April 9, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Kurt Mensching

Drew Smyly, Darin Downs deserve shot at bigger role in Tiger 'pen

Drew Smyly has a 1.13 WHIP in two appearances this season. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

The Tigers need a key out in the late innings. Who should they call on?

If the batter is right-handed, the answer's as easy as ABC: Anyone but Coke.

That would be Phil Coke, who excels at getting out left-handed hitters but who struggles against right-handers.

During the first week of the season, we saw why he would not make a good closer.

The Tigers suffered their first blown save in just their second game Wednesday when back-to-back batters hitting right handed — the latter the switch-hitting Eduardo Escobar — recorded hits. Escobar is a career .357 batter against lefty pitchers like Coke.

Sunday Coke faced two more right-handed batters — this time in the seventh inning. Results were no different: another single and double allowed.

Coke certainly will get a few right-handed batters out during the course of the season — maybe even a few in close-and-late situations. But the point is Coke should not be put in that position in the first place. It's nothing more than setting him up to fail.

Coke should properly be considered a lefty specialist — or LOOGY (lefty one-out guy) in baseball parlance. Given repeated opportunities to prove otherwise in his career, the 30-year-old Coke has done little to build a case.

His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average) against right-handed batters has steadily risen from .713 in 2009 with the Yankees to 1.050 in 2012 with the Tigers.

To put that into perspective, the highest Miguel Cabrera's OPS has ever been in a year is 1.042 in 2010.

Coke turns right-handed batters into All-Stars. Lefties, though, struggle against him. In 2011, they combined for a .584 OPS against Coke. In 2012, .685.

For perspective, think of how Danny Worth (.586) and Quintin Berry (.684) hit last year.

Who'd you rather have up to bat for the Tigers, Cabrera or Berry? Easy answer, right?

But that's the same advantage the Tigers offer their opponents by incorrectly using Coke.

"What you have to realize is you can't bring in a pitcher every time you have a different hitter," manager Jim Leyland said recently. "You're gonna run out of pitchers and be dead by May."

That may be true, but it's hard to see how setting up a player to fail is beneficial to the club either.

With no clear closer in place, wise use of the 'pen isn't just prudent, it's darn-near a requirement. That's where Leyland's misuse of Coke comes into play.

So what can be done against right-handers?

A pair of left-handers, Drew Smyly and Darin Downs, proved their rookie seasons were not flukes — and that they could get right-handed batters out.

Smyly did struggle in the cold weather of Opening Day in Minnesota. Yet he responded by getting all 12 Yankees he faced out on Friday. It didn't matter what side of the plate they stood beside.

Downs has given up just two walks in 4.1 innings of work this year — one of those to a right-hander. Both have nearly identical career splits against right-handed batters at about .752 — noticeably better than Coke's performance.

So use Coke in the specialist role. Use him when two or three tough left-handed batters are coming to the plate. There may be no better option in the bullpen in that situation.

In any other situation, Smyly or Downs need to be given a chance to prove what they can do. They've both shown they can be successful in the big leagues, and unlike Coke they do not need to be limited to a specialist role.

Giving away games out of stubbornness or a desire to lean on veterans is not in the Tigers' best interest.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

Drew Smyly has a 1.13 WHIP in two appearances this season. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)