When Will the Bell Toll for Detroit Tigers’ Phil Coke?


The answer could be never. Do not buy the argument, made by Chris Iott of MLive and Steve Adams of Fangraphs that Coke’s replacement with another right-hander is inevitable. It isn’t.

Apr 22, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Phil Coke (40) pitches during the game against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park. Tigers won 8-6. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The big idea is that Phil Coke has clearly been the worst reliever in the Tigers ‘pen and that the Tigers have a few good options to add righties to the bullpen coming (relatively) soon in Joel Hanrahan, Corey Knebel and Luke Putkonen. I wouldn’t read much into that. Putkonen may go from the DL to Toledo (that’s what I’m expecting), Knebel will probably be in for a slower progression through the minors than fans might like and the first guy to get the boot is probably Justin Miller rather than Phil Coke. What’s more, by the time Hanrahan is ready to make an entry we have no idea what new holes might have opened up in the Tigers bullpen due to injury, ineffectiveness, criminal proceedings, etc…

Phil Coke is in some ways a lucky man. Only a LOOGY, it would seem, could get a contract offer like he did after the season that he had. Few pitchers of any kind in any situation could hold a roster spot while getting knocked around like Coke has been knocked around. Coke is in a special place: the Tigers are a good enough team that they don’t need to have seven competent relievers. The Tigers ‘pen has thrown the 2nd fewest innings this season (behind the Reds). What’s more, Tigers games haven’t been especially close in late innings giving the Tigers ‘pen as a whole the 21st highest average “leverage” when they’re pitching. Though Coke hasn’t been used in exclusive garbage duty, the Tigers are able to bury him in the bottom half of the ‘pen leverage-wise (behind Nathan, Krol, Chamberlain and Albuquerque but above Evan Reed and Putkonen/Miller in the garbage role) and since the Tigers have fewer high leverage situations, their low-leverage guys are rarely needed in moderately high leverage situations. 5 of Coke’s 8 appearances have been in genuinely trivial situations with the only “recent” important spot being after Anibal Sanchez‘ torn callous debacle. He didn’t pitch at all in the 4-game Houston series, and nobody noticed. He’s safely buried, not hurting anyone.

Of course, that situation may not last. The Tigers offense may stop firing, or starters may stop going so deep into games and that may put more pressure on the Tigers ‘pen. If they need to count on a second lefty, Coke at the moment isn’t a guy that they can count on – but neither is anybody else. Lefties are hard to acquire via trade at any time, and doubly so early in the season. The Tigers have a vast stockpile of lefties accumulating in AAA, perhaps expecting that Coke wouldn’t be able to hold down the job (or perhaps that Krol wouldn’t…) but they have not been pitching well at all. Nate Robertson and Duane Below are back in the organization, but they aren’t doing enough to put any pressure to warrant a call – nor are Casey Crosby, Blaine Hardy and Kyle Lobstein. One of those guys is going to have to start both keeping his pitches in the zone and in the park (and Lobstein’s last two starts help) for there to be any risk whatsoever to Phil Coke’s job for the foreseeable future unless…

Maybe Dave Dombrowski decides to keep Robbie Ray on the 25… What exactly do the Tigers do if Ray has another solid start or two before Sanchez comes off the DL and forces him out? I get that the Tigers would prefer to keep Ray starting games for developmental reasons, but that didn’t stop them from using Smyly out of the bullpen for all of the 2013 season. Smyly has certainly pitched well enough to deserve to hold onto that rotation spot, and he has more of a track record behind him, so maybe they’d be inclined to use Ray in that 2013 Smyly role and let him “pay his dues” for a while before handing him a rotation spot in 2015. That could be the biggest threat that Phil Coke faces, forcing him to ultimately prove that he can pitch a clean inning every now and then to keep his job.