Ever since his finger-pointing, glove-slamming, bench-clearing celebration to end the 2012 American League Championship Series, Phil Coke has been little more than a punch line to most Tigers fans. Both the numbers and the eye test show that Coke has been somewhere between horrible and whatever it was that 50 Cent did a couple weeks ago.
The 2014 season began in similar fashion. Coke gave up three runs in his first outing, recording just one out against the Baltimore Orioles. After an outing on May 3, his ERA had skyrocketed to 9.39. However, things have gotten better since then. He has a 3.68 ERA and 10 strikeouts to five walks in his last 13 appearances, lowering his season long ERA to 5.64. This is still one of the highest figures on the team, but it is still a full run better than one important member of the bullpen: closer Joe Nathan.
Despite a month-long stretch where Nathan did not allow a run in 10 appearances, his 6.84 ERA is the highest on the team among pitchers with at least 20 innings under their belt. Ditto his 5.28 FIP and 4.67 xFIP. In fact, if you look at the numbers, it is pretty clear: Phil Coke is better than Joe Nathan.
Looking deeper, the numbers suggest that Coke may continue to be the better pitcher going forward. Nathan's swinging strike percentage is higher, but Coke is getting a higher percentage of swings at pitches outside the strike zone. Coke's 56.6 percent ground ball rate is also encouraging, and his 19.7 percent line drive rate is a hair lower than Nathan's 21.6 percent.
Does this mean that Phil Coke should be the Tigers' closer? No, not by a long shot. However, there may be a new candidate for the garbage time innings that Coke has been relegated to for the past calendar year.