"I can see some things before the algorithms kick in and say a guy is going to be good."
If you love baseball, and you probably do if you are visiting BallNine, you also probably love looking behind the curtain of the sport. Millions of people are interested in the on-field product, but when you really get into the nuances of the game, you start wondering what helps make these folks the best players in the world.
What’s happening under the hood that helps develop talented players into high-performance machines that push the physical and scientific boundaries of human capability?
Guys like Rick Knapp are essential to that process and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Knapp was drafted three separate times and had success as a minor league pitcher, making it up to AAA in the Rangers organization by 1987. After that season though, he transitioned into coaching and has since held high-profile coaching jobs that took him all over the world.
Knapp was once the International Pitching Consultant for Major League Baseball and traveled to such places as Uganda in efforts to grow the game.
More traditionally, Knapp has served as a Major League Pitching Coach on Jim Leyland’s staff with the Tigers, was the Minnesota Twins Organizational Pitching Coordinator for 12 years and is currently the Assistant Pitching Coach and Rehab Coordinator for the Tampa Bay Rays. When the calendar flips to 2023, it will mark his 40th year in professional baseball.
Knapp has been able to adapt with the times and follows a great formula for success in today’s analytic-driven sport: a mix between modern-day analytics and the personal aspect of the sport.
He’s also not shy about sharing his opinions on what he believes the role pitching coaches such as himself play in the process of player development, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Rick Knapp.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Knapp. Looking forward to hearing about your work with the Tampa Bay Rays, perhaps the model franchise as far as pitching development is concerned. First, let’s go back to your childhood though. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
Well, you’re going way back there! I was very fortunate to grow up in the Baltimore area rooting for the Orioles in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It was an awesome time. The Orioles were in the World Series a bunch back then and my father would take me to about ten games a year. He even took me to the World Series. It was a lot of fun and it was a great time to be there. My father was a baseball player in high school and he had an affinity for the game. It looked like a lot of fun to me and it was a way for me to spend time with my dad. I did baseball card collecting as a kid too. I played Little League in a small town outside of Baltimore called Reisterstown. Eventually, I played for a team in the city called Johnny’s with Walter Youse. Walter ran the show and he was one of the higher ups in the Brewers system. We won a couple of National Championships playing for Johnstown. But my dad was a huge influence on me. When I wasn’t playing my own game, I was following him watching him play softball.
You mentioned going to Orioles World Series games; did you go to any of the games in the 1969 World Series?
No, I didn’t go to any of those games, but I did go to one in 1970 when we beat the Reds. In fact, I was at the game when Dave McNally hit a grand slam. The only pitcher to hit a grand slam in the World Series and I was there. It was a spectacular time. To be an Orioles fan and sports fan at that time in that area was special. My dad was an avid Orioles and Colts fan, so things transitioned to the fall. We had legends like Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas to root for. That was my youth and it was an exciting time for me.
A lot of specialists are speaking a different language, but in the end a lot of the things today are the same as they were then; they’re just being said and quantified in a different way.
What a great era in sports, especially for the Baltimore area. Was there a time when you thought you might have a career in professional baseball?
As a kid, I didn’t really grow until I was a junior in high school. After that year, I grew about six inches and put on about 30 pounds and became a prospect of sorts. I ended up having a good senior year, but wasn’t on the college radar scene because that happened late. I went to Towson State and played for Billy Hunter, who was a legend with the Orioles. The program itself wasn’t as advanced as I wanted to be, so I went to Indian River Junior College. I got drafted that January by the Yankees and then the Brewers in the Spring, but I decided to go to Virginia Tech instead. I played my junior season and was expecting to get drafted, but didn’t. I did well my senior year too and got drafted by the Rangers.
What was that first experience like in the Rangers organization?
I played with them that summer and played really well. Then I went to Spring Training the following spring and had to try to make a club and I did. I was probably the 13th pitcher on the Low-A Burlington Rangers and then worked my way into a starting position. I had a pretty good year and came back the next year and played at Salem and did well, but then the next year I moved up to AA with Tulsa and had a terrible year. It became quite a learning experience for me. I wasn’t the best player on any team I ever played on. I probably wasn’t even the second or third best. But I ended up being good enough to see how I could keep getting better and improving. I think those things made me the classic overachiever. Eventually, I think that’s what made me a better coach too. Being a 41st round draft pick, I don’t know how many lottery tickets I was handed.
Pitching coach Rick Knapp #52 talks with the bullpen during the game against the Baltimore Orioles on July 6, 2010 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Orioles 7-5 in 11 innings (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
How did you bounce back from that season in Tulsa?
I wasn’t even sure that I was gonna be asked back. I called our pitching coordinator, Dick Egan, and told him I had a really good job in Baltimore, but am committed to baseball. I said that if they were gonna bring me to Spring Training just to cut me two weeks later, then they might as well just do it now. He said that he liked what I had done and I had always done what they asked. He said if I came back, I could do things my way. He guaranteed me one month to do it my way. I said, “Great, that’s all I needed to hear.” I had a good season and got promoted to AAA, but I guess I did so good they asked me to become a coach. It wasn’t necessarily that cut and dry, but they said that they had an open position and if I wanted to go into coaching, that was a good place to start. They said if not, I would have an opportunity to come back to AAA. I thought about it and at that time, the Major League minimum was about $60,000, which wasn’t a whole lot of money. I thought I would be a good coach and always had players asking me what my observances were. So that was when I made my decision to get into coaching. That was 1987.
How was that transition for you?
You really don’t know anything going from being a player to being a coach. I thought I knew a lot, but what I learned was that I knew a lot about me. I didn’t know a lot about other things. That first year I coached in Gastonia and hated it. I thought I made the worst decision in my life. It wasn’t fun for me even though we had some real good players. I was working with Robbie Nen, Wilson Alvarez and Roger Pavlik. That’s three Major Leaguers on a Low-A team and those guys were young. They were all like 19 years old. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue, but the farm director, Marty Scott, asked me to go back to Rookie League and work out of the Gulf Coast League in Port Charlotte. I went back and it was the best decision I made. I got a chance to be me and not just try to conform. It helped me reacquire a passion for the game.
Pitching coach Rick Knapp #52 of the Detroit Tigers watches as Justin Verlander #35 warms up in the bullpen before the start of the game against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park on June 14, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Tigers defeated the Indians 4-0. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Was there anyone who helped you grow as a coach in those early days?
Tom House was the Major League pitching coach and I learned so much from him. I felt like I didn’t know anything about anything. I would hear him talk and have to go get a dictionary to understand what he was saying. He’d give a talk in front of some guys and half the group would be paying attention to him and the other half would be turning around to look at me and ask what he just said because they didn’t understand him either. I developed a niche for developing a common language for the common player. I ended up doing the Gulf Coast League and Major League rehab stuff and had the time of my life. For five years, it was a wonderful experience. The manager was Chino Cadahia, who has been with the Royals for a long time. We had a really neat group of guys to watch develop. Eventually I got an opportunity to go up from Rookie Year all the way up to AAA as a coach.
What was that experience like in AAA? I’d imagine that those pitchers had different developmental goals than the youngsters you were working with in Rookie League.
It was a whole different experience. I got to see what the older player was like and had to figure out how to get concepts through to older players who had already been in the game for a while. I had seen a lot of really good players come up through the Rangers system during that time. I saw Pudge, Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra, Jeff Frye. I just had to continue to learn. Tom House was my mentor though and it was interesting to see how players interacted with him. I had to find my niche with the subtleties of the language. A lot of the same things are happening in the game today. A lot of specialists are speaking a different language, but in the end a lot of the things today are the same as they were then; they’re just being said and quantified in a different way. I ended up being in AAA for a few years, but then there was a big turnover in the organization. Doug Melvin came in with a lot of his guys and Reid Nichols asked me to go back to Rookie League. I went back for one year then the next year he said, “Here’s the door. We don’t need you anymore.” I was a little devastated by that. I had put in 13 years and then I was just shown the door because they said I wasn’t on the same page, which wasn’t necessarily true.
Rick Knapp #92 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a picture during the 2022 Photo Day at Charlotte Sports Park on March 17, 2022 in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Were there any pitchers who you were particularly proud of the work you did with them, either during your time with the Rangers or after?
It’s a long list of names that I’ve had through the years. I’ve written down the guys I worked with who ended up pitching in the Major Leagues. It’s a list of over 300 guys. As a pitching coach and pitching coordinator, there are a lot of names on that list. But at the end of the day, I don’t know that any coach makes a player. The player is the one who has to figure it out and be good. Hopefully I was able to provide some confidence, encouragement, information and knowledge. My job was always, “Let’s get the wheels right and move the car further down the track.”
Most of the development that makes a guy an ace of the staff is gonna happen on the Major League level. It’s hard to develop a Major League pitcher in the minor leagues. You can get them to become the best minor league pitcher, but that may or may not translate to them becoming a good Major League pitcher. But the guys who become good Major Leaguers who spend a lot of time there, that came from themselves and their inner drive to become better. Those kind of guys want to be the best. Those traits aren’t anything I can put my stamp on and say, “Oh yea, I made this guy who he was.” That’s the most ridiculous statement any coach can make.
That’s a great point. There are so many theories and practices on developing pitching and that has to be challenging knowing how unique each pitcher is.
The nuances of the different levels are important. I got fired by the Rangers then went over to the Twins and became their coordinator for the next 12 years. What an experience that was to be on top of the organization and overseeing it. I got to take input from everyone and implement programs. We tried to fine tune it and make sure we didn’t have a program that was too restrictive and make sure our programs were being followed. We didn’t want to restrict players from branching out and becoming the best version of themselves and I believe that is happening in the game today a little bit. Some of the pitching programs are so specific. I see guys in the minors that are tabbed as a reliever. Then he gets to the Big Leagues as a reliever and you say, “Dang, if they would have developed that changeup a little better or that freaking curve ball, this guy might have been a starter!” That’s what I’m proud of in the Rays program. Shane McClanahan could have fallen into that kind of trap because he had such a good arm. But they let him develop all four of his pitches, he was able to become the pitcher that he was this past season.
Justin Verlander #35, Gerald Laird #8, and Rick Knapp #52 of the Detroit Tigers talk on the mound in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during the opening day game at the Rogers Centre on April 6, 2009 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
You were the Tigers pitching coach from 2008-2011. What was that experience like?
Well I had been with the Twins for 12 years and they liked what I did there, so Jim Leyland asked me to become the Pitching Coach for the Tigers. I remember we sat down and he said, “Ricky, you better make this Verlander better or we’re gonna be pickin’ shit with the chickens!” Two and a half years later, Verlander wins the MVP and I get fired! It happens. The game is a great mistress, but can be devastating at times. Did I impact Verlander? I don’t know. I know the year before I got there he went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA – then the next three years [he won 61 games, a Cy Young and MVP]. But again, I didn’t do it, he did it. Justin made himself into that.
I wanted to ask about that. You have worked with some big time pitchers. Are there any others that stood out for you the way Verlander’s story does?
There were several that had been spectacular to work with. Some guys like Kevin Slowey and Kyle Lohse made a lot of progress in Minnesota. We had Johan Santana there. He was a Rule 5 guy and had to drop back down into the minor leagues for a month to figure out that changeup. Once he did, he became a superstar. Francisco Liriano came from the Giants and we had to work through some delivery issues there. Getting him right was rewarding. Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn were guys we worked a lot with and they made good progress. My first year with the Twins, I had Brad Thomas, Juan Rincon and Grant Balfour when they were young. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of young pitchers come through and grow. I’d like to think they’d say they had a good coach along the way that helped them. I know I keep repeating this, but it really is all them though. They put in the work and execute.
This has been a great talk and I thank you for taking the time to give us a look behind the scenes. It’s always fascinating to hear from longtime coaches. It is a side of the game most fans don’t get to see. My last question for you looks at your career as a whole, even though it’s still going. You have been in professional baseball for 40 years. The game has undergone tremendous change, especially in the past five to ten years. What are your thoughts on the way pitching development has changed and how do you keep up with it?
I try to stay up to date with the most current information and explore different methods. I find the information quite interesting. It allows us to quantitatively apply stuff that our eyes see. I think there are too many guys in baseball that don’t use their instincts as much as they use their computer printouts though. I think the order in which you’re going to analyze and identify still has a lot to do with what your eyes see. That’s where your experience comes in. That’s what makes me a little unique. I have the experience, so I can see some things ahead of the analytics. I can see some things before the algorithms kick in and say a guy is going to be good. The fact that the Rays find value in that and look at me in that way to have me in such an important role makes me feel really good.