It's fun to imagine baseball historians, 50 years from now, trying to make sense of the 2013 season of Bartolo Colon, who despite being 40 years old and perfectly round, is putting together arguably the best season of his 16-year career.
Monday night against Pittsburgh, Colon kept rolling — as a sphere is wont to do — with seven innings of one-run ball. The outing lowered Colon's ERA to 2.69, good for ninth in MLB.
With just one walk, his walks-per-nine ratio is now down to a microscopic 1.12 over 120 1/3 innings. That's second only to Adam Wainwright's preposterous 0.87 mark in all of baseball. All of this despite the fact Colon is striking out fewer than five batters per nine, the lowest mark in his career, and a far cry from the 10 strikeouts per nine he averaged as a 27-year-old ace-in-the-making for Cleveland in 2000. That and the whole being built like a brick house thing.
It's been a long, strange ride for Colon in the nearly two decades since he broke into the majors. In his first full MLB season in 1998, he made the All-Star team and won 14 games with a 3.71 ERA, tossing 204 innings for the Indians. He would stay in Cleveland until 2002, when the Indians and Expos pulled off a blockbuster deal that sent the roly-poly ace to Montreal for a trio of prospects: Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore. Colon was excellent for Montreal, with a 3.31 ERA in 117 innings, but going into his last year before free agency, he was moved by the cash-strapped Expos prior to the 2003 season to the Chicago White Sox for a package built around Orlando Hernandez.
From there, Colon signed a four-year, $51 million deal with the Angels, but a torn rotator cuff suffered in the 2005 postseason limited him to 155 2/3 innings over the last two years of that deal. Colon tried to rebuild his value on a one-year deal with the Red Sox in 2008, only to be limited by injuries to 39 innings before leaving the team in early September. A second stint with the White Sox followed, though Colon made it only 62 1/3 innings in that go-around before arm trouble again stopped him.
Colon spent all of 2010 sidelined with various arm problems, then resurfaced with the Yankees in 2011. Though no one expected much from Colon after years of injuries and middling performance, the veteran right-hander surprised everyone with 164 better-than-league-average innings for New York. The reason behind his success: A controversial stem-cell procedure for his shoulder in March 2010. Though the doctor who performed the procedure admitted to using human growth hormone in other surgeries, he denied using it on Colon. An MLB investigation turned up nothing, and so Colon moved on to Oakland with a one-year, $2 million deal.
Colon finally ran into trouble with MLB in August 2012, when he was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for synthetic testosterone. He was a valuable mid-rotation starter for the A's until then, with a 3.43 ERA in 152 1/3 innings. Nonetheless, Oakland brought him back for 2013, and he's been lights out for most of the season. Going into Monday, his 140 ERA+ was his best mark since 2002, when he compiled a 147 ERA+ between Cleveland and Montreal.
How has Colon done it? By using a pair of fastballs, a four-seamer and a two-seamer. His four-seamer averages 93 mph, humping up to 95 as needed, and he throws it mostly when he's ahead in the count. His sinker is his set-up pitch, thrown at virtually any point in the count. He also has a slider for right-handers and a changeup for lefties to keep them off-balance.
Impressively, for a man who rarely walks hitters, Colon works out of the strike zone frequently, trying to get hitters to chase and avoiding hard contact in the zone. So far, that's worked; his home-run-to-flyball percentage is a career-low 6.2, and his groundball rate is a near-career-best 45 percent. In fact, he's been baseball's best at getting hitters to reach for pitches, with 83 percent of contact against him happening outside the strike zone. Add that to his low walk rate, and you have a pitcher who, even when he does give up hard contact, rarely does so with runners on base.