Starters shining after past experience in bullpen
Phil Coke tossed seven scoreless innings to earn his first win of the season for the Tigers on Thursday night vs. the A's. He scattered three hits and two walks and only needed 94 pitchers. Coke was pretty good.
Of course he was.
Coke is one of three Major League pitchers, along with St. Louis' Kyle McClellan and Texas' Alexi Ogando, who have transformed from 2010 bullpen guy to '11 glorified starter. "Small sample size" me all you want, but so far all three of these transitions have been early season success stories.
And perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.
Last year, we saw C.J. Wilson flourish as the test case in this type of transformation. Wilson won 15 games in his first full season starting, posting a 3.35 ERA in the Rangers' rotation after serving as a key cog in Texas' bullpen for five seasons.
The question is why is this happening?
Aren't relievers, ya know, relievers because they couldn't hack it as a starter somewhere down the line? If these guys were so talented all along, wouldn't they have been logging 200-plus innings from Day 1?
What's going on here?
Hypothesis No. 1: They're just doing what they've always been doing
I suppose there's a reason the Rangers, Tigers and Cardinals focused on these three specific pitchers when looking to creatively add a rotation arm from within. Namely, they were all really good in the bullpen, providing hope that their success would translate to the rotation. I know, this seems obvious, but bear with me.
Entering this season, St. Louis' McClellan had logged 217 2/3 innings over three Major League seasons. Last year, he was the Cardinals' most reliable bullpen arm, twirling a 2.27 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP over 75 1/3 innings.
So when St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright went down with a season-ending arm injury in Spring Training, leaving the Cardinals in a tizzy, McClellan seemed like a pretty tasty internal choice -- he did great in one-inning spurts, let's see what he can do for six innings. But, of course, the fact that they have a modern-day Yoda as the team's pitching coach in Dave Duncan certainly doesn't hurt things. The results speak for themselves so far, as McClellan is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his first two starts.
And then there's Ogando, who was lights-out in his maiden voyage through the bigs last season, registering a 1.30 ERA over 41 2/3 frames to go with a gaudy 39/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He can also chuck a baseball 99 mph, which definitely helps. It probably has something to do with why he has allowed nary an earned run over his first two 2011 starts.
Coke is bit of a different animal. He doesn't have Ogando's heater or even McClellan's consistency. Rather, the 28-year-old southpaw had been mostly a lefty specialist throughout his three-year career. But he was a pretty good one. Last year, Coke provided the Tigers with a 3.76 ERA over 64 2/3 innings, certainly a quality season for any reliever pitching in the American League. But that doesn't necessarily mean it should translate into success as a starter.
Hypothesis No. 2: Backup Quarterback Corollary
I'm fully aware that I write for a baseball website and that acknowledging the existence of other professional sports leagues is borderline taboo. I'm OK with this.
With that out of the way, I'd like to introduce the Backup Quarterback Corollary.
Sometimes a quarterback is so talented that he is ready to start during his rookie season and just take off from there. We've seen this with Peyton Manning, and more recently with Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco.
This is no different than incredibly talented pitchers who were clearly put on this earth to rocket a baseball in the first inning. From Roy Halladay to Felix Hernandez to Justin Verlander to Kyle Drabek, the examples are endless.
But then there are the quarterbacks who just need more time. They are the ones who get their seasoning in practice, build up their confidence under low-pressure situations and show glimpses of greater success but either aren't ready or simply don't have the opportunity yet to fully shine. We've seen this countless times in the NFL, from Steve Young to Jeff Garcia to Steve McNair and, of course, Tom Brady.
And maybe that's where Coke, Ogando, McClellan and Wilson come in. They've put in their reps, whether in the bullpen or in the Minors. They've each excelled in under-the-radar situations. They patiently waited their turns until opportunity knocked. And so far, they're banging down that door.
Dave Feldman is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.