Sometimes, by no fault of your own, you just aren’t cut out for a new job. Such is the case for Tigers reliever-turned-starter Phil Coke.
Coke is a great guy and a decent pitcher — there is no debating that. He was an important part of a Yankees team that won a championship in 2009 and a Tigers team which contended most of last summer. His playful antics and cheerful demeanor no doubt keep the clubhouse loose throughout the dog days of summer.
It just so happens that both of those years, Coke was pitching from his rightful place; the bullpen. A place where personality is demanded, not frowned upon. A place where a surgeon’s focus is not always a prerequisite for success.
So, it was shocking but still not unexpected when Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski decided to try and jam (another) square peg into a round hole by putting the playful Coke in the starting rotation to open 2011. What’s even more puzzling is how Coke has been able to keep his spot in the rotation, despite being horribly inconsistent and appearing overmatched as a starter. He just doesn’t have the proper mindset for the job.
The Tigers have been getting relatively consistent starts from every other pitcher in their staff. Justin Verlander is flat-out dominant. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have gone through their ups and downs and will continue to do so, yet they still notch wins and provide quality starts most of the time when called upon. Even Brad Penny has performed admirably in the rotation thus far.
The same cannot be said for Coke, who struggled with his control again in a 5-4 loss to the Colorado Rockies Saturday night. That game, like many of Coke’s previous starts, was winnable. A consistent outing from Coke would have given the Tigers a chance to score enough runs to emerge victorious.
Instead, like most of Coke’s other starts, he battled control problems, gave up just a few too many runs and was in trouble far too often for a starter to be considered effective. Many of Coke’s pitches that become outs are even hit hard. It’s a wonder his ERA is not yet north of 5, but it is becoming more of a matter of when, and not if that will happen.
There is a point that is worth restating: The A.L. Central is winnable this season, with the Indians coming down to earth and no teams outside the Tigers asserting enough dominance to overtake the standings just yet. The Twins and White Sox have suddenly gotten hot, so the Tigers will need to keep their foot on the gas to stay ahead.
In a hotly-contested race, why would the Tigers allow themselves to keep a winning streak-stopper in the rotation? It seems that fans can pencil in a Coke start as an automatic loss. The only thing consistent about Coke’s starts? Losing. Coke is either the unluckiest starting pitcher in baseball with regard to run support since Harvey Haddix, or he’s just not good. His 1-7 record, expanding ERA and bloated walk totals do little to support his case as merely unlucky.
The Tigers will need to make the smart move and eventually remove Coke from the rotation before his starts begin to really cost the team. They could bring Andrew Oliver back and give him another chance to pitch from Coke’s spot, where he performed decently before. Then, they should add “starting pitcher” to the shopping list for the July trade deadline. No drastic move needs to be made because the top three horses have been good. However, somebody more capable of handling a starter’s role should be brought in should the Tigers be serious about winning the division.
Start thinking of some names. It should be a middle-to-low cost veteran starter. A guy who’s been there before with the mental capacity to start. The kind of guy the Tigers can count on to give the team a consistent chance to win every time he takes the mound. In other words, the anti-Coke.
Say it’s September. A must-win game against the White Sox, Twins or Indians looms to keep a winning streak alive and keep pace in the division. It just so happens Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello have already pitched.
Would you trust Phil Coke with the start in a pennant race?
Hopefully, that question never needs to be answered.