Phil Coke was kind of a rock star in Detroit after getting the final out of last year's ALCS versus the Yankees. Spiking his glove after getting Jayson Nix to fly out was one of the signature moments of the 2012 postseason and made Coke even more beloved among Tigers fans than he already was for his sense of humor and candor. (His Miguel Cabrera impersonation will live on forever.)
However, cult status only lasts so long when you can't get opposing hitters out. That's been a problem for the 31-year-old left-hander all year. As a result, the Tigers made what was one of the most overdue moves of this season after Tuesday's 6-3 loss to the Twins. Coke was put out of his misery and sent down to Triple-A Toledo.
"This is not punishment," Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters, including MLive's Chris Iott. "This guy, if you look at stuff for left-handed relievers, this guy throws 94, 95, good curveball and good changeup. It’s a matter of locating his pitches a little better."
Not throwing strikes and issuing walks will drive any manager crazy. Coke has never been known for pinpoint control, but he made the decision to demote him relatively easy by walking four batters per nine innings, the highest rate of his career. (Consider that he has 16 walks after walking 18 batters all of last season.)
In 43 appearances, Coke compiled a 5.00 ERA, allowing 38 hits in 36 innings. He was terrible against right-handed hitters, giving up a .273 batting average and .834 OPS. That reduced him to left-handed specialist duty. But Coke wasn't getting southpaws out either, allowing them to bat .290 with a .722 OPS.
Tuesday's game was blown open when Coke left his first pitch to Justin Morneau out over the plate. It was promptly slammed into the right-center gap for a two-run double, giving the Twins a 5-1 lead.
This is quite a fall for a reliever who emerged as Detroit's de facto closer during the postseason, thanks to Jose Valverde's complete ineffectiveness. This year, Coke was Leyland's choice for ninth-inning duties when the Tigers didn't really have anyone for the job and went with a closer-by-committee system. Yet Coke's ineffectiveness against right-handed batters made him unsuitable as a closer, something Leyland inexplicably dismissed until it could simply no longer be ignored.
Coke's consolation is that this will be a short stint in the minors. When major league rosters expand in September, the left-hander will be back with the Tigers. (Coke has one more year of arbitration eligibility, and is still throwing hard, so he'll likely be in Detroit's bullpen next year.) But if Coke doesn't show much improvement in Toledo or once he returns to Detroit, his place on the Tigers' playoff roster could be in jeopardy.