Bartolo Colon has had surprising success this season in Oakland. (Photo credit)
Remember in Little League when your team would face a pipsqueak on the mound who threw only fastballs right over the plate, but for some reason your entire team had trouble getting on base? Each hitter after the next would continue to increase the ferocity of their swing, while they continued to hit easy pop ups or grounded out.
That pipsqueak pitcher plus another 200 pounds is essentially the Little League version of Bartolo Colon.
Colon may be the biggest anomaly in sports history. He tops out at 267 pounds at 5'11", he has the innate skill of looking completely uninterested in whatever he is doing at all times, and to top it off, he is 40-years-old. But, even with all of that, Colon is off to an 8-2 start with a 2.92 ERA.
But what makes Colon's season so special is that he has relied mostly on one pitch, the grandaddy of them all: the fastball. According to fangraphs.com, Colon has thrown 85.1 percent fastballs this season. His two other pitches are a changeup, which he has thrown 5.9 percent of the time, and a slider, which he has thrown 9 percent of the time.
To put this in context, Detroit Tigers hurler Justin Verlander has been throwing fastballs 55.1 percent each start this season. The figure of 85.1 percent is an astronomical numberr, as it is the highest percentage in the league. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn is second with a 77.3 percent rate. So, the question that arises is: how can a pitcher get by throwing a low 90's fastball the vast majority of the time against a league of hitters that salivate at the sight of a four-seamer?
Well, to answer that question, we will have to first enter the time travel machine. Many people forget, but Colon entered the league in 1997 with the Cleveland Indians looking like this (PHOTO). He was a hard throwing youngster who, on occasion, could hit 100 MPH. From 1998 to 2005, he was an extremely productive pitcher. He peaked from 2002 to 2005, winning the A.L. Cy Young award in 2005 with a 21-8 record and a 3.48 ERA with the Los Angeles Angels.
During this period, Colon was one of the best pitchers in the game and as his career went on, his fastball usage rate increased. From 2004 to 2005, there was a giant spike in his fastball use from 75.8 percent to 81.7 percent. 2005 was his best statistical season and after that season, his fastball rate only dropped below 80 once in 2007 when it fell to 79.6. 2007 also doubled as his worst statistical season, claiming a 6.34 ERA.
For Colon, there is definitely a correlation between a high fastball rate and success, especially in his later years. And although this season is not his highest fastball rate, which was in 2009 when he threw a fastball 90 percent of the time, he is having his best season to date in the last seven years. And this brings us back to the original question of: how does Colon do it?
First off, when we talk about the fastball only being one pitch in Colon's case, that is not exactly accurate. He throws a four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball, which are two distinctively different pitches. A four-seam fastball, as many know, is the traditional fastball that is straighter than a two-seam and therefore pitchers generally have more control over it.
A two-seam fastball, generally the slower pitch of the two, runs away from the pitcher so a right-hander like Colon will have a two-seam that runs in on a right-handed batter. Not only that, but Colon's four-seam fastball has an infinite amount of possibilities for its path to the plate. He is constantly changing speeds to throw off a hitter's timing, so in some cases, his fastball doubles as a changeup.
In addition, unlike the majority of pitchers, even his four-seam fastball is loaded with movement so it is not like he is on the mound throwing straight fastball after straight fastball. With his ability to change speeds and add movement to his fastballs, it is almost like he has an endless amount of pitches, rather than only having three. However, all of that is sweet and dandy, but at the end of the day, he is still throwing fastballs which have significantly less movement than every other pitch.
The only way for a fastball-laden game plan like Colon's to work is for him to have immaculate control. Colon is able to hit the corners at will and because of that, he rarely throws a pitch that the batter can get good wood on even though he is throwing mostly fastballs. And, like the pipsqueak Little League pitcher, this is what infuriates hitters.
Colon throws 85.1 percent fastballs, which seems, from a hitter's perspective, as though he will be an easy matchup from the scouting tape and the dugout. But, once hitters get to the plate, they are either over-anxious to crush a fastball and swing at pitches out of the zone or are waiting for their pitch and before they know it, are behind 0-2 in the count. And this frustration of constantly coming up empty against a 40-year-old oompa loompa benefits Colon greatly because a frustrated hitter is never a good hitter.
Colon is just another example that you don't need to throw in the mid-90's and have a disgusting curveball and slider to succeed in the MLB. The name of the game is having a control of your pitches, even if it's just three. Colon stages hitters' minds against them, as they perpetually swing at pitcher's pitches and fly out or ground out in early counts. Therefore, Colon is as effective as other pitchers using far less pitches to do it.
The problem with Colon, though, is that no matter how good his stuff is on a certain start, the only way for him to succeed is for him to hit his spots. Other pitchers who rely more on their stuff can lean on that when their control is a bit off, but Colon does not have that luxury.
If he is not hitting his corners, that means he is throwing basic fastballs in zones that hitters crave. It is hard to imagine that he will be able to maintain his impressive control for an entire season. There will definitely be a regression this season, but as long as Colon continues to hit his spots, it will be a long year for opposing lineups.
By: Matt Levine