Bartolo Colon is the gift (and the GIF) that keeps on giving
Bartolo Colon made some history on Monday night, spinning eight shutout innings against the hapless Braves to secure the 220th win of his major league career. In addition to doing some of the usual Bartolo Things that have so endeared him to fans in recent years — namely, pound the strike zone relentlessly and swing the bat awkwardly—he moved past Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez and into second place on the all-time wins list among pitchers born in the Dominican Republic.
Colon scattered seven hits without a walk over his eight innings against an admittedly abysmal Atlanta team that fell to an MLB-worst 6-19 with the 4-1 loss. Colon lowered his ERA to 2.56 and raised his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 9.3 (28 strikeouts vs. three walks) in 31 2/3 innings.
Barring a Jamie Moyer-like continuation of his staying power, the majors' oldest player, who turns 43 on May 24th, isn't likely to catch Juan Marichal (243 wins) atop the Dominican wins list, and unless he suddenly recaptures his Cy Young form of 2005, he won't be joining Marichal or Martinez in Cooperstown. Colon (110 ERA+, 47.4 career WAR, 144th in JAWS among starting pitchers) doesn't have Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, but even if he did, his 2012 suspension for performance-enhancing drug use would be a significant impediment, since the BBWAA has yet to elect a single player with a positive test on his resumé.
What's remarkable about Colon is that he's achieved cult-hero status in his later years despite that suspension, which came while he was a member of the A's. Indeed, it's worth thinking about just what it is that makes Colon so compelling to some, this scribe included. What follows here is my own stab at parsing his popularity.
1. He's unique
Currently listed at 5'11", 285 pounds, Colon is nobody's idea of a matinee idol—his "Big Sexy nickname" is rather ironic—or a prototypical athlete. The annals of baseball history are full of beefy hurlers; the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index lists 34 pitchers who tipped the scales at 265 pounds or more and pitched at least 25 innings in the majors, all but one of whom pitched in this millennium. Yet other than Colon, former Twins reliever Jose Mijares is the only one listed at under six feet tall. Granted, listed heights and weights are prone to exaggeration, with the former often padded and the latter minimized. With that caveat, there's still been no pitcher shaped quite like him in baseball history.
Beyond having the staying power to reach the 190-inning level in each of the past two seasons—making him one of 13 pitchers to attain that plateau at least twice past his age-40 season—Colon can do things that most athletes of such dimensions can't. According to multiple reports, he can do the splits like a cheerleader, and he can kick his legs high over his head. Indeed, his powerful legs are the key to his longevity and his ability to repeat his delivery. Teammates, reporters and fans marvel at his athleticism, his strength and his workout regimen (which admittedly could potentially be linked to his PED past), one that includes throwing a silver-plated one-pound ball in the bullpen eight times prior to taking the mound.
Beyond that, the man can field his position with some serious pizzazz. Consider this unassisted pickoff of A.J. Pierzynski from last season:
Or this behind-the-back flip from last September:
Or this Willie Mays-like over-the-shoulder grab from April 9:
What other pitcher can do all of that and make it look so easy?
2. He's a fastball savant
In his younger days with the Indians, who signed him out of the Dominican Republic in 1993 and brought him to the majors in '97, Colon could graze triple digits with his fastball—I saw him do it in a one-hit, 13-strikeout bulldozing of the Yankees on Sept.19, 2000, while no-hitting the reigning and eventual World Series champions for 7 1/3 innings—and carry high-90s heat into the late innings. His curve and changeup rated as plus pitches when he was a prospect, but both pitches are now vestigial.
Indeed, Colon lives and dies with his fastballs. Since returning from his "wilderness years," which lasted from 2006 to '10 in the wake of a torn rotator cuff, he's used either his two-seamer or his four-seamer 84.6% of the time according to FanGraphs, the highest rate of any starter with at least 100 innings by 4.5 percentage points. Via that source, his average velocity during that span is a modest 89.7 mph, though a closer look at the PITCHf/x data on Brooks Baseball shows that his four-seamer averages around 91 mph (it was as high as 93.8 mph in 2011), his two-seamer about 88. Colon can survive on this diet because of the movement and location of his pitches; he has the command to throw to any quadrant of the strike zone, and the touch to vary his speeds a bit. Via teammate Matt Harvey in The Players Tribune from April 2015:
His pitches have a ton of movement—the ball runs quite a bit. He can go inside and he can go outside, to both righties and lefties. And he can go up and down. When he needs to go up in the zone, he’s got a little extra in the tank and he can burn you upstairs with a fastball.
Colon’s ability to locate his fastballs is almost mesmerizing, even to hitters. Via Baseball Savant, he’s notched 298 strikeouts looking since returning to the majors in 2011, the fourth-highest total behind only David Price (414), Clayton Kershaw (342) and Cliff Lee (302). Of those, 279 have been via two- or four-seamers, trailing only Price (298).
Colon's pitches are sometimes described as "bowling balls" for the way that they sink and the difficulty that batters have elevating them, though to be fair, his ground-ball and home-run rates are nothing special (40.7% and 1.0 per nine since joining the Mets before the 2014 season). What is special is his walk rate: He led the NL last year with just 1.1 passes per nine and has been below 1.5 per nine in each of the last four seasons. His 1.27 per nine since the start of 2012 is 0.01 behind Cliff Lee for the lead among all pitchers with at least 300 innings, and his 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in that span is seventh.
3. He's a medical marvel
On Oct. 10, 2005, after a regular season in which he won 21 games,Colon suffered a partially torn rotator cuff in the second inning of the Division Series against the Yankees. He had already done enough to win the AL Cy Young award that season, but over the next four years, he pitched just 257 major league innings with a 5.18 ERA, a frustrating period during which he bolted the Red Sox late in the 2008 season and underwent surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow later that fall. His woes continued to the point that he didn't pitch competitively at all in '10 save for a brief stint in the Dominican Winter League.
When he re-emerged with the Yankees in 2011 at the age of 37, improbably going 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA in 164 1/3 innings, it was in the wake of a controversial, cutting-edge medical procedure. Boca Raton orthopedic surgeon Joseph Purita injected fat and bone marrow stem cells from Colon into his elbow and shoulder to help repair ligament and rotator cuff damage. News of the surgery prompted an investigation by Major League Baseball, which was concerned that Colon might have received human growth hormone — banned by MLB but undetectable via its testing protocol, at least at the time—because Purita had advocated using HGH in such procedures in non-athletes. Purita denied giving Colon HGH, and MLB could not find grounds for discipline in the matter.
Still, it wasn't a tremendous surprise when Colon tested positive for using synthetic testosterone roughly 16 months after returning to the majors. In a statement, Colon apologized to fans and accepted responsibility for his actions. Since returning, he has avoided the boos and outcry that generally accompany such suspensions, and paradoxically, appears to have become even more popular. Perhaps that's because he doesn't fit the prototype of what we imagine a PED user should look like. Perhaps its because he hasn't taken home any awards or challenged records while using PEDs. Or perhaps it's a matter of outrage fatigue—the public only cares so much about drug suspensions—or because, as a player who speaks little English and rarely grants interviews, Colon remains an enigma to the general public and hasn’t said anything that might provoke a backlash.
Or perhaps, like the post-suspension A-Rod and the post-BALCO Jason Giambi, Colon has simply found the very small sweet spot that allows a formerly suspended player to win his way back into the hearts of at least some fans. For Rodriguez, that has largely meant only Yankees fans, as he still draws boos at every stop around the majors. Giambi, on the other hand, had incredible popularity with fans and teammates, and even today is regarded as a future manager. Colon may not be headed for a dugout job, post-retirement, but he has tapped into something along the lines of those two players.
4. He's a model teammate
Understandably, Colon's A's teammates expressed anger at the pitcher due to the timing of his suspension, which came as they were battling for an AL West title they would ultimately win, with Brandon McCarthy saying, "You can say someone's a good teammate, but it has to extend in all facets. Off the field, on the field and how you are in the clubhouse, no matter how look at it, we've now lost a really important part of our team to his actions."
Since signing a two-year, $20 million deal with the Mets in January 2014, Colon has by all accounts been a model teammate, leader and mentor to the Mets' stable of talented young pitchers. "All of us would love to play with him for the rest of our careers. He's meant that much to us," said Harvey last summer.
"He's taught me everything. He talks to me about baseball, how to be a major leaguer, everything… When I grow up, he's the person I want to be like," said Familia.
Colon could have easily departed New York to seek out more money or a guaranteed rotation spot this past winter, but instead he re-signed with the Mets for $7.25 million, knowing that as with the team's postseason run, he might be relegated to the bullpen at some point assuming Zack Wheeler makes a successful return from Tommy John surgery. Via Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Colon expressed his love for the Mets' fans, teammates and organization after making the decision, and he's been rewarded in kind. Thus far he's been an invaluable staple on a team that's gotten off to a 16-8 start and may well return to the postseason for the second year in a row, something the franchise has only done once before, in 1999 and 2000.
5. He's got that swing
For all of his prowess on the mound—which admittedly goes only so far given his modest 90 ERA+ and 2.6 WAR during his tenure with the Mets—Colon is hilariously awful with the bat. He's a career .089/.096/.098 hitter in 246 plate appearances, he has never drawn a walk while striking out 119 times, and he has just two extra-base hits, both doubles. In the spring of 2015, Mets hitting coach Kevin Long challenged Colon to double his '14 hit total, from two to four; Colon countered by setting three as a goal. He finished with eight.
Colon is so awkward at the plate that his at-bats have become must-see events due to the likelihood that he will lose his helmet:
Even the sight of a Colon batting practice home run gets reported, and his occasional loud foul ball is subject to StatCast dissection as well as sharing via MLB.com. Of course, just about everything Colon does is subject to sharing via social media. His size, shape and diverse mix of skills and weaknesses have made him one of the league's signature players in recent years. Arguably, he's as much the face of baseball as Mike Trout or Bryce Harper.
In that, perhaps there's a lesson: As fans, while we can marvel at spectacular feats of dominance and prowess from elite athletic specimens, we have soft spots for those we perceive as everyman types, even when their skills and their salaries hardly make them true every men. What's more, we love a good comeback story and a good redemption narrative, and Colon—whose past illustrates that he’s hardly a saint—offers those. Long may he continue to pound the strike zone.