In the ALCS against the New York Yankees, Coke has found himself being used in the role formerly occupied by Jose Valverde, who saved 52 games in 52 chances between the regular season and the postseason in 2011. He entered the playoffs as the Tigers closer this year, but he fumbled the job away with ninth-inning meltdowns in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Oakland A's and Game 1 of the ALCS against the Yankees.
In place of Valverde, Coke has saved Games 2 and 3 of the ALCS, much to the pleasant surprise of a Tigers team that looked to be closer-less the minute Valverde trotted off the mound in Game 1. Coke has saved the day.
Shoot, as far as Tigers fans are concerned, Coke has basically saved the world. He's a hero.
But we have to ask: Has Coke actually solved Detroit's closer nightmare, or is he just the right guy in the right place at the right time?
Or, more to the point: Will this last?
I'll give it to you straight, Tigers fans. Don't get too attached to Coke as the team's closer. The success he's had closing games in the ALCS is more a product of circumstance rather than actual dominance. He most certainly is the right guy in the right place at the right time.
The Yankees are a perfect opponent for a guy like Coke. With Derek Jeter out of commission and Alex Rodriguez out of favor—also bat speed, mojo, etc.—Joe Girardi really has no choice but to stack his chips on lineups loaded with lefty hitters. And Coke, like all lefty pitchers, tends to do well when he faces lefty hitters.
Take Game 1, for example. Coke was called in to face the middle of the Yankees order, which featured Robinson Cano batting third, Mark Teixeira batting fourth and Raul Ibanez batting fifth. He thus got to face two lefties and a switch-hitter who hit .269 with a .333 OBP against lefties during the regular season. For Coke, it was a good trio to face.
Coke retired Cano and Teixeira in the seventh inning, and then Ibanez in the eighth inning before he was lifted for Joaquin Benoit. Leyland used Coke based on the matchups, and his decision worked out perfectly.
Leyland had more than just matchups on his mind when he left Coke in for two innings in Game 2 to close out a 3-0 lead. He was showing exactly the kind of faith in Coke that a manager would show in a shutdown closer, and he did it despite knowing that the matchups didn't necessarily favor Coke.
In his two innings of work in Game 2, Coke came face to face with a pair of right-handed hitters in the person of Russell Martin and A-Rod. Rodriguez got Coke for a single, but he was able to get Martin, Teixeira and the four lefties he faced out without any real trouble.
It was undoubtedly a terrific effort, but it must be kept in mind that the only pure right-handers Coke faced in Game 2 weren't much of a threat. A-Rod can really manage only singles at this point, and only against left-handed pitchers. Martin hit .211 with a .311 OBP in the regular season, and he hit only .226 against lefty pitching.
It was the same old story for Coke in Game 3. He came on in relief of Verlander and got to face three lefty hitters and Teixeira once again. He gave up singles to Teixeira and Cano, but he was able to get Ibanez swinging on a perfectly timed slider to end the game.
Punching out Ibanez was a huge accomplishment if you buy into his postseason heroics. But if one bears in mind that Ibanez hit just .197/.246/.246 against lefties this season, then Coke striking him out really wasn't such a huge deal. Such a result was to be expected given Ibanez's track record.
By my count, Coke has faced 14 batters in his three appearances in the ALCS against the Yankees, and nine of them have been lefty hitters. Only one of them managed to collect a hit, whereas two of the five righties (including Teixeira) managed to collect hits.
That's a .400 batting average. And while we're certainly talking about a small sample size, that .400 batting average by right-handed hitters against Coke in this series looks a lot like the .396 batting average that they compiled against Coke during the regular season.
None of this is meant to cheapen the work Coke has done against the Yankees. He's done exactly what Leyland has needed him to do, and he certainly can't be blamed for the fact that he's gotten favorable matchups.
But what's important here is not what's in the past. It's what's in the future. The Tigers are one win away from the World Series. And if they get there, they're going to find some not-so-favorable matchups for Coke waiting for them.
Per FanGraphs, the St. Louis Cardinals finished third in all of baseball with a .787 OPS against left-handed pitching during the regular season, and that should come as no real surprise. Just look at how their lineup is constructed.
In Game 2 of the NLCS, for example, Mike Matheny had Carlos Beltran batting second, Matt Holliday batting third, Allen Craig batting cleanup, Yadier Molina batting fifth and David Freese batting sixth.
What you have there is one switch-hitter and four above-average right-handed hitters all in a row. All five of them posted OPS's well over .800 against lefties during the regular season, so bringing in a lefty to face them in the ninth inning with the game on the line would be doing them a favor.
Their right-handed hitters, however, didn't do all that worse against lefty pitching than the Cardinals' right-handed hitters. Giants right-handed batters hit .288/.328/.444 against lefty pitchers. Cardinals righties hit .281/.342/.477 against left-handed pitchers.
Like the Cardinals, the Giants have some solid right-handed hitters who could do some damage against Coke. Switch-hitter Angel Pagan bats leadoff, and he's typically followed by a righty in Marco Scutaro, a switch-hitter in Pablo Sandoval and right-handed hitters in Buster Posey and Hunter Pence.
Once again, pitching Coke against these guys in the ninth inning with the game on the line would be doing them a favor. Bringing in Coke to face Posey would be particularly stupid, as he led all major league hitters with a 1.262 OPS against lefty pitchers during the regular season.
Should Phil Coke be the Tigers closer regardless of the matchups?
Assuming the Tigers do finish off the Yankees—and goodness knows they should—there will be a role for Coke to play in the World Series. He had a rocky regular season, but he's proven to Leyland that he can handle pressure innings in the postseason, particularly if he's due to face a bunch of left-handers.
But against the likes of the Cardinals or the Giants, Leyland must not be tempted to trust Coke's hot left arm more than he absolutely has to. Coke is a great weapon against the Yankees' lefty-heavy lineup, but he won't be such a great weapon against the righty-heavy lineups of the Cardinals and Giants.
If he needs to get three outs in the ninth inning of a World Series game against the heart of the opposing team's order, Leyland is better off going with Benoit, Octavio Dotel or Al Alburquerque rather than Coke. Instead of trusting that he's found the right guy to close games regardless of the circumstances, he needs to continue to play the matchups.
Though, I'd still recommend using Coke over Valverde if it's between the two of them.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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