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The nine lives of Phil Coke

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It is said that a cat has nine lives, but those cats have got nothing on Phil Coke.

Leon Halip

Through Saturday’s game in Kansas City, Phil Coke has a season’s ERA of 9.39, and a WHIP of 2.09 -- that's base runners per inning. In fairness, he has only faced 38 batters in 7 2/3 innings, a mere 15 batters over the minimum. Some people now have the audacity to question why he keeps his job in the Tiger bullpen.

Saturday’s two run, three hit performance was just the latest in a series of head scratching performances by the Tigers’ longest serving relief pitcher. There was his last outing in Minnesota when he gave up two hits and two walks, taking a blown save in a 5-3 loss. Or the previous appearance, where he gave up three runs in 2/3 innings, but the Tigers hung on for the win. Or the double down the line in the tenth inning at Dodger Stadium that was botched by Rajai Davis as the Dodgers walked off with a victory. Or his first outing against Baltimore, where he gave up three runs in the ninth inning of a 7-6 Tigers victory.

Why is Coke still on the team, you ask? Coke has a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .400, so you just know that those ERA and WHIP rates are due to drop. He has a Fielding Independent Pitching (which incorporates BABIP) of 4.95, so there must be some bad defense -- in addition to bad luck -- driving those ugly numbers through the roof. Right?

Phil Coke is more than just struggling. His strikeouts are down, while his walks and hits are up. He has allowed an on-base percentage of .421 this season. Opponents are hitting .357/.400/.786/1.186 against his fastball. Even left-handers are batting .368/.400/.684/1.084 against him. Last year, they hit .284/.345/.416/.761.

But enough with the small samples. This is a pitcher who has been part of the Tigers since 2010. He has a much longer track record than just this year’s performance. If only he can get back to his previous form, he could be a real asset in the bullpen, right?

In the past four seasons in the Detroit bullpen, including this year, Coke has appeared in 153 games, posting an ERA of 4.53, and a WHIP of 1.60. Both are team highs for qualified pitchers in the Tigers' bullpen. In fact, he has had an ERA of at least 4.00 and a WHIP of at least 1.45 in each of those seasons. Remarkable consistency.

So, remind me again what form it is that Coke is hoping to regain? A look at PitchFX shows that batters have always hit Coke’s fastball hard. He has allowed batting averages of .284, .366, .471, .333, and now .357 when he throws his fastball, and he throws that far more than any other pitch. He’s within his ‘normal’ range.

If it were up to me, I would have sent Coke to the minors last year (as I wrote here) before he accrued five years of service time. If he is that key to the success of the team, and could not be trusted to get major league batters out, then he had some work to do. The Tigers actually did that, sending him to Toledo last August. He pitched six innings in Toledo, then inexplicably, he was recalled the minimum ten days later so that he would be eligible for the playoffs without having to replace another injured player. He was down and up so fast that he didn’t even burn an option.

Coke was thought to be a non-tender candidate in December since he stood to get almost $2 million through arbitration, but the Tigers signed him anyway despite his 5.40 ERA last season. He could have been released in Spring Training, either by mid March -- where they could have called it quits at a cost of one-sixth of his salary -- or before Opening Day, when the cost would be one quarter of that amount. But he’s still there, in the Tigers bullpen.

Each time Coke takes the mound, he leaves us wondering if it will be his last appearance in a Tigers uniform. It’s painful to watch, because he seems like such a likeable person, a good team mate with good character, and he is giving nothing but his best effort every time out, and in between outings.

No Tiger fan can forget the great glove slam, when Coke was on the mound, the famous Coke point into the air, as the Tigers swept the Yankees and advanced to the World Series in 2012. Nor will we forget the bullpen gates opening, Coke walking out, then sprinting to the mound, full of enthusiasm. Or sitting in the locker room after a tough outing, facing the music when it would be easy to spew a "no comment." Thanks for the memories, Phil. Those will be with us forever.

At this point, the Tigers will not be able to send Coke to the minor leagues unless he first clears waivers and then consents to be optioned, or outrighted off the roster and reassigned to a minor league club. The first part is easy, because no team would be willing to pick up his contract off the waiver wire and be responsible for the remainder of the season at a pro rated portion of his $1.9 million salary.

Whether Coke would agree to go to the minors, or whether the Tigers are willing to still try to get him back in form -- whatever that is -- is not known. But they should find out, and there’s no time like the present to do that. He is not much use to the team in his present form. We have reached the point where he struggles with a nine run lead.

Over the next few weeks the Tigers will call up Robbie Ray, and a relief pitcher will be cut from the major league roster.  Anibal Sanchez will then permanently return to the starting rotation. After that, Luke Putkonen, who was one of the most successful Tiger relievers against left-handed hitters last year, will come off the disabled list. There goes another reliever, or maybe there goes Luke, who does have an option remaining.

Finally, some time in June, Joel Hanrahan will be activated and another relief pitcher will be cut from the roster to make room for him. What are the chances that Phil Coke is still on the roster at that point?  What are the odds that he regains his form?  And what if he did?

It’s not like the Tigers have other great options for left-handed relief pitchers in the minor leagues. We went through the internal options here.  But there are right-handers, including those named above, who can get hitters out -- left-handers or right-handers -- better than Coke has been doing lately.

We have seen this scene before, and we know how it ends. We have seen it with Brandon Inge, Gary Sheffield, Nate Robertson, and more. We have seen it with players who were Tigers longer, and earned more money than Coke that had to be written off. It’s not pleasant, but it has to happen. Better sooner than later.