Though the Tigers stopped the bleeding with a 6-3 win Sunday afternoon, they had already made the decision: Rick Knapp is out, and bullpen coach Jeff Jones is in. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski made the announcement minutes after the game in manager Jim Leyland's office.
"We're very thankful for everything that Rick has done for the organization," Dombrowski said. "We talked to him after the game. But we just felt our pitching staff is in a position where we couldn't quite get out of it what we would like, and we think that making a change is beneficial for us."
In an interview with MLB Network Radio Sunday evening, Knapp said the blowouts over the past week had to play a role.
"Was there any signs? Well, the 15 runs [Saturday] night, that was a big sign," Knapp said. "And the 16 runs against the Mets, that was a bad sign. ... I came at it every day like it was Day 1, you know? There's no difference. I put the hours in. I put the time in. I mean, there's only so much waking hours that you have to put in."
Knapp represented a change for the Tigers when they hired him three years ago from the Twins organization. As the Minor League pitching coordinator there, Knapp had a hand in the development of the Twins pitching staff, placing an emphasis on command of the strike zone. He arrived after a 2008 season in which Justin Verlander tied for the Major League lead in losses, and others such as Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis struggled mightily with walks.
Knapp and Jones played defining roles in the development of Rick Porcello, who made the pitching staff as a 20-year-old out of Class A ball in 2009, and Max Scherzer, who arrived via trade last year as a gifted but inconsistent young pitcher from the Diamondbacks.
The Tigers built their club back up as a contender over the last two years on the strength of their pitching, led by the emergence of Verlander as one of the game's great pitchers. Detroit was expected to be a pitching-strong contender this year, led by Verlander, Scherzer, Porcello and a strong late-inning bullpen duo of Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit.
While Verlander has built a potential Cy Young award resume, however, the rest of the staff has largely struggled. Take away Verlander's stats, including six wins and a 0.92 ERA in June, and Tigers pitchers own a 33-37 record and a 4.85 ERA, allowing 659 hits over 614 1/3 innings with 261 walks and 441 strikeouts.
That imbalance became glaring this week during a five-game stretch in which the Tigers suffered 14-3 and 16-9 losses to the Mets on Tuesday and Wednesday, plus Saturday's 15-3 loss to the Giants. In each case, Tigers starters -- notably Porcello and Scherzer -- were roughed up and chased early, putting the bullpen in a bind to fill innings. Meanwhile, Detroit fell out of first place in the standings, with a 7-9 stretch since taking two of three from the first-place Indians in mid-June.
"I think that what ended up happening, quite frankly, I think Max probably was underperforming and Rick Porcello was underperforming," Knapp said. "That's not to say that we hadn't made strides or we weren't moving towards a big second half. But in their eyes, I wasn't the guy to lead them to the next level or where they want to be."
The Tigers had to make two moves in four days to add a fresh arm to the bullpen. Changing coaches became the next step.
"Without getting into too many specifics, you've watched us," Dombrowski said. "We just have not pitched as well as we thought we're capable of pitching. I'm not putting it all on [Knapp], because that's not the case, either. We have to assume responsibilities, too. But it's one where we just think that our staff's better than what it has performed."
Leyland made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the pitching staff on Saturday night, saying the performance was "not acceptable."
Dombrowski and Leyland discussed the situation Saturday night into Sunday morning.
"We just felt like it just wasn't working," Leyland said. "It was a joint decision between Dave and myself. We both agreed on the decision. We felt like it just wasn't working, and that pretty much sums it up."
By Leyland's recollection, it was the first time he had replaced a coach midseason in his 20-year managerial career.
For some pitchers, the news hit hard as a reflection of their performance.
"Obviously not happy to hear that," Porcello said. "We're the ones who are throwing the ball, and we're the ones who are responsible for the results. It's unfortunate that something like that had to happen. The bottom line is it's on us."
For Verlander, Knapp was one of two pitching coaches he has known in his six-year Major League career, save for two spot starts in 2005.
"You kind of prepare yourself for this as a player," Verlander said. "You know you're not going to be with the same coaches your whole career, unless you're extremely, extremely lucky. It's a tough business. Hopefully, we move forward. Hopefully he gets a good job, too. I think he deserves one."
They'll have a familiar face in Knapp's stead. While Jones has served as bullpen coach since 2007 -- when Lloyd McClendon moved over to hitting coach -- he has worked with pitchers in many cases as a co-coach with Knapp. He has played a big role in Porcello's development, fitting his reputation as a developmental guy who has also helped many pitchers reclaim their careers.
Jones' entire pro coaching career has been as a Tiger, beginning in 1989 as a pitching coach in Class A ball. He spent four different stints as pitching coach at Triple-A Toledo, and the same number as the bullpen coach in Detroit.
"Jeff Jones has been part of the organization for a long time," Dombrowski said. "He's very knowledgeable, knows all our pitchers. He's in a position where he's been a very loyal employee for a long time, and we think he'll step up and do a solid job for us."
Detroit's new bullpen coach will be director of player development Mike Rojas, who was a candidate for the pitching coach job before it went to Knapp. He spent four seasons managing in the Tigers farm system before moving into player development.
His old responsibilities will be shared in the front office, from vice president/assistant general manager Al Avila to vice president and special assistant David Chadd, as well as Minor League field coordinator Kevin Bradshaw and pitching coordinator Jon Matlack.