Bartolo Colon was strong again Monday night, as the A’s knocked off the host Pirates 2-1. Of his 108 pitches, 78 were strikes. He walked one batter out of the 30 he faced. As a consequence, Colon’s season walk rate went up.
Colon, maybe, doesn’t have the best command of any starting pitcher — but it’s close, and that much is something of a miracle, considering where Colon went and how he came back. Colon basically throws a ton of fastballs — his rate is the same as Aroldis Chapman‘s — and only Cliff Lee has thrown a higher rate of strikes. Few pitchers have thrown a higher rate of first-pitch strikes. Colon’s walk rate is a tick above 3%, and no one’s thrown a higher rate of pitches in the zone. Though Colon’s far from unhittable, he succeeds by pounding the zone relentlessly and he forces the batter to supply the damage. It might be a simple formula, but Colon makes it work, thanks to his command of his pitches.
So I thought we’d look at his wildest pitches. Sometimes a technique to examine a guy’s success can be by looking at his failures. Which has been Colon’s lowest pitch of the season? What about his highest? What about most inside and most outside? What, if anything, can we learn from these pitches? I’ll admit, I’m kind of going into this blind, but I have confidence we can learn something. So let’s pay tribute to Colon’s ability to throw strikes by looking at him throw some balls.
6.1 inches below surface of ground
What we have here is an off-speed pitch that Colon bounces in the dirt, outside. It is, of course, an obvious ball. It’s not as if Colon’s lowest pitch of the season was going to be a borderline strike. But consider the circumstances. This was a clear ball, but it was a ball in an 0-and-2 count against a same-handed hitter, and that’s a common area to target. The pitch was supposed to be outside, and it just ended up lower than planned. It was almost a waste pitch, but some batters might still have offered.
PITCHf/x coordinates can have negative signs. When you’re dealing with vertical location, a negative sign means the ball hit the dirt in front of the plate. Those are balls, but those balls are fairly common, especially in pitcher-friendly counts. This pitch to Jason Bay had a negative PITCHf/x vertical location. It’s one of just three such pitches for Colon all season. Two came in this game against the Mariners. The other came in a game against the Rangers, separated by more than a month.
57.6 inches above ground
Here’s a fastball at Travis Hafner‘s shoulders. Don’t mind the camera angle — this pitch still managed to catch the inside part of the plate. It was just too high to find the zone by about a foot-and-a-half. Obvious ball, but remember, this is Colon’s highest pitch of the year to date, and we’re more than halfway through the season. Only 11 of his pitches have been at least 50 inches off the ground; and sometimes those pitches are thrown intentionally to try to generate a swing and a miss. A high fastball that’s out of the zone might get a whiff, and it’s unlikely to get punished.
And there’s the matter of Colon’s footwork. It looks like Colon might’ve slipped, or had his cleat get caught. As a consequence he ended up doing a little spin and looking down toward the mound. Colon’s highest pitch might’ve been the result of a simple mound flaw. While all bad pitches are the result of mechanical inconsistency, there’s a chance this might’ve had less to do with Colon and had more to do with the dirt below him. His next-highest pitch was two-and-a-half inches lower.
Most Inside Pitch
23.2 inches from center of plate
It probably won’t surprise you — it shouldn’t surprise you — that Colon has yet to hit a batter with a pitch this season. This one came close to getting Chris Davis in the shin, but Davis was able to move out of the way. Colon’s most inside pitch was less than two feet from the middle of home plate. That’s a significant miss, but Colon’s also a guy who tends to spend a lot of time trying to work the inside corner, so you’d expect the occasional mistake. This one, at least, was catchable.
Colon’s most inside pitch didn’t require the catcher to dive or slide, which might be another way of looking at this. The catcher did ultimately slide over, but only after having already made the catch. He was able to catch it in front of his foot.
Most Outside Pitch
34.3 inches from center of plate
This is a big miss. A big miss, in a 1-and-0 count. There’s no getting around that, but it’s also worth considering that the batter was left-handed, which gave Colon some room to work in off the plate. And while this pitch was more than 34 inches from the middle of the plate, no other Colon pitch has reached the 30-inch mark. That is, Colon has thrown one pitch all season that was more than two-and-a-half feet away from the middle of the zone. Two-and-a-half feet seems like a significant distance, but those aren’t uncommon pitches — and nearly all Colon’s pitches have been within two feet. Of Colon’s pitches this season, .7% have ended up at least two feet away from the middle of the plate, or fewer than one a game. That’s practically one per two games.
Colon’s most outside pitch is remarkable because it’s so unlike the rest of his pitches. Anybody’s “most outside pitch” would be, by definition, exceptional, but Colon’s is an island.
Bartolo Colon, without question, has missed spots, and he’s sometimes missed by a lot. But missing by a lot to Colon doesn’t mean the same as missing by a lot to most other pitchers, since he treats his arm like a BB gun and the strike zone like a can on a fence. Throwing a bunch of fastballs for strikes might seem dangerously Twins-y, but Colon maximizes his skillset, and we’re beyond the point at which he’s proven himself. This is how Bartolo Colon gets outs, and it’s going to work for him until it doesn’t. The important thing is it works now.