Yankees relief pitcher Phil Coke was left pinching himself on Sunday night, hoping to awake from an early season nightmare.
After allowing three hits and two runs in just one-third of an inning pitched, Coke’s current ERA has ballooned to 13.50.
More importantly, his failures represented the Yankees first blown save of 2009.
One of the true “darlings” of the Yankee bullpen, Coke earned the respect and trust of manager Joe Girardi following a sterling 2008 rookie campaign.
In his first Major League season, he went 1-0 with a 0.61 ERA in 12 September appearances.
After throwing nearly 136 innings of minor league baseball as a starting pitcher, Coke was moved to the bullpen to attempt to stimulate a late run at the AL Wildcard.
Coke was nothing short of dominating, and consistently reached 94-96 MPH on the radar gun. The ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes simply elevated his worth.
While his control has remained strong in his sophomore season, his velocity has experienced a noticeable drop-off.
The Yankees originally told Coke to prepare to be a starting pitcher in 2009, potentially competing throughout spring training for the team’s fifth starter role.
Upon acquiring both C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett in free agency, the plans were quickly revised. Coke was now being thrust back into the Yankees late-inning bullpen mix.
Part of the problem lies in his offseason preparation.
This does not at all discount Coke’s work ethic or dedication to his craft, but instead highlights the limitations that his new role placed on his initial arm strength.
By entering the season as a reliever, Coke was unable to build up power and lasting stamina in his pitching shoulder.
In the minor leagues, he was consistently throwing six to seven innings per game. This allowed him to regularly approach 100 pitches.
Coke could then make a seamless transition into the Yankee bullpen, as his previously mentioned control allowed him to jog onto the mound throwing strikes.
Due to his increased and established arm strength from his innings as a starter, Coke could now let loose for an inning instead of conserving energy and velocity.
The same does not hold true in 2009, as Coke has been generally clocked between 88-92 MPH.
It is likely that Coke will gradually regain his velocity as time wears on, but there should be concerns in the season’s initial months.
Coke earned an important role in this year’s Yankee bullpen, but he may have to regain Girardi’s trust in order to find himself on the mound in a meaningful eighth inning again.
The Yankees have always been high on Coke.
I just hope that they do not suffer a painful relapse before he can figure out his problems.