The Most Amazing Bartolo Colón Fact

Bartolo Colon has impeccable control. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Bartolo Colon has impeccable control. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Let’s step in the time machine and head back to July 18, 2007.

A lot of things are different in July 2007. Transformers is in theaters. The top song worldwide is “Umbrella.” Three days in the future, the final Harry Potter book will be released. Eight Democrats and eleven Republicans are campaigning to replace George W. Bush. Tomorrow night, AMC will air the very first episode of Mad Men.

In the world of baseball, Craig Biggio has just reached 3,000 hits, and Barry Bonds is weeks away from the career home run record. But that’s not why we got in the time machine. We’re here for the night of July 18 and the struggling 2005 Cy Young Award winner, Bartolo Colón.

On that Wednesday, Colón faced the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, for that was still their name. And in the fourth inning, Bartolo walked two batters in a row. First B.J. (now Melvin Jr.) Upton worked a full count before drawing ball four. Then Carlos Peña walked on four pitches. The next batter was Delmon Young, who singled on a 3-1 count.

Since that moment, Colón has thrown over 1,070 innings. He’s vanished from the league and returned again. Mad Men and Breaking Bad have started and finished. And in all that time, in literally the entire major-league career of Evan Longoria, Colón did not issue two walks in a row again until May 18, 2016.

Let that sink in for a moment. The last time Bartolo Colón had issued back-to-back walks, current Mets ace Noah Syndergaard was 14 years old.

There are many reasons that Bartolo “Big Sexy” Colón is a baseball legend. For one thing, he’s still pitching successfully just days away from his 43rd birthday. For another, he’s still pitching successfully with a body the shape of a bean bag chair. As Vin Scully recounted on air recently, Colón failed to collect a single one of the weight-loss incentive bonuses built into his contract—in the year 2001.

And then there’s the fact that Colón has become, quite simply, one of the most focused strike-throwers of all time. Since 2005, he ranks third-lowest for walks per nine innings (1.69, behind Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee), eighth-highest for pitches in the strike zone (51.8 percent), second-highest by that same statistic according to PITCHf/x (57.1 percent) and seventh-highest for first-pitch strikes (64.7 percent). In 2015, Colón allowed the fewest walks of any qualified starter: just 24, five of them intentional. Before the Nationals beat him on May 18, he had the fewest walks for this season, too. Over the years 2012-16, Colón’s 3.5 percent walk rate is tied with Lee for the best in baseball.

In his last 1,200 innings, Colón has thrown six wild pitches. Six. On average, since 2004—and this may be my favorite baseball stat of all time—he throws one wild pitch per year. The last year Colón threw more than two wild pitches was the first year David Ortiz played for the Boston Red Sox. His last wild pitch was on September 23. Of 2014.

But enough goofy trivia facts. We have this big fancy time machine sitting here, and we ought to use it. First we’ll dive straight into Colón’s remarkable no-consecutive-walk streak, starting when it all began: July 18, 2007. Then we’ll travel back to the present, to investigate the streak’s demise eight years and 10 months later.

Back-to-back walks in 2007

The 2007 campaign was not a good one for Big Sexy. Six days after this game, he will go on the disabled list with elbow soreness, his second DL stint of the season. In 2006, he had dealt with a partially torn rotator cuff, and by the time of his upcoming DL trip, a 6.72 ERA will warn that his career might not have much longer to go.

That’s the context of what happened on July 18. Brooks Baseball says this game was not logged on PITCHf/x, but we do have the pitch charts from a creaky old version of MLB Gameday:

bartolovmelvinupton

(Pay no attention to the graphic at the top showing runners on second and third; Gameday is displaying the last out of the ninth inning.)

At least to judge from this graphic, which may not be reliable, Colón tried to pitch Upton low and away and simply didn’t get a handful of calls that, on Gameday, appear to be at the knees and over the plate. Ball four, however, wasn’t close.

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Then Peña arrived at the plate. Upton was a speed threat—he had 22 steals that season—and Colón clearly was distracted. There are two throws to first mixed in with the four pitches, each pitch a ball to the outside edge. Peña was the cleanup hitter, and with Upton lurking, you have to wonder if this is an intentional unintentional walk.

bartolovcarlospena

Colón then surrendered a single to Young on a toss right down the pipe. It was a poor sequence, and Big Sexy would go on to record the loss.

But the streak had begun.

Eight years, ten months, zero days

I compiled data on every walk Colón issued between July 18, 2007 and May 18, 2016, which is 184 (17 intentional). Four times he was replaced after the walk, which yields 180 plate appearances in which Colón pitched after issuing a walk. In only 17 (9.2 percent) did the next batter reach a three-ball count. And Colón started the second batter 3-0 just five times (2.8 percent).

PLATE APPEARANCES AFTER BARTOLO COLÓN ISSUES WALK, 7/23/07-5/18/16
Total 2-0 count 3-0 count 3 balls BA OBP SLG
180 18 5 17 0.272 0.278 0.394

Let’s look at all five of the situations where Colón ran up a 3-0 count immediately following a walk, because you’re already this far, so you must like this kind of stuff. How close did he get to breaking the streak?

On June 7, 2009, as a member of the Chicago White Sox, Colón led off the game walking Ben Francisco then threw the ball away on a pickoff, sending Francisco to third. After that, Jamey Carroll saw three consecutive balls before an RBI groundout. (Ben Francisco had 14 steals in 21 tries that year.)

Take a look at the plot:

coloncarroll060709

Huh. Two of the three called balls are very literally borderline. They define borderline.

All four of Colón’s other near-misses with back-to-back walks came in 2014. (Pause a minute here to reflect on the five-year gap.) April 13 was one of his weakest outings, and it came against his old friends the Angels. In the first inning, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Raúl Ibañez hit back-to-back-to-back home runs. And, later on, we find this:

colonconger041314

Huh? Hank Conger was batting behind Ian Stewart, who led off the inning but certainly did not lead off the game. Stewart was not a stolen-base threat, either. When Conger did double, it was on a hit-and-run, but this is truly a glitch in the Bartolo Matrix.

June 2: Marlon Byrd was not a stolen-base threat on first base, but he drew a throw anyway. Colón missed with a steady diet of 85-86 mph two-seamers in this fashion:

colonruiz060214

Can’t argue there. Bartolo just plain missed.

On July 18, there wasn’t just a threat of the two Padres runners going: they actually went, on a double steal on a called strike one. So far, in all but one of these cases, Colón either has made a throw or should have.

colonnelson071814

Judging from what we saw earlier, the strike one call was generous. And it was not an ideal pitch for the catcher to make a throw on, either. Which brings us to the last of the near-misses, which came against the team that finally would end Colón’s no-consecutive-walk streak—an entire season and a half later.

colondesmond081314

Was there a stolen-base threat? No: the walker was Adam LaRoche. Was Colón trying to get Desmond to chase junk pitches? Yes. Was 2014 Ian Desmond a guy who liked chasing junk pitches? Yes. Did Desmond ground into a rally-killing double play? Yes.

In the final sum, we have three at-bats during which Colón was preoccupied with stealing threats and pickoff throws, including a successful double steal, one where he was trying to get an undisciplined hitter to chase, and one case where he lost a couple coin-flip calls. What’s amazing here is that he so severely limited opportunities to issue back-to-back walks. Ninety-one percent of at-bats following walks ended with two or fewer balls; 72 of 180 (40 percent) ended with two or fewer total pitches.

That last bit is not just trivia; it’s indicative of Colón’s approach. Minimize damage by throwing strikes and inducing weak contact. Let the hitter beat you, if he can. Often, he did not; the Desmond double play was the longest at-bat in this data set. And, as the .383 SLG implies, most post-walk hits against Colón were singles. Know who has a .383 SLG this year? Jonathan Villar.

Then it came to an end

It all came to a crashing halt on May 18, 2016, when Colón faced the Nationals. There wasn’t any suspense, either: Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper walked in tandem in the first inning and again in the third.

I watched the Mets broadcast of these four plate appearances. The 2016 version of Werth has an eye more advanced than his bat speed or timing. He watches a fastball miss up and away, watches a good pitch to hit, watches a breaking pitch slip away from him. In fact, Werth doesn’t swing during the entire plate appearance, taking a borderline ball four: in ump he trusts.

colonwerth1

Against Harper in the first inning, Colón goes inside and outside, including a changeup that drifts away from the plate. Ball four looked too high to the umpire, although that seems debatable: it’s at elbow height. You can’t help noticing Kevin Plawecki’s glove set up two feet lower as he rushes his arm up to catch the ball. Framing?

colonharper1

“Back-to-back walks,” the Mets announcers note. “That’s like a solar eclipse.” A good call, you would agree. Nice sense of the moment from them. Except that according to NASA, there have been 20 partial or full solar eclipses since Colón’s streak started back in July 2007. That’s incredible.

And then it happened again two innings later. Werth gets started off with a ball that nearly hits the dirt in the other box, but he then takes two fastballs at the knees for strikes. Plawecki sets up outside for the kill, but he’s not counting on Werth’s strategy of Never Swing At Anything, and he’s also not counting on Colón missing. They try the pitch again, with the same result. Then they try it a third time, with the same result. What do they say about the definition of insanity? For the second time, Werth does not swing.

Harper actually gets a called strike one, but he’s not swinging either, not until deeper in the count. By the way, that pattern from earlier has returned: both Harper appearances involve pickoff throws. But in this Harper PA, you can see a little bit of fear. Plawecki continually sets up inside and outside, not over the plate. Colón misses badly, often upstairs. Only when the count reaches 3-1 does Plawecki clearly ask for a strike, which Harper fouls off. Then on 3-2, Colón misses high and misses badly. It’s one of the most un-Bartolo-ish pitches of his 2012-2016 revival. It might be the Bryce Effect.

The streaks within the streak

Before the Nats came to town, the last regular-season game in which Colón issued multiple walks was Aug. 26, 2015, a span of 13 starts and three relief appearances. (He issued three in one game in the World Series, an outlier on his résumé that makes the five-walk game this year look even more outlandish. But strategies are much different in October.) But those aren’t even the most famous of the streaks within this decade-long strike-throwing frenzy.

In April 2012, Bartolo threw 38 consecutive strikes. We can’t be sure if that’s the major-league record, because historical record-keeping is spotty, but Yahoo reported it was the record since at least 1988. In 2015, he set a Mets team record by throwing 48 consecutive innings without issuing a walk.

After the 38 strikes in a row, FanGraphs commenter Jason wrote below Dave Cameron’s piece, “The more I think about this streak, the more it suggests to me that Bartolo Colon is not a very intelligent pitcher. If you watch the footage, Bartolo is not dominating the Angeles hitters. In fact he is getting hit quite hard…of course, this makes you wonder, what the hell was Bartolo doing out there?”

Well, first, Colón won that game. And second, with the added context of the four years that have passed since, we can answer the question. We know exactly what the hell Colón was doing out there.

Explaining the streak(s)

The short short version: Colón really, really hates issuing walks.

The less short version: It wasn’t always this way, you know. From 1997 to 2005, Colón was a mortal ball-and-strike thrower. But things have changed.

THE EVOLUTION OF BIG SEXY
Stat 1997-2005 2012-2016
BB/9  3.2  1.3
 BB% 8.3% 3.4%

The wily whale has rebuilt his approach. “Ah,” you might say, “but is it as simple as that? Is he just throwing more strikes?”

Actually, no. Look at the plate discipline numbers on his player page. Colón puts about 55 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, which, yeah, leads the majors. And, okay, he led the league in 2015, too. But he was staying in the strike zone just as much from 2002 through 2009. You know who changed? Everybody else, that’s who.

Last year Colón threw 51.1 percent of his pitches in the strike zone and led the league. This year he’s leading at 55 percent. He put 55.5 percent of pitches in the zone in 2005, too—and ranked 28th. He threw exactly the same percentage the year before that—and ranked 20th.

Are major league pitchers throwing fewer strikes? That’s not in the scope of this post. But, whether philosophies are changing, or whether the strike zone is changing, or whatever may be going on in the world around him, Colón has attacked the zone at the same rate.

Now go back to the plate discipline numbers, and you’ll see why the walk rate dropped: he’s getting far more batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Guess who led the league in O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) last year! No, it’s not Colón, don’t be silly; he was 28th. But in 2004, he was 60th.

Conclusions

A lot of commentators, even here in the FanGraphs family of blogs, have taken Colón for granted as an ageless freak getting by on his wits and his seemingly inexhaustible desire to throw baseballs. He’s become so reliable a strike-thrower since he returned to the league that we’ve all watched along without ever stopping to wonder how the heck a walking ice cream cone only one year younger than Shaquille O’Neal is still a reliably above-average major-league pitcher.

This article was built to suck you in by appealing to that “I love it” Bartolo madness. But the trivia facts and head-scratching feats all point to an underlying truth. Colón, post-rehabilitation, is not just an old guy throwing a ball. He has a formula for success and a philosophy that helps him achieve it: Throw strikes and induce swings at balls. Use breaking pitches sparingly but cunningly. Don’t waste pitches. Never be wild. Don’t walk anybody, and definitely don’t walk two guys.

That formula abandoned Colón for two innings on May 18. But we should pause now to notice just how good he has been at executing it. Harper is very much the exception that proves the rule.

It’s clearly not a formula for perfection; Big Sexy is not the Mets’ ace. This is also not a strategy that will forever halt the march of time, although if he can keep his command near this level, part of me hopes he stays in the league until his fastball velocity descends to the Jered Weaver realm. In combination with the stuff Colón still has, in his arm and in his brain, a genius at avoiding the walk is keeping him in the ranks of average major-league pitchers. And that might be the most amazing Bartolo Colón fact of all.

References & Resources


Brian Reinhart is the Dallas Observer's food critic. You may also know him from FanGraphs as the "Well-Beered Englishman." Follow him on Twitter @bgreinhart.
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Victor Kontay
Guest
Victor Kontay

Let’s not forget his suspension in the middle of it for using PEDs. But ageless freak makes a better story.

Paul Swydan
Member

Lots of people have been accused of or suspended for taking PEDs. Hardly any of them played until they were 43.

Wildcard09
Guest

Let alone be average – above average players until they’re 43.

Victor Kontay
Guest
Victor Kontay

I won’t deny his talent in his prime. He was great. But I see an abnormal tail to his career, during which he failed a ped test. I can’t prove causation, but I sure can see a correlation.

Fred Vincy
Guest

Oh, Victor, you’re no fun!

ballsteidhe
Guest
ballsteidhe

So you’re suggesting there’s a kind of PED out there that makes him locate his pitches better? Because that’s kinda the only thing where he’s been exceptional at. For years. There’s nothing really outlandish about a guy in his early 40s throwing a fastball at 88-90. If he were throwing 95+ out there, yeah, the PED accusations would probably be a lot more comprehensible. But he isn’t. A well-trained (yup, you heard that right) athlete who used to be able to throw upper-90s now going high-80s is not that special. Of course he’s still in the wrong for taking PEDs,… Read more »

Trace Juno
Guest

I have to agree with Victor, fun or not. He cheated. Period. If it it helped him throw strikes or not is irrelevant to me. He’s awesome in the sense that he’s still around throwing all those strikes at 43, but I could never root for the guy or enjoy watching him (well, there’s more than one reason for that but that’s another story…).

SDG
Guest
SDG

PEDs make you throw the ball harder. But Bartolo is dominating with pitches in the 80s.

No one has ever found a drug that gives you control or the ability to outthink the hitter.

Aaron
Guest
Aaron

Not to mention he has outlasted 2 of the 3 prospects he was traded for

Mike
Guest
Mike

different sport but Jaromir Jagr, at 44, just re-upped with the Florida Panthers

he may have even lead his team in scoring this year, if not close

Frank Jackson
Guest
Frank Jackson

When I think of Colon, I hearken back to a game I attended in Arlington some years ago. During pre-game stretching exercises, Colon performed a full split! For any player, such a feat would be impressive, but for someone built like Colon it was astonishing.

drewsylvania
Guest
drewsylvania

Actually, the most amazing thing is that he somehow can’t come up with child support payments for the mother of the two children that he refuses to acknowledge exist.

Cliff Blau
Guest

FWIW, Dick Hall threw only one wild pitch in his career, 1259 2/3 innings.

bucdaddy
Guest
bucdaddy

In 1966, his last season in baseball, Sandy Koufax pitched 323 innings, faced 1274 batters and didn’t hit any of them with a pitch. He threw seven wild pitches, but then, he was throwing like Sandy Koufax and not like Bartolo.

Not to take anything at all from Bartolo, he’s a baseball treasure.

SDG
Guest
SDG

But Koufax was 30. An arthritic 30, before sports medicine really took off, but still. Bartolo is 43.