Normally this is the part of an article where other writers and I will attempt to write some sort of witty or poetic exposition in preparation for the imminent topic at hand, if you, the reader, had so chosen to continue reading on and not hit the back button on your browser. Phil Coke needs no introduction. You already know about the failed experiment at starter, his seizing the role of closer role as well as the hearts of millions in the 2012 playoffs, and then suffering a tremendous fall from grace last year to the point the less uncivilized portion of the fanbase has finally taken up pitchforks and torches over his use.
I’m sometimes a curious person. When I’m not so lazy, I do like to look at what makes things tick. Given that Phil Coke is such a topic that draws more vitriol than a Washington Politician, naturally I wanted to see if I could figure out the cause of Mr. Coke’s descent from the 1.1 fWAR relief pitcher he was in 2010. Is he just a terrible pitcher? Or is he just doing something wrong that he shouldn’t be doing in the first place?
Unfortunately, I’m not a pitcher. Sometimes I go to the park and throw a baseball against a fence on an old unkempt baseball diamond, looking like a fool naturally. I’m not a pitching coach. I can hardly settle on my pitching mechanics, let alone repeat them. But I do know how to read statistics. We also have Pitch F/X, which allows us an in-depth look at the pitch-by-pitch data of a pitcher. So for my analysis on Phil Coke, I took to Fangraphs yet again.*
*I also tried to use Brooks Baseball for further analysis. Unfortunately, there appears to be conflicting information regarding what pitches Phil Coke threw for the duration of his career. For instance, fangraphs says Phil Coke threw a slider for most of his career. Brooks Baseball says that Phil Coke never threw slider in his life. So if you think this analysis is BS, I wouldn't be surprised if it is.
So when I looked at all the data, the thing that stuck out to me was A). Phil Coke generally uses his fastball as his predominant pitch and B). His fastball is a really terrible pitch, both of them to be precise.
Taking this into consideration, Phil Coke’s early ventures into 2014 have only augmented the damage to the point of irreparable. 10 of the 14 pitches he threw against the Orioles on April the 5th were fastballs. All four pitches he threw to the Dodgers on April the 8th were fastballs. The results were predictable. Phil Coke got hammered harder than a beer enthusiast during the largest Oktoberfest celebration of the year.
That doesn’t really show you how bad Phil Coke’s fastballs are, so let’s bring some numbers into the situation.
Phil Coke throws two fastballs and combined he generally throws his fastballs more than 50% of the time. He throws a four-seamed fastball that can reach up to 96mph, and he throws it more than his other fastball. On his career, opposing batters have a wOBA of .361 off his four-seamed fastball. That’s not good. That’s bad. However, a relief pitcher can live with it if he has a really good breaking pitch to use as his out pitch.
Now, about that other fastball…
Pitch F/X identifies it as a two-seamed fastball. Brooks Baseball calls it a sinker fastball. Honestly, it would be the most accurate to call this pitch ‘hot trash.’ Prepare yourself for an epic level of ugliness. This is truly cringe worthy- Opposing hitters have hit Phil Coke’s two-seamed sinker pitch for a wOBA of .459.
That’s not even Miguel Cabrera-good anymore. That’s BETTER than Miguel Cabrera-good. When was the last time anyone even dared to attempt to imagine such a terrifying monster? Never? Yeah, that’s what I thought. And yet, Phil Coke’s two-seamed fastball has accomplished such a seemingly impossible feat of making opposing hitters look better than Miguel Cabrera. If that’s not grounds for completely scrapping a pitch, I don’t know what is. Sure he’s only thrown it for around 20% of the time, but combined with an already below-average four-seamed fastball, professional baseball players trained to hit bad pitches are going to hit these bad pitches thrown to them a majority of the time really, really hard.
To put this point further into context- last year, 58% of the pitches that Phil Coke threw were fastballs of both varieties. If I didn't donk up my math here, opposing hitters hit those fastballs for a wOBA of .404.
To paint a picture of this futility, 58% of the pitches that Phil Coke threw last year were to Miguel Cabrera. Miguel Cabrera hits baseballs really hard and far, which causes the Tigers to win and opposing pitchers to utter four-lettered obscenities. You’re not going to have much success if 58% of the time the batters you face look like Miguel Cabrera.
Maybe this is Phil Coke’s only issue, maybe it isn't. It’s blatantly obvious, just looking at the numbers, that a serious problem that is causing Phil Coke to not be an effective pitcher is the fact that he throws a really awful pitch combined with a bad pitch a majority of the time. This year, he’s thrown that two-seamed fastball 44% of the time. Yeah, no wonder he’s getting hit hard.
I’m not a pitching coach. I am a person who looks at the numbers a lot. I can’t offer a mechanical fix or offer a miracle cure. I can play the percentages by offering another similar pitcher who has met success as a model for pitch usage.
Boone Logan throws a four-seamed fastball that has gotten hit for a wOBA .382 by opposing hitters and is graded at -15.1 runs below average over his whole career. That’s worse than Phil Coke, whose four-seamed fastball is graded out at -3 runs below average over his career according to Pitch F/X . That grade, though, was more due to the pitch being above average in his first three seasons. It hasn't been above average since 2010.
So what witchcraft is Boone Logan employing? Well, for starters, he hasn't thrown a two-seamed fastball over 20% of the time in a single season ever in his career. On top of that, opposing batters have only managed a wOBA of .328 against that pitch. .328 is kind of a little bit better than .459. Boone Logan also employs the use of a slider which has graded out at 13.6 runs above average over his career. He has used this pitch 40-50% of the time in his last two full seasons (36.9% on his career).
By comparison, Phil Coke has employed a curveball that has graded out at 13.4 runs above average. Opposing hitters have a career .186 wOBA against that pitch. Yet unlike Logan, who makes liberal use of his slider, Coke over his career has only thrown the pitch 17% of the time. This is notable, because unlike Logan, Phil Coke has not one, not two, but THREE viable off speed/ breaking pitches. Against his changeup, opponents only have a .265 wOBA. Against his Slider, opponents are managing a terrible .245 wOBA. Phil Coke has really good breaking pitches.
So here’s what I think can help fix Phil Coke. Firstly, drop the two-seamer. It’s an atrocious pitch. I needn't have to compare it to Miguel Cabrera any more additional times. Secondly, use more breaking pitches. They are very good pitches. I still believe Phil Coke can be a useful pitcher. Maybe there is a more underlying issue that I am ignorant of that is strickening Phil, but it appears to me on the surface that Coke’s biggest issue is pitch usage, and pitch usage is something that you can easily fix.