Long ago but not so far away, a rock band of national prominence emerged from Bay City, Michigan. They were known as Question Mark and the Mysterians. Fast-forwarded to 2014, the name of this sixties’ band might be applied to the competitors for the two left-handed slots in the Detroit Tiger bullpen.
Phil Coke is the Question Mark.
Little-known Ian Krol and a host of other low profile lefties are the Mysterians.
Which is to say beginning March 31st, no one’s quite sure who’ll step out of the bullpen with a glove on his right hand when the Tigers need to slay a tough left-handed hitter.
Although the much maligned Tiger bullpen received a makeover this offseason, the loss of Drew Smyly to the starting rotation leaves the port side unanchored. And the fact that holdover Phil Coke and unproven Ian Krol are leading the charge of wrong-handers competing for what probably amounts to two jobs is understandably unsettling to many Tiger fans.
Are things really that bad?
Let’s take a look.
Phil Coke is a 31 year-old Californian who’s been pitching professionally since 2003. He came over from the New York Yankees in 2009 as part of the deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Bronx.
Coke pitched very well as a Yankee reliever in 2008-09, his first two years in the majors. Unfortunately his performance has been undistinguished in Detroit, where he has appeared in 237 games since 2010, mostly as a reliever (he had an unsuccessful trial as a starter in the first half of 2011).
In his Tiger career Coke has an ERA of 4.33 and a WHIP of 1.52. His K/9 ratio is 6.9 and he has a BB/9 rate of 3.6.
These are not comforting numbers for a relief pitcher whose first responsibility is to dispose of left-hand hitters. Not only has Coke failed to do that consistently, he has also been regularly torched by right-hand hitters (e.g., his WHIP against left-handers last year was 1.45, against righties, 1.92).
To be fair, Coke was at his best in the Tigers’ hour of need, the 2012 postseason, especially against his former team, the Yankees. Considering the big picture, though, he has been a disappointment and is rightfully under the microscope this spring. Though the Tigers somewhat surprisingly inked him to a $1.9 million contract in the offseason, the lion’s share of it is not guaranteed. If Coke fails to impress in the Grapefruit League this spring and the Tigers choose to part ways with him, they will owe him only a fraction of the full amount.
Consider it a distinct possibility.
Ian Krol leads the band of Mysterians, i.e., the collection of mostly under-the-radar southpaws interested in an open job or two in the Tiger pen. Aside from Krol, those names include Jose Alvarez, Casey Crosby, and Michigan native Duane Below.
The 22 year-old Krol was part of the three man parcel received from the Washington Nationals in the controversial Doug Fister trade. He made 32 bullpen appearances for the Nats last year, with an ERA of 3.95 and a WHIP of 1.31. Though based on a small sample, his WHIP against left-handers was 1.10 and 1.54 against right-handers.
Another way to look at Krol’s 2013 season is to aggregate his stats at Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors. Considering his tender age and the fact he’s still developing, the consolidation is instructive. When totalled, the results are flattering to Krol, as he pitched to an overall WHIP of 1.05 on the year. Additionally, his K/9 (9.2) and BB/9 (2.5) ratios were very strong.
Krol uses both a two and four-seam fastball, averaging about 93 mph. He throws fastballs about 75% of the time, while using a curveball and a change-up as offspeed pitches.
As a young left-hander who throws hard, Krol is one of baseball’s most cherished commodities. The main problem with his full body of work, though, is his performance prior to 2013 (mostly as a starting pitcher) was underwhelming. Nonetheless, his fine overall performance last year suggests he may be “finding himself” in a relief role and should his development continue, as it frequently does for young left-handers, he’ll become a welcome fixture in the Tiger pen for years.
The Tiger organization was obviously thinking along those lines when Krol was included in the unpopular deal for Fister, along with pitcher Robbie Ray and utility man Steve Lombardozzi. If Dave Dombrowski and his lieutenants were right about Krol (and more importantly, Ray), it will largely mute the persistent second-guessing which has emanated from both Tiger fans and the national baseball press in the wake of the transaction.
As the Tigers contemplate their Opening Day roster, most positions are solidified. The bullpen, though, continues to have question marks and mystery men, particularly from the left side. No doubt Dave Dombrowski will use the next month to evaluate his organizational alternatives: the veteran (Phil Coke), the new guy (Ian Krol), and a bevy of fringe candidates.
If at least two of these internal options bear fruit, the left side of the Tiger bullpen should be ready to make some noise and rock’n roll in 2014.
If not, though, Double D will need to pick up his telephone and start a dialogue with his fellow general managers. If he’s lost for words, all he has to do is remember the title of one of Question Mark and the Mysterians’ biggest hits.
I Need Somebody.