Joe Knows: Coke fizzles out in Game 4, dooming Tigers in World Series
After each World Series game, Joe Sheehan will offer his quick-take analysis on a key moment or decision that shaped the outcome of the game and, potetially, the Series. For more from Joe, check out his newsletter and follow him on Twitter.
For the second time in three seasons, the San Francisco Giants are baseball's champions. With a core of homegrown talent similar to the one that won in 2010, and the same type of low-investment supporting players general manager Brian Sabean has had success acquiring, the Giants did one better than they did two years ago, naming that tune in just four notes -- four wins in four games over the Tigers.
The last one was the best game of the Series, featuring three lead changes -- the only ones of the Series -- and free baseball. It was in that extra frame that Tigers manager Jim Leyland made his final decision of the year, a fateful one. After using Phil Coke to face two lefties in the ninth inning, Leyland left Coke in to start the 10th with a lefty batter in Brandon Crawford due up second. Coke allowed a scratch single to Ryan Theriot, which allowed Giants manager Bruce Bochy to leave in Crawford to bunt. Crawford sacrificed to bring Angel Pagan to the plate. San Francisco, at this point, had no lefthanded batters scheduled for the next five hitters -- two switch-hitters and three righties lay ahead of Coke.This might be a good time to mention that in 115 plate appearances in 2012, Phil Coke allowed righthanded batters to hit .396/.446/.604 against him. There's some luck baked into those numbers -- no one is really so bad as to allow a .474 batting average on balls in play -- but the main ingredient is a bowl of can't-get-righties-out. An attempt to make Coke a starter in 2011 foundered in no small part because righthanded hitters hit .314 with a .375 OBP against him.
His usage pattern reflected his limited skill; more than half of Coke's appearances saw him pitch less than an inning, and he faced two or fewer batters in 20 of 66 outings. Down the stretch, he was Leyland's LOOGY, facing two or fewer batters in 10 of his last 14 appearances. Coke's ability to get lefties out was why he was on the mound in the Tigers' first ninth-inning save situation after Jose Valverde blew up, when he retired Raul Ibanez to end Game 3 of the ALCS. Getting Ibanez didn't mean Coke had closer mentality, or that he had suddenly acquired an entirely different skill set; it meant he threw with his left hand, and Ibanez can't handle guys who do that. It was a matchups play.When Coke started the 10th inning on Sunday night, he had struck out all seven of the men he'd faced in the World Series, and perhaps that influenced Leyland's thinking. But five of those men had been lefthanded batters, and the other two were Hunter Pence -- completely lost at the plate, more mascot than threat -- and non-regular Hector Sanchez. Theriot's single should have been a reminder of the weaknesses within Coke, but if Leyland had doubts, he didn't express them with a slow walk to the mound. He left Coke in to face Angel Pagan, which was a marginal decision; Pagan's platoon split warrants turning him around to the right side, but Coke's split far exceeds his. Coke came up with a strikeout, then up came Marco Scutaro.
It was at this point that the choice was clear; while Scutaro's short stroke and solid approach make him a hitter without a platoon split, Coke remained vulnerable to righty batters and Leyland had two good righties available to him in Joaquin Benoit and Al Alburquerque. Scutaro's at-bat was the important one, so overworrying the possibility of turning around the switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval shouldn't have come into play. You don't win by making Sandoval bat righthanded; you win by making him bat in the 11th. Benoit should have been in the game to pitch to Pagan, and he absolutely should have been in to face Scutaro.
Leyland let the season get away from him by using a lefty specialist to face righthanded batters with the season on the line and good righthanded pitchers available to him, with nothing to be gained by doing so. It was the first egregious managerial mistake of the World Series, and when Scutaro delivered the RBI single that gave the Giants a 4-3 lead they preserved in the bottom of the 10th, it was the last.