinders thus far in 2009, their 3.87 ERA is first in the American League and fourth in MLB.
Justin Verlander had a rocky, 0-2 start to the season, but has found his stride as of late, winning six of his last seven starts. He's improved to 6-2, and has struck out 90 batters this season, which is best in the majors. Verlander also has one complete game-shutout in 2009 so far, that's one more than 2008.
Another pitcher that has thrived under Rick Knapp is former top prospect Edwin Jackson. After posting a 19-26 record in two seasons with Tampa Bay
, the Tigers made a deal to get Jackson into an Olde English 'D' jersey.
In his first season with Detroit, he is 5-3, with an ERA that ranks one of the best in the American League, 2.30. His fastball has gained about four to five MPH and his split-finger fastball has opponents off-balance.
Maybe the most important thing Rick Knapp has accomplished so far with Detroit is the development of rookie arms in Rick Porcello and Ryan Perry. Porcello, who is the third starter in Detroit's rotation, has pitched phenomenally. His 6-3 record gives him the most victories for any rookie pitcher thus far in 2009; he also has a 3.48 ERA and a 2:1 K/BB ratio.
Not only has the starting rotation performed well this season, the bullpen has nearly been flawless. Now, the solidified closer, Fernando Rodney, is 10 for 10 in save opportunities.
Hard throwing Joel Zumaya has returned to old form with a fastball in the upper-90s. That increase in velocity has helped him strike out 15 batters this season, while he only has walked two.
This is the first season in quite awhile where Detroit fans aren't hoping for a pitcher at the trade deadline. Acquiring a new starting pitcher may be the last thing on fan's minds this season as their team is playing great baseball and sitting pretty on top of the AL Central.
With the way they are playing now, we could see a repeat of 2006, as they have a good chance playing through October. This time we just hope it ends a little better.