Despite some heroics during the playoffs, the Tigers are better with Phil Coke as a LOOGY rather than as a closer.
When the Tigers acquired Phil Coke in a three way trade with the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks after the 2009 season, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski thought there was a chance that he could be getting a starting left handed pitcher. In fact, comments made prior to the following season indicated that Coke could be viewed as either a starter or a reliever.
Manager Jim Leyland quickly dispelled any notions that Coke would be in the 2010 rotation, proclaiming that he was needed as a left handed reliever, the same role he filled while leading the Yankees in appearances the previous season. The plan worked fairly well, as Coke made 74 appearances for the Tigers, allowing an ERA of 3.76 and pitching fairly well against both left and right handed batters.
The following season, Dombrowski had Coke tabbed for a rotation spot, Coke was given the ball to start the last game of a disappointing 2010 Tiger season, and when the club signed reliever Joaquin Benoit to a three year contract the following month, Dombrowski and Leyland confirmed what had been speculated, that Coke would be part of the rotation to start the 2011 season.
Starting was not new to the Tiger lefty pitcher. Coke was drafted in the 26th round of the 2002 amateur draft as a starting pitcher and groomed as a starting pitcher in the Yankee system, making 78 starts until he was called up to New York to fill a spot in the Yankee bullpen. If the transition was a success, the trade that restocked the Tiger roster with starting center fielder Austin Jackson and former first round selections Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth, would be an even bigger success for Dombrowski.
Alas, it was not to be. Coke struggled mightily in the rotation, posting a record of 1- 7 in 14 starts, an ERA of 4.82, WHIP of 1.48, and his strikeout rate dropped from 8.5 K per nine innings to just 4.5K per nine as a starting pitcher. Coke was sent back to the bullpen as Charlie Furbush was called up to take his place in the rotation, and Coke was not shy about expressing his disappointment.
Upon returning to the bullpen, Coke adapted fairly well, making 34 appearances during the remainder of the 2011 season, with an ERA of 3.71, a WHIP of 1.38, and striking out 8.5 batters per nine frames once again. He met the challenge of disappointment head on, resuming his energetic charge sprinting in from the bullpen whenever he was called upon. He did not allow an earned run the entire month of August in 13 appearances, and he was once a gain an important part of the late inning team in the Tiger bullpen.
Coke entered the 2012 season as part of the late inning relief team, while Benoit pitched the eighth inning and Jose Valverde was the closer. In all, he made 61 appearances totaling 48 innings, which is an indication that he often was called to get just a batter or two. A loose definition of a LOOGY (lefty one out guy) is a reliever who faces more lefty hitters than righties, despite the fact that there are many more right handed batters in the game. Coke appeared 35 times in the seventh inning, 29 times in the eighth, and nine times in the ninth, notching one save during the regular season.
Coke struggled at times during the 2012 season, allowing opponents a batting average of .324 with an OPS of .856 overall for the season. League average OBA for relievers was just .238. He especially struggled in the second half of the season, allowing opponents a batting line of .356/.427/ .603/ 1.030, with a K/ BB rate that dropped from 3.9 before the break, to just 1.8 after. Against right handed hitters, Coke allowed a staggering batting line of .396/ .446/ .604/ 1.050 for the season, which is downright ugly. Against lefties he allowed a much more respectable .263/ .313/ .373/ .685.
Tiger fans will most fondly remember Coke’s 2012 season for his performance in the playoffs. With Jose Valverde being totally ineffective and pulled from the role of closer, and with Joaquin Benoit suddenly developing a case of gopher’s disease, Leyland called upon Coke to get the final few outs against his former team, the lefty laden Yankees to close out the American League Championship season. Coke slamming his glove after the Tigers completed the sweep of New York was one of the highlights of the 2012 Tiger season. Okay, one of the highlights of our lives!
But with the Tigers down three games to none, in a tie game in game four of the World Series, Coke surrendered a pair of hits to right handed batters in the tenth inning, allowing the run that would eventually be the game winning run that eliminated the Tigers from the World series.
As the Tigers head to spring training, all the comments from Tiger management suggest that the closer’s job belongs to rookie Bruce Rondon, who has never pitched in the major leagues. They’ve also said that, should Rondon not be up to the task, there are several other options. Among the names tossed around is Phil Coke. That would be a huge mistake. At this point in his career, Coke is a left handed relief specialist.
Friday, January 18 is the deadline for clubs and arbitration eligible players to simultaneously exchange proposed salary figures if they haven't come to terms on a contract for the 2013 season. Coke is eligible for the second time. If they still haven't split the difference or come to terms by February, a hearing will be scheduled and a panel of three arbitrators will pick one figure or the other.
If Coke had managed to hold that spot in the rotation, his arbitration case would look a lot different today. He’d be compared with the starting salaries that Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are being compared with, somewhere north of $ 4.5 million, up to 8 million per season. But instead, he will be compared to other relief pitchers making closer to $ 2 million per season.
Coke earned a salary of $ 1.1 million for the 2012 season, which was his first season of arbitration eligibility. With four seasons plus 28 games of major league experience under his belt, he has two more seasons of arbitration eligibility. If he were a closer, he could expect a salary upwards of $ 6 million, but with just one save during the regular season last year, he can’t really argue that he is a closer.
Matt Schwartz at MLBTR estimates that Coke will earn a salary of $ 1.7 million in 2013. That’s more than a 50% increase, and enough to put him in the highest (39.6%) tax bracket that went into effect this month. In his favor is the fact that he has been durable,and there are no apparent health issues with him. Working against him is the fact that relievers are plentiful on the market. About 28% of all players in the major leagues are relief pitchers, so they don't command the salaries that starting position players or pitchers earn.
Coke is now 30 years old, and is capable of stringing together several games where he allows no earned runs, when he’s in a groove. He can be a very important part of the Tiger relief corps in 2013. Just let’s not pretend that he is a closer.
Next up: Austin Jackson’s star has risen, and so has his salary.
Previous Arbitration cases analyzed in this series: