The fascinating and unpredictable career of Bartolo Colon

Athletics right-hander Bartolo Colon was activated from the disabled list yesterday, and when he stepped onto the mound to face the Tigers, it was the 400th start of his career. This seems like an appropriate moment to take a look back at Colon’s time in the big leagues, examine why he’s been so successful the last couple of years, and speculate as to what he can provide to Oakland down the stretch.

First, let’s acknowledge something: what a career this guy has had. If any currently-active player has had a more interesting career than Bartolo Colon, I’m sure I don’t have any idea who it would be. It has been filled with zigs, and zags, and more plot twists than an airport paperback page-turner.

Colon’s breakthrough came at age 25, when he went 14-9 for Cleveland, with a 3.71 ERA, an adjusted ERA+ (basically, ERA adjusted for league and park; 100 is average) of 128, and 4.4 wins above replacement. The next three years, Colon was remarkably consistent, posting WARs between 4.4 and 4.8, with ERA+ numbers of 126, 127, 110. He made an All-Star team, finished fourth in the Cy Young Award balloting (in 1999, when he posted an 18-5 record), and was a workhorse who struck out a lot of batters, and walked a lot of them too.

In 2002, Colon was traded to Montreal in a memorable blockbuster (Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, and Grady Sizemore moved to Cleveland in the deal). When the dust settled at the end of the season, Colon had posted what would be the best year of his career: 20-8 (between the two leagues), with a 2.93 ERA, 147 ERA+, and 7.1 WAR.

During the offseason, Colon was traded to the White Sox. As a 30 year old, he was effective once again, then signed a lucrative free agent contract to join the Angels. Here, the story takes another interesting turn. In 2004, Colon suffered through the worst season of his career, to date. He did win 18 games, but his ERA (5.01) and fielding-independent pitching numbers (4.97 FIP, 4.57 xFIP) were the highest since his rookie season.

As will happen time and again, however, just when it appeared that Colon, on the wrong side of 30, was slipping, he proved everyone wrong. In 2005, Colon followed up his worst season with another good one, winning the AL Cy Young, while going 21-8 with a 3.48 ERA.

Unfortunately, during the 2005 postseason, Colon suffered a partially torn rotator cuff, and thus began his walk in the wilderness. Over the next five years, Colon started only 47 games, and when he missed the entire 2010 season, it appeared that the sometimes-brilliant career of Bartolo Colon had reached the final chapter.

Not so fast. At age 38, Colon returned to the big leagues with the Yankees, and was moderately effective over 26 starts (8-10, 4.00 ERA, 107 ERA+, 3.57 xFIP). He improved upon those numbers last year with the A’s, and has been even better this year: 14-5 with a 2.94 ERA.

How is Colon doing this, after turning 40 this May? Well, before we dig into how he has changed his approach on the mound, we need to mention a couple of external factors. In April 2010, Colon underwent what has been termed “a controversial procedure” in the Dominican Republic, in which fat and bone marrow stem cells were extracted from Colon, then injected back into his elbow and shoulder to help repair damage.

More controversially, Colon was suspended last August after testing positive for testosterone, and he served a 50-game suspension. Plenty of digital ink has been spilled on this topic, and I won’t add to it here.

More interesting to me is the way Colon has completely altered the way he pitches since returning from his year away from the game. In 2013, Colon has become one of the best control pitchers in the game. For example, he hasn’t hit a single batter all year, and Colon is walking just 1.46 batters per nine innings; that walk rate is the second-best in the American League (behind David Price). In the meantime, Colon strikes out only 4.84 batters per nine, the lowest strikeout rate for any qualified starter in the major leagues.

True to form, in his return to the mound yesterday afternoon, Colon allowed one run, struck out only one hitter, and didn’t issue a single base on balls in five innings.

These numbers are in stark contrast to the pre-injury Colon. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to believe this is the same guy who had a strikeout rate of 10.15 and a walk rate of 4.69 back in 2000. Colon can get away with this style because he simply pounds the zone, pitch after pitch, and almost exclusively with fastballs (he throws both a four-seamer and a two-seamer, both reaching the low-nineties on the radar gun). His slider and change are effective, as well, inducing more swings and misses than he gets with the fastball. Great command plus lots of strikes is a good combination.

Ultimately, it appears that, as his control has improved, Colon has taken to heart the central tenets of pitching well, as taught to kids all across the country (and the world, one presumes): work fast, throw strikes, change speeds.

So, what does Colon’s return mean for the Athletics? It couldn’t come at a better time. The A’s will get their All-Star starter back as they cling to a lead in the AL Wild Card race (though they certainly are well within striking distance of the first-place Rangers in the AL West). He’ll re-join a rotation that has mostly struggled this season. Colon and Jarrod Parker have been the only above-average starters for the A’s (though Sonny Gray has had his moments recently); Oakland’s starters overall are 24th in the majors in FIP and 27th in xFIP.

Whatever you think of Colon, you must concede that it has been a fun ride. Who knows what is next in store?

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  1. 87 Cards said...

    Under “fascinating” and “Bartolo Colon”, I quickly recall the night of Friday, June 28, 1998 when Colon, with the Indians, dueled the Astros’ Ricky Gutierrez to a 20-pitch strikeout in the 8th inning.

    Strike 0-1   Ball 3-2
    Strike 0-2   Foul 9 3-2
    Foul 1 0-2   Foul 10 3-2
    Ball 1-2     Foul 11 3-2
    Foul 2 1-2   Foul 12 3-2
    Ball 2-2     Foul 13 3-2
    Foul 3 2-2   Foul 14 3-2
    Foul 4 2-2   Strike, swinging, Strikeout
    Foul 5 2-2  
    Foul 6 2-2  
    Foul 7 2-2  
    Foul 8 2-2 

    Those 20 pitches were 18% of Colon’s 82 pitches; he went a full eight innings facing 28 Astros.  Various Internet sources call this the longest at-bat by pitch-count in the modern era. 

    I was watching on local TV (I live in Texas) and due to get the airport to the pick up a relative.  This was a big early-season series with both teams leading their divisions and the Astros having coming off a two-game skid in Colorado. 

    I was determined to watch the remainder of the Astros’ eighth inning on TV (Cleveland led 4-2) to see if Gutierrez (8th hitter) Brad Ausmus (9th after a double-switch) and Biggio could get a threat going before I departed.  Gutierrez’ AB ended up taking so long, I had to pick up the remainder from Milo Hamilton’s radio call in the car on the way to the airport.  After Colon K’d Gutierrez swinging,  he retired Ausmus and Biggio each on 5-3 groundouts.

    (Gee whiz note:  Another Astro, Kevin Bass in Houston on June 23, 1988, fouled off eleven straight in a nineteen-pitch at bat against the Phillies’ Steve Bedrosian ending in a flyball out to left-center. I was in the ‘Dome for that one, my first game after returning from two years of military service in the Philippines).

  2. fenderbelly said...

    Great info above, thanks for the comments. I remember the 38 strikes but didn’t know about the 20 pitch strike out.

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