The Rangers made a pretty bold move last year when they moved long-time reliever and sometimes closer C.J. Wilson into the rotation, and he rewarded them with 4.4 WAR season and four pretty good playoff starts. If you’re reading this site, then you’re well aware that even an average big league starter is more valuable than a great reliever if he’s giving you 180 IP, but teams have been slow to admit this. The Tigers are going to try to replicate the Rangers’ and Wilson’s success in 2011 by turning one of their own lefty relievers into a starter, that being Phil Coke.
There are similarities (besides the obvious: being left-handed, late-20’s at the time of the switch, yadda yadda yadda) and differences between the two, so let’s explore them before figuring out if Coke is rosterable in a standard league.
Both Wilson and Coke were starters in the minor leagues, through most of Double-A. Wilson made six starts for Texas as a rookie in 2005 but worked out of the bullpen from 2006 through 2009. Coke didn’t reach Double-A until his fifth pro season (Wilson made it in his second), and after 20 starts there the Yankees shifted him to the bullpen where he’s remained ever since. He’s never started a game at the big league level, and his longest outing since becoming a reliever is 2.2 IP back in September 2008.
As a big reliever reliever, Wilson has struck out 8.7 men per nine innings, peaking at 10.3 K/9 in 2009. His swinging strike rates were always above-average from 2006 through 2009, a solid (but not elite) 9.6% overall, and he got ahead in the count 0-1 just about 55% of the time. Coke, on the other hand, has struck out 7.49 men per nine in his big league career, posting essentially identical 7.35 and 7.38 K/9’s in his two full seasons. His swinging strike rate is quite good though, 12.1% overall. First pitch strikes came just as often as they did for Wilson, basically 55%.
The shift to the rotation saw Wilson’s strikeout rate dwindle down to 7.50 K/9, still better than Coke’s career mark as a reliever (barely). His swinging strike rate was well below average 6.7%.
Wilson has never been known for his command, unintentionally walking 3.98 batters per nine innings from ’06 through ’09. Coke is much more stingy with the free pass, posting a 2.59 uIBB/9 in his admittedly brief big league career. The Rangers’ hurler led the league with 93 unintentional walks last season, a 4.10 uIBB/9 right in line with what he did as a reliever.
You’ve got to hand it to Wilson for his consistency in this department, he’s posted a 49.2% groundball rate in three of the last five years (including 2010 as a starter), and one of the off years it was 49.3%. The lone exception was his stellar 2009 campaign that featured 55.4% grounders. Coke’s a definitely much more of a fly ball pitcher, getting a grounder just 36.6% of the time in his career (35.1% last season).
This is the big one. From 2006 through 2009, Wilson faced 1,013 batters and just 370 of them (36.5%) were left-handed. He’s never faced more lefties than righties in any season of his Major League career, regardless of role. So yeah, he was never really a traditionally LOOGY for an extended period of time. During that four-year span, lefties hit .174/.283/.269 off Wilson, who had a 9.68 K/9 and 3.62 uIBB/9 (3.46 FIP). Right-handers mustered a .268/.359/.412 batting line with an 8.45 K/9 and 4.22 uIBB/9 (4.46 FIP).
Last season as a starter, Wilson held lefties to .144/.224/.176 with 9.07 K/9 and 2.36 uIBB/9 (2.12 FIP). Against righties, it was .236/.333/.346 with 7.05 K/9 and 4.60 uIBB/9 (3.98 FIP). PitchFX says he threw his changeup a lot more in 2010 than he did in 2008 and 2009, completely expected with the move into the rotation. That helps explain the increased success and righties to a certain degree.
As for Coke, he’s filled a more traditional LOOGY role in his early career. About 50.4% of the batters he’s faced have been lefties, though last year was the first time he faced more right-handed batters (55.6%). He’s been just as good, if not better, than the relief version of Wilson against same-sided batters (.229/.274/.344, 9.00 K/9, 1.5 uIBB/9, 3.08 FIP), and he’s been flat out better against righties (.243/.335/.362, 7.43 K/9, 3.66 uIBB/9, 4.36 FIP). It’s a small sample, certainly, but it’s what we have for the moment.
Bless You Boys took a PitchFX look at Coke’s changeup last month, so I’ll leave that analysis to them. They conclude that it’s good enough to help him survive in the back of a rotation.
Putting It All Together
By the way of strikeouts and groundballs, Wilson leaves himself quite a bit more wiggle room than Coke. Coke’s impressive swinging strike rate but a definite plus, but his K/9 is already close enough to 7.00 and could very easily slip into the 6.00’s as a starter. The good news is that his walk rates are solid and he’ll absolutely benefit from a) Comerica Park, and b) never having to face the best RHB in the league since he’s on his team. The Tigers aren’t exactly loaded with starting pitchers at the moment, so Coke should get an extended chance to prove himself in that role.
I do like Coke as a sleeper, but I don’t think there’s enough there for him to match Wilson’s low-3.00’s ERA (and mid-3.00’s FIP) and more than respectable win total (15) from last season. He’ll have RP eligible, which provides a smidgen of roster spot flexibility, but he’s a guy to pass on in the draft and keep an eye on during April.
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