Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sain Got Dumb In One Year; Did Hernandez, Too?

The Tigers had the Midas touch in 1968 -- from Gates Brown's clutch pinch-hitting to Jim Northrup's grand slams all the way to manager Mayo Smith's decision to shift Mickey Stanley to shortstop in the World Series. Everything worked. Come-from-behind victories were the team's modus operandi. Smith and his coaches could do no wrong.

Until one year later.

Pitching coach Johnny Sain was heralded in '68 as the guru behind the success of guys like Denny McLain (31 wins) and Mickey Lolich (3 wins in the Series) and just about everyone else who took the hill for the team. He was glorified just as Roger Craig was in 1984. And as Chuck Hernandez was in 2006.

Here's Tigers manager Jim Leyland, speaking of the outsiders' furor over the job Hernandez is doing in 2008 -- a season so far that belongs in the trash heap when it comes to pitching staff performance: "I don't think there's a thing wrong with the pitching coach," Leyland told the Detroit Free Press. "He's the same pitching coach who when we were winning (games) 3-1 a few years ago, had everyone bragging about him and wanting to sign him for 20 years."

True enough -- about how Hernandez was praised in 2006.

Chuck Hernandez

Coaches always get more credit and blame than they deserve. Always. Johnny Sain knew that all too well.

Sain, part of the old Boston Braves' rotation that spawned the catch phrase, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain," (Sain paired with Warren Spahn to produce a top-heavy rotation), was out as Tigers' pitching coach in 1969. He got dumb real quick, apparently.

Johnny Sain

Smith, who fired Sain in a dispute over how the pitchers were being handled, himself got dumb a year after canning Sain. Mayo was fired after the 1970 season.

I feel Leyland when he tells us that Chuck Hernandez is a good pitching coach. I know that the reason the starters have been so awful can't solely be blamed on him. I know that Hernandez might not be doing many things differently than in 2006, when the Tigers' staff was among the best in baseball. But here's the rub: it doesn't matter. Something's not right this year (the staff faltered in '07, too) and maybe it's time that Hernandez does indeed try a new approach. The paltry percentage of quality starts being turned in by Tigers pitchers in 2008 is embarrassing. What's more, it's hurting the team, big time. The on-again, off-again offense isn't able to compensate. It's a big reason why the Tigers sit at a ghastly 16-23.

Chuck Hernandez isn't the reason the Tigers pitchers are floundering. Not the only one, anyway. But he's not free from blame, either. To suggest otherwise is being disingenuous.


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