Last night, Bartolo Colon threw 38 consecutive strikes in the fifth through eighth innings of last night’s whitewash of the Los Angeles Angels of Not Hitting. Colon is now 3-1 with a 2.63 ERA and has walked just two batters in 27.1 innings.
This is the latest chapter in an unusual career where it often seems the perennially out-of-shape pitcher has thrown his last good game, only to see him rise up again like the villain in a bad horror film. This is how I summed up his 2011 season in this year’s Baseball Prospectus annual:
Colon was supposed to be a swing-man or spot starter, but for the first half of the season a pitcher who hadn't appeared in the majors since 2009 ended up being the Yankees' most important pitcher not named Sabathia. Whether the cause was the stem cell procedure he underwent or just rest, his fastball was back, bringing with it terrific late movement. He used it almost exclusively, tossing in only the occasional offspeed pitch. That all changed following a hamstring-inspired trip to the DL. Colon's second-half drop off (4.96 ERA, and 6.8 K/9 down from 7.9 in the first half) was significant enough that he did not start a postseason game though A.J. Burnett did. We shouldn't be surprised: Colon hadn't pitched more than 150 innings in a major league season since 2005, is about to turn 39, and is so heavy that if this were the 19th century he could keep the Nantucket fleet in oil for a year. These factors make him a risk going forward, but the 2011 Yankees wouldn’t have won without him.
The portly old man is in the right place given that Oakland (and its ballpark) has been very good to pitchers over the last few years. His command of his fastball is extraordinary—when his body allows him to throw it. The Yankees didn’t go out of their way to re-sign him because, for all of the reasons above, he was a bad risk, just as he was a bad risk when they acquired him last year. They figured they would count their winnings and leave the table.
Despite his excellent work so far, he was a bad risk for the A’s too. But he was inexpensive (just $2 million for one year), so that risk is only in a performance sense. Pitchers are unpredictable and Colon is a great example of why. It’s not his arm, it’s not his age and it’s not his command that is the problem, it's his body as a whole.
Look at his injury history: you see some elbow inflammation and an elbow strain (but no surgery), but he hasn’t had a shoulder problem since 2006 when he had to rehab a partially-torn rotator cuff. The rest are strains of various parts of his body that aren’t his arm.
In short, Colon could probably pitch forever if it wasn’t for Dunkin’ Donuts. DD ain’t going anywhere though and donuts aren’t getting any healthier, so Colon will continue to be a great pitcher when he’s fully functional—which is to say rarely.