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The Strike Zone

Bartolo Colon: Still good at pitching, still awful at hitting

Bartolo Colon got his first Mets win with seven shutout innings against Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP)Bartolo Colon got his first Mets win with seven shutout innings against Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP)

Bartolo Colon was in stellar form on Tuesday night. Pounding the strike zone with a barrage of two- and four-seam fastballs — 88 out of 101 pitches, according to BrooksBaseball.net — the rotund 40-year-old righty spun seven shutout innings against the Braves, holding them to six hits without walking a batter in the Mets' 4-0 win.

As with his debut for New York last week, Colon's strong work on the mound was nearly overshadowed by his ineptitude at the plate — a fitting diametric opposite on a night when the Braves honored Hank Aaron on the 40th anniversary of his record-breaking 715th home run. In his first plate appearance against Aaron Harang, with Ruben Tejada on first and nobody out in the top of the third, Colon bunted foul three straight times for a strikeout, and as you can see below, he showed off form that will never make it into a Tom Emanski video.

https://twitter.com/jessespector/status/453684718803111937/

Leading off the fifth for his second plate appearance, Colon struck out looking. Facing reliever Gus Schlosser for his third at-bat with nobody out and Tejada on first in the seventh inning, he finally got a bunt down, his first sacrifice since 2011. It was a big deal, as Tejada scored on Eric Young Jr.'s RBI single one batter later, turning a 2-0 lead into 3-0. Afterward, he was moved to show his teammates just what it took to dominate the Braves on both sides of the ball: "Guts."

(Hat-tip to @CespedesBBQ for that indelible image)

Colon's steady diet of fastballs is something to behold. In fact, no major league pitcher gets away with throwing them more often. Among those with at least 500 innings since he reemerged in the majors with the Yankees in 2011, Colon has thrown a combination of two- and four-seamers more than any other pitcher by a substantial margin. Via FanGraphs:

#NameIPFB%
1Bartolo Colon520.085.8%
2Justin Masterson626.079.8%
3Gio Gonzalez609.067.8%
4Derek Holland586.365.5%
5Rick Porcello542.064.7%
6Ian Kennedy622.763.3%
7Joe Saunders573.063.2%
8Clayton Kershaw703.762.6%
9David Price635.362.5%
10Jordan Zimmermann575.362.5%

Via FanGraphs's plate discipline leaderboard among the same set of pitchers, Colon ranks third in terms of percentage of pitches in the strike zone (49.4 percent); only Cliff Lee (54.3 percent) and R.A. Dickey (50.8 percent) are higher. He's fourth in first-pitch strike rate (65.6 percent) and dead last in swinging strike percentage (5.5 percent) but first in both contact percentage (88.1 percent) and contact percentage outside the zone (80.9 percent). It's a unique package, to be sure, but it's textbook: If you can locate your fastball with consistency, you can get ahead early and bend hitters to your will even if you don't blow them away.

Just as fun to ponder as how Colon gets the job done on the mound is where his lifetime .100/.108/.100 performance at the plate fits into recent history. That sorry showing, from 109 plate appearances worth of "work," isn't quite as bad as you'd think, but it's still in the garbage pile. Of the 45 hurlers with at least 100 plate appearances in the Designated Hitter Era (1973 onward), 36 have more PA without an extra-base hit, headed by Jim Deshaies with a whopping 440 PA; Zito is second with 418, and among active pitchers, Ubaldo Jimenez (323 PA), Joe Blanton (256 PA), Tom Gorzelanny (250 PA) and Tommy Hanson (225 PA) all have more than twice as many opportunities as Colon without anything beyond a single.

Meanwhile, Colon's .108 on-base percentage is the 24th-lowest among the 567 DH Era pitchers with at least 100 PA, but among those active, Mark Buehrle (.076 in 131 PA), Ross Detwiler (.079 in 122 PA), Hanson (.083 in 225 PA) and Charlie Morton (.089 in 203 PA) have him beat by a wide margin. His .208 OPS is the 29th lowest among those 567 pitchers and sixth-lowest among those active (MLB appearances in 2013 or 2014):

Rk Player PA YearsAVG

OBP SLG OPS
1Ross Detwiler1222007-2014.063.079.063.141
2Lance Lynn1412011-2014.063.117.063.179
3Mark Buehrle1312000-2013.068.076.110.186
4Ross Ohlendorf1522007-2013.073.099.095.194
5Charlie Morton2032008-2014.085.089.107.196
6Bartolo Colon1091997-2014.100.108.100.208
7Aaron Harang6222002-2014.092.100.110.210
8Johnny Cueto3442008-2014.095.123.099.222
9Tom Gorzelanny2502005-2013.093.133.093.225
10Edinson Volquez2592005-2014.096.112.119.231
11Trevor Cahill1412009-2014.101.108.124.232
12Matt Garza1422006-2014.097.125.113.238
13Ryan Dempster6881998-2013.099.118.121.239
14Anibal Sanchez2832006-2013.089.147.097.244
15Matt Belisle1062003-2014.083.125.119.244
16Carlos Villanueva1142006-2014.111.137.111.248
17Hiroki Kuroda2512008-2013.102.155.107.262
18Mike Pelfrey3052006-2013.098.146.117.263
19J.A. Happ1842007-2013.092.138.125.263
20Joe Blanton2562004-2013.108.156.108.264

If the presence of both Colon and Volquez on that list isn't definitive proof that performance-enhancing drugs don't always enhance your performance at the plate… I kid, I kid. Let's not open that can of worms today.

Oddly enough, Colon's opposite number from Tuesday night is just below (above?) him on the list. While holding the Mets to one run and two hits over six innings in his second strong start for Atlanta, Harang went 0-for-2 with a strikeout.

Nobody's penning paeans to Harang's offensive ineptitude this morning, however, because he simply doesn't capture the imagination of the baseball-watching public the way Colon has. From his status as a former Cy Young winner to his physical shape to his remarkable comeback from five years of arm-injury oblivion via a controversial stem cell transplant to his ability to pour fastballs into the strike zone with ease while offering little offspeed stuff — it's all about location, location, location — and in spite of his drug-related transgression, he's just Big Fun every time out.
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