Age takes it’s toll on all of us and there are many signs that can point to decline. From changing arm angles to a loss of stuff, any number of things can be a portent of doom for an aging hurler. Bartolo Colon is in his 18th major league season. Despite declining stuff, he has remained productive in his later years and is off to a great start in what will be his age 42 season. Sean O’Neill takes us through how Bartolo Colon is beating age with the basics.
This is Bartolo Colon’s eighteenth season in Major League Baseball. He is the second oldest player in the league at 41 years old (only Latroy Hawkins is older), the heaviest to appear in 2015, the third heaviest listed pitcher in MLB history at 285 pounds, and subjectively speaking, he’s the least athletic looking player in baseball:
That being said, he is tied for the MLB lead in wins, leads the league in walk rate, and is in the top 25 in FIP (his current FIP is also the lowest of his eighteen year career).
To say no one saw this coming would be an understatement. Colon went unclaimed on waivers last August and then the Mets couldn’t find a trade partner for him at that time or after shopping him this offseason. Aside from his age and his rotund physique, it is not hard to understand the league-wide skepticism.
Colon has been consistently solid over the past four years, averaging 177 IP with an ERA and FIP both in the 3.50 range, he has done so at ages 38 to 41… not exactly prime years. He also preceded that with a four season stretch from 2006 to 2009 (he missed 2010 entirely due to right shoulder and elbow issues) where he averaged 64 IP a year with an ERA over 5.00 and a FIP just as bad. Given that only fifteen pitchers have produced at least 1 fWAR at age 42 or older in the past half century, expecting anything from Colon in 2015 was a risky bet. Yet here we are, with a highly effective Colon helping lead the Mets to first place in the NL East. So how has he done it?
Since the start of the 2012 season, Colon has used a fascinatingly simple approach. Against right handed batters, he uses three pitches almost exclusively: a sinker (64% of the time), a four seam fastball (21%), and a slider (13%). As one would expect with a pitch typically employed to generate ground balls, Colon keeps his sinker on the bottom half of the plate, with a little over 50% of those pitches in the strike zone. While he favors the outside with his sinker, he is not afraid to go inside with it, throwing it inside to batters over a quarter of the time.
He throws the four-seamer almost exclusively outside, particularly so far in 2015, while also keeping the ball in the zone about half the time. The slider? Well that’s just a thing of beauty, with over two-thirds of all pitches coming in low and away, and again he’s brought that to an even greater extreme in 2015:
Against lefties, Colon adds in a changeup (7%), but otherwise sticks with the sinker (48%), four-seam (38%), and slider (7%). Colon is even more extreme in pitching away from lefties than he is with righties, with both the sinker and four-seam focused on the outside.
However, he will still throw the sinker inside about a quarter of the time (compared to 10% or less with the four-seam). Colon uses both his change and slider in the same way against lefties, keeping them low and/or away. The command isn’t as pinpoint as it is against righties, as less than 30% of the pitches come in that low and away quadrant:
While Colon uses his slider against righties, and his slider and changeup against lefties, he varies the usage of his sinker and four seamer by the situation. When he’s behind in the count or has men on base, he throws half as many four-seamers as in neutral situations, instead relying on his sinker; when ahead, he does the reverse, cutting his sinker use and relying on the four-seamer. The reasoning seems fairly simple: the sinker is less frequently a ball and is put in play more (mostly on the ground), so Colon avoids the free pass and limits the damage on contact when he’s behind (or generates double plays when men are on), while the four-seamer generates triple the whiffs and almost double the popups. So he generates more easy outs and strikeouts when he’s ahead:
Overall, Colon’s approach is a sensible one for a pitcher with less than electric stuff. He keeps his pitches away from the inner part of the plate where hitters can do serious damage, while still covering enough of the zone to keep them guessing. He tailors his approach to the situation, going for whiffs when he’s ahead and groundballs when he’s behind, while still mixing his pitches enough to keep hitters from knowing what’s coming. Of course, that is all easier said than done. Colon has shown exceptional command in keeping his pitches exactly where they can do the most good (avoiding costly mistakes in the process), and most pitchers cannot boast the same type of precision.
While Colon will turn 42 towards the end of the month, he doesn’t seem in any imminent danger of collapse. His fastball velocity has slipped, but he’s still averaging a touch over 90 mph with the four-seamer, and the whiffs are still there. Maybe they will start to dry up if his velocity dips into the 80s, but there’s no sign of that yet. He is commanding his stuff exceptionally well, and hasn’t dealt with any injuries since 2011(although one cannot ignore the issues of his 2006-2009 seasons, his stem cell procedure in 2010, or his PED suspension in 2012). Still, with no red flags in over two full seasons, Colon seems to have some bullets left in that arm of his yet. And really, we should enjoy every second of it, because honestly… what’s not to love about this guy?