Patrick Cooper was hoping for a promotion, but two was more than he could have asked for.
Cooper was afraid he might start his third season of minor league baseball where he finished his second. Instead, he has made two quick moves up the ladder of the Detroit Tigers’ farm system.
The 2007 Boyle County graduate has spent the last month with the Tigers’ Double-A farm team in Erie, Pa. It’s his third stint with the Erie Seawolves in a roller-coaster season that nearly took him back to low-A ball, where he spent the last 1 1/2 seasons, but instead has taken him back and forth between the Tigers’ high-A and Double-A teams.
He wasn’t happy with where the ride was headed as spring training wound down, but he is thrilled to be in Erie and doing his best to extend his stay in the Eastern League.
“If you’d told me in spring training I’d be in the rotation in Double-A that year, I probably would’ve called you a liar,” Cooper said this week from Akron, Ohio, where he made his fourth consecutive start for Erie on Thursday.
Entering that game, Cooper had pitched in six games in his latest stint with the Seawolves, starting four of them. In those games, he had gone 2-0 with a 2.19 earned-run average, striking out 17 batters and walking nine in 24 2/3 innings.
He started the season in Lakeland, Fla., but he pitched only one inning for the Tigers’ Florida State League team there before being called up to Erie for the first time. He was sent back to Lakeland after one appearance in Erie, then called up and sent down once more before his latest call-up to Erie in late May.
“It’s actually been kind of a crazy experience,” Cooper said. “All this stuff comes down from the top. Whenever a move is made in the major leagues, it all trickles down.”
Cooper said he thinks his first call-up was a by-product of an injury suffered by Tigers starter Doug Fister, who went to the disabled list after his first start of the season.
He said players in Double-A keep a much closer eye on injuries at the major-league level than those in lower leagues.
“Whenever I was in low-A last year at West Michigan, I didn’t watch any of that stuff,” he said. “They say the biggest jump you can make in pro ball is from high-A to Double-A, because most guys don’t make it out of A-ball. You’re getting pretty close (to the major leagues) when you get into Double-A and Triple-A. I know guys I’ve played with and guys I was friends with in spring training that are getting called up (to Detroit).”
Cooper said he tries to stay prepared to make a move at any time, though he hopes he’s pitching well enough to stay in Erie for a while. He was used as a long reliever and in one spot start before getting a temporary spot in the Seawolves’ rotation June 13 when another pitcher was injured.
“The first few times I kind of struggled. Double-A ball to A-ball is completely different. It’s a big jump,” he said. “I struggled the first two times (I was called up), but the third time it clicked pretty well.
“Now I think it could be semi-permanent. But you’ve always got to be on your toes. I’m prepared to get moved any day, or to be sent back to the bullpen or whatever.”
One reason Cooper is happy to be in Pennsylvania is because it is easier for his parents to see him pitch because Erie is only about eight hours away.
West Michigan wasn’t that far from home, either, but Cooper said he was not happy about the prospect of returning there for another season. He was promoted to West Michigan in the middle of the 2010 season, when the Tigers drafted him in the 14th round out of Bradley University, and he spent all of last season in the bullpen there.
After spending much of his offseason training at a Kansas City, Mo., baseball academy, he was again assigned to the West Michigan roster in spring training.
“I was freaking out. I didn’t want to go back. I was kind of hoping to be in Lakeland,” he said.
He was moved to the Lakeland roster on the last day of camp, which is also in Lakeland, and he called his host family in Michigan to tell them he wouldn’t be returning. Two days later, his manager called him into the office and pulled his chain.
“He said, ‘I’ve got some bad news. You’re going to Double-A,’” Cooper said.
Cooper appeared in five games in Lakeland, going 1-0 with a 2.53 ERA in 10 2/3 relief innings. In Erie, he entered Thursday’s game with a 2-0 record and a 4.36 ERA in 10 games, including four starts.
Opponents were hitting .266 off him in Erie, compared to .359 in Lakeland. He said he isn’t worried that his ERA is higher in Erie, because Eastern League parks are typically smaller than those in the Florida State League, where many teams play in parks used for major league exhibitions in spring training.
“Our ballpark is tiny,” he said. “The Eastern League is a little more difficult. It’s more of a hitters’ league.
“Me and one of my buddies were talking the other day, and he said it’s safe to say having around a 4 or under-4 ERA in the Eastern League is probably a decent goal, whereas in the Florida State League you probably want to be under 3.”
Cooper said he also quickly learned that hitters are better in Double-A, where many players are on their way to the majors.
“They’re disciplined at the plate. In A-ball, you feel like you get away with a lot of mistakes,” he said. “Up here, you leave one ball over the plate or you make one mistake, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll pay for it. But you’ve got to keep getting new challenges. It helps you get better.”
Cooper said he picked up on the adjustments he needed to make after his first couple of outings with Erie, as well as on the fact that his study habits needed to improve.
“I learned a lot more about evaluating hitters and studying the other team before the game and knowing what their weaknesses are and what their strengths are and how to pitch to them before you get out here,” he said.
He said he and his teammates were doing a great deal of studying during a game earlier this season when the Seawolves faced New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, who was making a rehab start with Trenton.
“I was definitely paying attention that day,” he said. “We actually beat him, though. He’s got good stuff, but our hitters could hit him.”