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Phil Coke should not be the Tigers closer

Phil Coke's success against the Yankees during the 2012 postseason may have swayed some opinions toward using him in Detroit's closer role. Fight the urge. He'll succeed in the right situations, but

Jonathan Daniel

The Tigers are going closer by committee. That's what they say. In fact, manager Jim Leyland today told the media, "Any one of the seven guys (in the bullpen) could close a game."

As much as we respect that he has adopted a mantra subscribed to by pretty much anyone whose baseball writing primarily lives in the online world, the question remains whether Leyland will actually be able to follow through with those words. Evidence seems to the contrary. Last year's post-Valverde closer-by-committee was a committee of one: one Phil Coke, that is. His success there led many pundits and probably some baseball people to think that he would make a great solution to the Tigers' closer situation if anyone faltered in 2013. It would not be a stretch to believe Leyland could fall into that thought, too. That is evidence point one.

One could quibble about motive, of course, but a more unequivocal piece of evidence is opportunity. Three members of the Tigers' bullpen throw left-handed. Every team has one lefty in the pen, and many have two. But it seems to me few have three. This could be the case because the team wanted to keep Drew Smyly around the big league club rather than starting in Toledo. Coke was never in doubt. With struggles by closer-candidate Bruce Rondon, the Tigers were able to reward Darin Downs, who had an excellent spring following a reasonably-nice MLB debut in 2012.

They did, however, choose Downs over right-hander Luis Marte, who also has major-league experience and who also had a successful spring. Keeping Downs allows Leyland to push Coke into a closer role while still having someone around in earlier innings. (The assumption made here is that the Tigers will want to keep Smyly stretched out in long relief.)

That was a long introduction to say: Would Phil Coke make a good closer if the Tigers try to force it?

Anyone of a certain skill set should be able to close, we like to say. But Coke may not have the skill set to be successful for long. He is quite good at getting left-handers out, but he has shown repeatedly through his career that cannot be said of right-handers. Against the right lineups, Coke may be the perfect ninth inning choice. Against others, he may be a terrible pick. So long as Leyland uses him properly in the committee, Coke will look great. Just be cautious about going too far.

Phil Coke's splits, 2009-2012

Year PA vs. RH
K/BB vs. RH AVG vs RH OBP vs. RH SLG vs. RH PA vs. LH K/BB vs LH AVG vs LH OBP vs. LH SLG vs. LH

OPS difference*

2009 105
2.89 .227 .346 .432 123 6.40 .195 .218 .366 .194
2010 155 1.17 .276 .344 .358 124 4.00 .273 .344 .336 .032
2011 307 1.32 .314 .375 .431 167 2.40 .215 .289 .295 .222
2012 115 2.10 .396 .446 .604 130 3.75 .263 .313 .373 .365

Source: B-Ref

* Shows how much better Coke did against left-handed batters than right-handed batters.

A few things stand out in those numbers. Coke does a really great job against left-handed batters, though he slipped a bit across the board in 2012. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is in good position, he doesn't allow them to get on base often, and they're not able to hit for much power off him. Contrast that to how right-handed batters do. They could make a good living hitting off him with on base-percentages and slugging averages that high. What also stands out: The gap has only widened in each of Coke's three seasons in Detroit, and right-handed batters have put up better numbers in each year.

The final thing I see is rather confusing. Coke sees more right-handed batters than left-handed on a routine basis. You can pin that to his being a starter for part of the 2011 season. But even beyond that, Leyland allows Coke to pitch for entire innings and sometimes multiple innings despite the rather clear fact right-handers can take him to school. This may not be an issue when the games aren't closer, but it's asking for disaster in a close-and-late situation.

Which leads me to this conclusion: Coke would not make a good closer unless the lineup presented to him favored his strengths: that is, weaker right-handed batters and a number of lefties. Starting each inning with a clean slate would certainly help him earn saves -- as it does for most closers. Coke probably would not implode. He appears to have the right attitude for the job, too. But it's just not an ideal situation.

Don't exclude Coke from a closer-by-committee situation, but don't just put him out on the mound and forget about him, either. This is a player who needs his situations massaged a bit for best results.