Some occurrences in baseball cannot be explained. That's why the You Can't Predict Ball Twitter account exists. But in this week's Pitching Report, we'll try to explain one of the most unlikely occurrences in the majors this year: Bartolo Colon's monster season.
Through 14 starts, Colon is 9-2 with a 2.89 ERA. He only has 52 strikeouts in 90.1 innings, but he has dominated with a 45.5 percent ground-ball rate and just 10 walks over the entire season. His .287 BABIP and 78.5 percent strand rate might appear the slightest bit lucky over the course of an entire season, but one certainly couldn't say that's lucky over just 90 innings. And his 3.25 FIP is about as good as could be expected, given that he hardly gets any strikeouts. In short, despite his low strikeout total, there's no reason to believe Colon has been fortunate this year.
Let's drill down a little further into his advanced numbers. Colon turned 40 last month, but his average fastball still sits a hair above 90 mph. Ever since he entered his mid-30s, he's relied on his fastball way more than most starters; even this year he's throwing it 84.6 percent of the time. However, his changeup has been arguably his most effective pitch, as Fangraphs ranks it as the second-best in the game this year, trailing only Justin Masterson. Yet that still doesn't tell the whole story.
Colon has always been susceptible to the long ball. According to Fangraphs, the average HR/FB rate for a pitcher is 9.5 percent. Since 2002, Colon has been in the double digits six times, and three other seasons -- including last year -- he was right at league average. This year, however, he has surrendered just seven homers, good for a 6.6 percent HR/FB rate that has him tied with Justin Verlander for 15th in the majors.
The question now is can Colon keep this up? He has been a low-walk guy for most of his career, especially his twilight years, in which he has shown dazzling command over his fastball and changeup. The freakishly low walk rate is for real. We should expect him to serve up a few more homers, but he certainly has benefited from the cavernous dimensions at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, where he has allowed just two of his seven homers. Still, the fact that he's clearly performing above his weight class (figuratively only) and doesn't strike anyone out makes him an ideal sell-high candidate. Owners should be aggressively shopping him now.
Starting pitcher barometer
• Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds -- Cueto didn't miss a beat in his return from his second DL stint, allowing one run in six innings and striking out three. He has made just seven starts this year because of his injury troubles, but he's 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. The big story here, though, is that he looked like he was 100 percent; that was a worry given that it was the second time this season he was forced to miss time. We know he can be one of the best pitchers in the game when healthy, and it looks like he's back to that standard now.
• Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians -- Ten starts and 65.1 innings into the season, it's time to take Kluber seriously. You might think this relatively unknown 27-year-old can't possibly keep this up, given that this is the first time he has had any real success in the majors. However, his 5-4 record and 3.58 ERA don't tell the whole story. His FIP is 3.15 and he's striking out nearly a batter per inning after his eight-strikeout effort against the Nationals on Sunday. What's more, he has walked just 12 batters on the season and is getting nearly 1.5 ground balls for every fly ball. His strikeout rate is a full 20 percentage points higher than his walk rate, one of the best spreads in the league. Kluber remains widely available, which is a mystery. He should be owned in all mixed leagues.
• Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants -- The window to potentially buy Cain low has likely slammed shut. Realistically, it never should have been open, but not every owner in fantasy leagues can afford to be patient. In his last two starts, Cain has allowed one run in 13.2 innings against the Pirates and Diamondbacks, two of the better teams in the National League. He has just seven strikeouts against five walks in that span, but the results are certainly welcome. Perhaps most importantly, after struggling with homers for the first six weeks of the season, Thursday marked his fifth-straight start without a home run. He's primed for a big turnaround the rest of the way.
• Tony Cingrani, Cincinnati Reds -- Unfortunately for Cingrani, Cueto's gain is his loss. Though he tossed a gem against the Cubs in a spot start last week, allowing two runs in seven innings and striking out seven, the return of Cincinnati's has relegated Cingrani to the bullpen. Not all his value is lost, though. With Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton both on the DL, Cingrani will serve as a primary setup man to Aroldis Chapman. If your league uses holds, Cingrani is definitely still worth owning. He could actually be a great asset in the bullpen for a team with World Series aspirations.
• Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers -- Ogando's rehab from a shoulder injury has proceeded in fits and starts, but unfortunately for the Rangers and his fantasy owners, it has been mostly fits. He had to shut down his throwing program recently, and just this week resumed throwing on flat ground. The team has already said it will not put him back on a mound until his shoulder is pain-free, and there's no telling when that will be. Once that time does come, they'll likely want him to throw a few bullpen sessions before going out on a rehab assignment. Translation: He's a long way away from rejoining the rotation. You should keep him if you can afford to stash him on your DL or bench, but if you can't, you shouldn't feel beholden to him.
What a relief
• Tom Wilhelmsen's troubles in the ninth have earned him a short break from closer duties. Oliver Perez picked up the first save for the Mariners in Wilhelmsen's stead, and it appears as if he and Carter Capps will share the role for the time being. Wilhelmsen will likely get another shot at the job after a few clean outings, but if you're chasing saves right now and can afford to make a move, go ahead and grab Perez or Capps.
• Down in Arizona, it's just a matter of time before J.J. Putz restores order at the end of the game. Heath Bell has allowed homers in each of his last two outings, while Putz is set to begin a rehab assignment. Once he gets back to the majors, chances are Kirk Gibson will get him back in there in the ninth.
• The Marlins have had one of the more interesting closer situations all year, but it appears Steve Cishek is putting an end to all that. He has four saves in his last five appearances, striking out five batters and not allowing a hit in that stretch. What was once touch-and-go is now settled. Cishek is the guy in the closer's chair for good for Miami.
• Finally, now that we're starting to get into trade season, we need to keep an eye on what's happening in Philadelphia. Jonathan Papelbon has been one of the better closers all year, and you have to figure he'll be a popular trade target with the Phillies 8.5 games out of the second wild-card spot. Papelbon will be a closer no matter where he lands, so his owners don't need to worry. Detroit will certainly be interested in acquiring the righty, so Jose Valverde owners might lose a closer in the not-too-distant future. The Rays could use help at the backend of the bullpen, but there's no way they'd ever take on Papelbon's contract. Should someone make a move for Papelbon, Mike Adams or Antonio Bastardo would take over as the closer in Philadelphia. If you can afford to start stashing speculative closers, both of these guys are worth adding. My money is on Adams taking over in the ninth.