Phil Coke seems all set to join the Tigers starting rotation this spring, but does he “have what it takes” to be a successful starter? I’m not sure anyone can know that answer for sure, but we can look at how Coke attacks hitters to get an idea of what he’ll need to do in order to find that success.
We can use pitch selection data (available on FanGraphs) to chart out what mix of pitches Coke uses in each count. You may remember my post from October in which I did this for the Tigers 2010 starting rotation. These types charts are generally sorted by count from high run expectancy to low, which also generally follows high fastball percentage to low.
Here’s the pitch selection chart for Coke’s career: (click on the image for a larger version)
The 2010 pitcher that Coke seems to follow the closest is Jeremy Bonderman. Coke is a little bit more willing to throw the changeup than Bonderman ever was, but at the same time, he’s less willing to stray from the fastball when he’s behind in the count.
The vast majority of pitchers stick to the fastball in hitter’s counts, but we didn’t see any of the starters in 2010 lean on the heater quite as much as Coke appears to. He never drops below 80% with the fastball usage at any point when he’s behind. This will be a recipe for disaster if he doesn’t get in the habit of throwing fist pitch strikes.
For his career, Coke has thrown a first pitch strike 54% of the time. Compare that to 60% for Justin Verlander, 60% for Max Scherzer, 56% for Rick Porcello, 58% for Bonderman, and 59% from Armando Galarraga. It’s easy to see that this could truly cause some problems.
If Phil Coke doesn’t mix up his pitches a little more than he did as a reliever when he was behind in the count, and if he doesn’t throw more first pitch strikes, he’s going to allow the opposition to sit on fastball’s far too often. You can get away with this more often as a LOOGY, but not as a starting pitcher when you have to face a more even mix of left handed and right handed hitters.
For the Phil Coke experiment to succeed, he’s going to need to work ahead in the count where he’s historically been much more effective in keeping hitters off balance.