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

Wednesday April 9th, 2014

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 — 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.

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:

# Name IP FB%
1 Bartolo Colon 520.0 85.8%
2 Justin Masterson 626.0 79.8%
3 Gio Gonzalez 609.0 67.8%
4 Derek Holland 586.3 65.5%
5 Rick Porcello 542.0 64.7%
6 Ian Kennedy 622.7 63.3%
7 Joe Saunders 573.0 63.2%
8 Clayton Kershaw 703.7 62.6%
9 David Price 635.3 62.5%
10 Jordan Zimmermann 575.3 62.5%

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  Years AVG

1 Ross Detwiler 122 2007-2014 .063 .079 .063 .141
2 Lance Lynn 141 2011-2014 .063 .117 .063 .179
3 Mark Buehrle 131 2000-2013 .068 .076 .110 .186
4 Ross Ohlendorf 152 2007-2013 .073 .099 .095 .194
5 Charlie Morton 203 2008-2014 .085 .089 .107 .196
6 Bartolo Colon 109 1997-2014 .100 .108 .100 .208
7 Aaron Harang 622 2002-2014 .092 .100 .110 .210
8 Johnny Cueto 344 2008-2014 .095 .123 .099 .222
9 Tom Gorzelanny 250 2005-2013 .093 .133 .093 .225
10 Edinson Volquez 259 2005-2014 .096 .112 .119 .231
11 Trevor Cahill 141 2009-2014 .101 .108 .124 .232
12 Matt Garza 142 2006-2014 .097 .125 .113 .238
13 Ryan Dempster 688 1998-2013 .099 .118 .121 .239
14 Anibal Sanchez 283 2006-2013 .089 .147 .097 .244
15 Matt Belisle 106 2003-2014 .083 .125 .119 .244
16 Carlos Villanueva 114 2006-2014 .111 .137 .111 .248
17 Hiroki Kuroda 251 2008-2013 .102 .155 .107 .262
18 Mike Pelfrey 305 2006-2013 .098 .146 .117 .263
19 J.A. Happ 184 2007-2013 .092 .138 .125 .263
20 Joe Blanton 256 2004-2013 .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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