Coke's performance proves scouts' prescience
Every baseball organization employs scouts to evaluate talent and share their evaluations with club personnel, and they fall into two distinct groups.
One group evaluates players who have not signed a professional baseball contract, while the other evaluates players after a pro deal has been signed.
I will concentrate on one of my experiences as a scout who followed professional players.
Generally speaking, regardless of a scout's role in the organization, each one's mission is the same: gather as much information about opposing players as possible. That includes skills (tools), strengths, weaknesses, athletic ability, body type, tendencies, physical descriptions and intangible, non-measurable factors -- such as attitude and "heart."
All the information gleaned by each scout is reported and recorded in a team database. Many clubs supplement their written reviews and evaluations with weekly or frequent conference calls.
During these conference calls, team executives and scouts discuss information about players. They also share team needs and plans with one another.
Often, a particular player observed by a scout stands out among his teammates. Or, perhaps, that player just happens to catch the eye of a particular scout.
When a scout gains an affinity for a certain player, it is not unusual for that scout to share his opinion and enthusiasm. To be honest, many times the scout tries to influence the team to take action and attempt to trade for that player or sign him in free agency.
I mention this because one particular player was often a point of discussion during some calls I participated in as a scout.
At the time, Phil Coke was a pitcher in the New York Yankees' organization. In 2007 and '08, I kept hearing his name with frequency.
During those years, Coke was pitching out of the bullpen but not having tremendous success. Regardless, scouts really liked his talent, potential and upside. That was five years ago. The advocacy for him was great enough for me to still remember the conversations.
Not only did I hear his name from my own colleagues, I heard it from opposing teams' scouts.
As it turns out, they were correct.
After some time working his way from the bullpen to the starting rotation and back to a relief role, Coke became a very capable, dependable Major League pitcher -- a winner.
It took some difficult moments for him to arrive at his current status as a top left-handed relief pitcher on a team participating in the World Series.
The then-Florida Marlins selected Coke, now 30, in the 49th round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft -- while he was a senior in high school. He did not sign a contract, however.
After attending Sonora (Calif.) High School, Coke played baseball at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, Calif.
The Yankees selected Coke in the 26th round of the 2002 Draft, and signed him to a contract. He pitched at every level of the Yankees' Minor League system from 2003 until he was traded in '08.
In his first year as a professional, Coke pitched in the Gulf Coast Rookie League. He threw only 12 innings, all in relief. He had a 3.75 ERA and 1.333 WHIP -- it wasn't a bad beginning.
After this solid start, his career seemed to stall.
It is significant to note that Coke did not pitch above High Class A in any of his first five seasons. In fact, he pitched between Staten Island (Short Season), Charleston (Low Class A), and Tampa (High Class A).
Then, at age 25, Coke was promoted from Tampa to Double-A Trenton, and then to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. His career was taking off.
Curiously, during the first five years of his career, Coke pitched as both a starter and a reliever. In that fifth year, however, things seemed to come together.
Call it confidence or call it experience, whatever the case, Coke had scouts buzzing in 2008 with a crisp 89-92-mph fastball, a slider that was a better overall pitch than his curveball, and a changeup that was a work in process.
Many scouts felt it would be foolish to seek Coke in a trade, since his stock was too high. The price to the Yankees in return players would be prohibitive.
Lo and behold, in late 2009, Coke was, indeed, traded. The Yankees made a blockbuster deal. It was complicated -- involving three teams -- and it has helped each of those clubs ever since.
Along with Coke, the Yankees traded outfielder Austin Jackson to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Curtis Granderson. The Tigers also sent pitcher Edwin Jackson to the Arizona Diamondbacks. But, there was more. The Yankees also sent pitcher Ian Kennedy to the D-backs, while Arizona sent pitchers Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit. Whew!
That trade put Coke on the map.
Coke started his tenure in Detroit as a reliever, before moving to the rotation in 2011. Now, he is back in the 'pen and pitching better than ever. In this year's postseason, Coke has stepped up and closed games. He has used basically two-seam and four-seam fastballs at 94 and 95 mph, a revived curveball and an occasional changeup.
Physically, Coke is an imposing figure on the mound. He appears bigger than his listed 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. He appears fearless.
While it isn't likely he will return to the starting rotation anytime soon, a more consistent and confident Coke is now thriving in his high-pressure role with the Tigers.
The scouts got it right.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.