44-Year-Old Bartolo Colon Helping Lead Shock Contender Toward Playoffs

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 28, 2017

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 25: Bartolo Colon #40 of the Minnesota Twins waves as he exits the game after being relieved in the seventh inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on August 25, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Bartolo Colon's adventures in 20 years as a major league pitcher include being an All-Star and a Cy Young winner, pitching in the World Series, hitting a home run heard 'round the world and starring in all your favorite GIFs.

His latest adventure? Helping to resurrect one of Major League Baseball's most woebegone franchises.

Seemingly on their way to yet another empty season not too long ago, the Minnesota Twins are now one of the hottest teams around. Their 17-10 August has pushed their overall record to 67-63. If the season ended today, the American League's second wild-card spot would be theirs.

While it's not all thanks to Colon, the 44-year-old/ageless wonder has played his usual part of the reliable innings-eater well. He's put up a 3.21 ERA and been the winning pitcher in four of his five August starts.

Along the way have been assorted mini-adventures. On August 4, he became the oldest hurler to pitch a complete game since 2010. On August 9, he became the oldest pitcher to log seven scoreless innings since 1994. On August 20, he became only the 18th pitcher to defeat all 30 MLB teams.

"To be able to beat all 30 teams in baseball, you have to be around quite a while. You also have to be pretty darn good," Twins catcher Chris Gimenez said, according to MLB.com's Shane Jackson.

If a time traveler were to jump forward from several weeks ago to now, he/she would struggle to make sense of what are essentially the Bizarro World versions of the Twins' and Colon's previous realities.

The Twins were already veering off a road to October when they plucked Colon off the scrap heap with a minor league deal in early July. A 14-15 June had knocked them out of first place in the AL Central. A 10-15 July would knock them to the fringe of the AL playoff picture.

Come non-waiver trade deadline day on July 31, out the door went a top starter (Jaime Garcia) and a top reliever (Brandon Kintzler). Like that, the Twins resigned themselves to a seventh straight season without playoff baseball.

Want more Twins? Get the new B/R app to track Colon and the rest of the team all season.

Initially, Colon didn't do much to help matters. He sputtered with a 5.87 ERA in his first three outings as a Twin. He told ESPN.com's Marly Rivera that he even considered retiring after flopping in his Minnesota debut July 18.

At that point, who could blame him?

He didn't need the money. Including the $12.5 million salary the Atlanta Braves swallowed following his disastrous tenure with the team (8.14 ERA in 13 starts), Colon already boasted over $115 million in career earnings to that point.

He didn't need any more regular-season accolades either. And while he could keep pitching for another shot at the World Series after finally pitching in one with the New York Mets in 2015, the Twins were going nowhere about as fast as the Braves had been.

In some way or another, all the signs were saying the same thing: Time to hang 'em up.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

There's little evidence Colon has since found the Fountain of Youth or regenerated, Doctor Who-style, into a better, more youthful version of himself. He's still middle-aged. He still has the physique of late-career Orson Welles. His once-blazing fastball has dwindled to an average of 87.4 miles per hour.

Yet it's not too surprising that the veteran has turned things around.

Despite being many years past his prime, Colon didn't have much trouble navigating major league lineups between 2011 and 2016. He averaged over six innings per start while compiling a 3.63 ERA. His low-velocity fastballs accounted for 80 to 90 percent of his pitches each year. Instant death for most pitchers, but he made it work by mixing and matching movements with pinpoint command.

Colon didn't change his style in Atlanta, but the Twins did notice that something was off with his execution.

"I wouldn't necessarily say his control and command have gone back. It's just that he's nibbling a little bit more," chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said, per Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com.

Colon wasn't one to nibble before. With a 49.6 Zone percentage between 2011 and 2015, according to FanGraphs, he threw pitches in the strike zone at a higher rate than everyone except Cliff Lee and Phil Hughes.

But that habit started taking a turn for the worse last year and, fortunately for the Twins, is now making a comeback in the nick of time. Via FanGraphs, here's a helpful chart:

Colon is back to a "Here It Is, Hit It" style of pitching. His walk rate has improved accordingly, going from 2.9 batters per nine innings with the Braves to 1.8 batters per nine innings with the Twins. Although his strikeout rate has dropped from 6.0 per nine to 4.6 per nine, that's fine by him.

"My speed is not there anymore, so it makes sense that I don't strike out as many hitters as I used to. I'd much rather get an easy out than throw three strikes," he said last Friday, per to Phil Miller of the Star Tribune. "If they come, they come, but if they don't, that’s fine too."

Easy outs on contact weren't there for Colon in Atlanta, where he had an ugly .360 batting average on balls in play. They have been in Minnesota, where his BABIP has dropped to a more manageable .299.

Of particular importance has been Byron Buxton and the rest of the Twins outfield, which has helped do this to Colon's BABIP on fly balls and line drives:

This is a classic round peg, round hole scenario. This season is just the latest in which over half the batted balls off Colon have been in the air. Switching from Atlanta's outfield defense, ranked 26th in defensive runs saved, to Minnesota's outfield defense, tied for fifth in DRS, was bound to help.

It all doesn't amount to an especially sexy explanation for what's changed for Colon since he changed threads. But it should highlight how "Big Sexy" himself never strayed too far from his well-established and largely effective formula. The Twins took a worthwhile chance that has paid off.

For them, it could mean their first trip to the playoffs since 2010. For Colon himself, it means another chance at an elusive championship ring and could mean an invitation back for his 21st season as a major league pitcher in 2018.

At the rate he's going, it probably wouldn't even be his last.


Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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