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Bartolo Colon and the longevity of pitchers

By: Charlie Wright

At 43 years old, Bartolo Colon is still going strong as he's continued to re-invent himself as a hurler.

At 43 years old, Bartolo Colon is still going strong as he’s continued to re-invent himself as a hurler.

It was a mid-July evening at Fenway Park in 1998. The Wright family was in Boston visiting an aunt, and came to the ballpark to see the first-place Cleveland Indians take on the Red Sox. Recently-acquired flamethrower Pedro Martinez toed the rubber for the home team, opposed by a young right-hander named Bartolo Colon. Martinez dominated in a complete-game shutout, but Colon matched him with eight innings of one-run ball, his only blemish being a Midre Cummings solo homer around the Pesky pole in the fifth inning.

Retrospectively, it’s hard to imagine that Colon would have a longer career than Martinez. The former is in the midst of his 19th year in the majors, one more than the latter. Colon continues to defy father time, and remains a productive starter despite being 43 years old. Martinez had a lengthy stay in professional baseball, but was a shell of himself after age 33, struggling mightily in his final four seasons (22-16, 4.58 ERA).

Velocity was a major part of both these pitchers’ games during their dominant years. Each featured a mid-90s fastball and fearlessly went after hitters. But velocity declines with age and injuries, and led to Martinez’ difficulties during his last years. His once-devastating change-up was neutralized by a declining fastball, and he simply became more hittable. Colon sits around 90 mph these days, yet he can still get major league hitters out. For some reason, he has remained an effective pitcher as his pitch arsenal declines.

Changing the Approach

In three-plus seasons following his 40th birthday, Colon has compiled a 50-33 record and a 3.60 ERA. In 2013 he was an All-Star and finished sixth in AL Cy Young award voting. His three shutouts that season were a career high. Colon has become a fixture in the New York Mets rotation, with his style and age a stark contrast to their stable of young, hard-throwing arms. He took on a relief role in the postseason last year, allowing three runs across 8.2 innings and earning a victory in the NLCS series against the Chicago Cubs. The wily veteran is 3-1 with a 2.82 ERA thus far in 2016, at age 43.

Colon is far from the only former ace who has had success well into their twilight years. Players like Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens were effective in their late thirties and early forties, but they were still able to throw hard late in their careers. Johnson struck out 290 hitters at age 40, and Ryan threw his seventh no-hitter at age 44. Then there are guys like R.A. Dickey and Gaylord Perry who remained successful at an advanced age because of a particular pitch which required less strain on the body. Dickey’s knuckleball and Perry’s spitball are minimal-effort offerings, which limits the strain on the body and allows for extended success.

Colon’s sustained success can be directly attributed to adapting to a deteriorating skillset. He no longer challenges hitters in the middle of the strike zone. Instead, he nibbles at corners and gets by with guile and a mix of speeds. He utilizes a two-seam, tailing fastball that rides in on righties and darts away from lefties. Colon pitches to contact and limits walks, trading in strikeouts for groundballs and pop-ups. In essence, he’s become an entirely different pitcher.

By the Numbers

The changes are evident in his walk rates and strikeout rates from has early days with Cleveland to the last four seasons with New York and the Oakland Athletics. Colon is striking out fewer hitters these days, but has also cut down his walks to roughly two fewer per nine innings. This switch in control speaks to Colon pitching with a different intent. He is not wasting pitches to set up a strikeout, and is instead inviting hitters to make contact. The graph below depicts Colon’s strikeout and walk rates, the blue dots representing his first four full seasons in the majors (1998-2001) and the red dots representing his most recent four full seasons in the majors (2012-2015).

k9 BB9

These numbers suggest Colon is staying around the strike zone and generating fewer swings and misses. Because he is allowing more balls in play, this fact would be unsettling if Colon was giving up harder contact. But, his contact percentages have stayed consistent for most of his career. Contact percentages are somewhat new statistics, and are based on an algorithm that uses hang time, landing spot and type of batted ball to determine the kind of contact (soft, medium, hard). It’s very useful to judge a pitcher’s effectiveness, as FanGraphs explained: “there’s no guarantee that a ball hit hard will go for a hit and a ball hit softly will be turned into an out, but it is more likely that a hard hit ball will fall for a hit than a soft hit ball, in general.” The graph below shows Colon’s hard contact percentages since FanGraphs began recording the stat in 2002. Notice that while there is a slight uptick in the later years, Colon’s numbers remain remarkably consistent.

hard contact

The 2007 season seems to be an outlier, and Colon was out of baseball in 2010. In general, Colon hovers around his career hard contact mark of 27.7 percent, a solid number considering the league average in 2015 was 28.8 percent. This suggests that hitters are having similar success at this stage of Colon’s career as they were during his hard-throwing days in the early 2000s. His pitching style changed but hitters are making good contact just as often.

In some regards, this new approach has improved Colon’s numbers. From 2012-2015, his home runs per nine innings was less than one on two separate occasions (2013 and 2014), a feat Colon had only accomplished twice in the previous thirteen seasons. His 2.65 ERA in 2013 is the best mark of his career, besting the 2.93 he put up in 2002 in a season split between Cleveland and Montreal. The 18 wins in 2013 was bested only once by Colon, in 2005 when he went on to win the AL Cy Young award.

A Significant Path

Injuries derailed Colon’s career from 2006-2009, and caused him to miss the entire 2010 season. He returned to the majors in 2011 with the New York Yankees, and so began his days as a soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact guy. After the aforementioned great season with Oakland in 2013, Colon signed a 2-year, $20MM contract with the Mets. He received $9MM in his age 41 season and $11MM in his age 42 season. This is an interesting precedent for a player of advanced age, and could shape the market for free agent pitchers with a similar career arc.

Many pitchers experience decreased abilities with age and accumulating injuries. But Colon represents a career option for big arms who just don’t have the fastball they once did. His resurgence was directly caused by a shift in mindset, which likely led to the ample commitment from the Mets. These days, $20MM normally wouldn’t be much of a contract, but for a pitcher over 40 years old? It was a major win for a player it this stage of his career.

Now let’s take a look at other pitchers who have the opportunity to make similar adjustments. Whether because of injuries or a general decline in effectiveness, several of today’s starters could adopt Colon’s methods. Specifically, players like Justin Verlander (age 33, free agent in 2020), Ubaldo Jimenez (age 32, free agent in 2018) and Adam Wainwright (age 34, free agent in 2019) have struggled recently, but have the pedigree and relative youth to make changes to remain effective late in their careers. This graph shows their declining velocities over the past seven seasons.

VJW

After five straight All-Star game appearances, Verlander finished with a 4.54 ERA in 2014. He made just 20 starts last season due to injuries, and his ERA sits at 5.40 this year. Jimenez finished third in NL Cy Young award voting in 2010, but has had mixed results since then. He pitched to a 3.30 ERA in 2013, but hasn’t had a sub-4.00 ERA since that season. Wainwright’s downward trend is more recent, as his return from a season-ending Achilles injury has not gone well. He’s been rocked in 2016 to the tune of a 6.30 ERA and a measly 5.18 SO/9, down from a 7.54 career average.

Each of these pitchers have been big strikeout guys in the past, but their skills seem to be declining. They are at the point in their careers where they can either choose to adjust to declining velocity and advancing age or have their careers end in their mid-30s. All three have had the kind of dominant stretches that suggest they are intelligent and tactful pitchers and don’t get by with good stuff alone. The question will be whether they will accept the reality of their bodies and choose to rely strictly on intelligence and tact. The next contract for these players likely depends on it.

Colon has had a varied career which has spanned three different decades. His journey offers a fascinating case study of a pitcher who remade himself and experienced great success despite advanced age. Colon is the antithesis of today’s young, electric arms and is thriving with a 90MPH fastball.

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Charlie Wright

Staff Writer
Charlie is a lifelong sports fan who grew up cheering for hometown teams. He developed a passion for writing in high school and chose to pursue the profession in college. Charlie followed most of his family to the University of Maryland, where he is pursuing a degree in journalism. He plans to enter the sports journalism field after graduation, hopefully covering a local team.

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