Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/4/13
Starting opposite Max Scherzer in Oakland tonight is going to be Bartolo Colon. That sentence doesn’t sound as crazy as it might’ve before — by this point, we’ve grown re-accustomed to Colon being a starter and pitching effectively. One of the best ERAs in baseball, he had. It’s not that the Colon story isn’t amazing anymore. It is amazing, that he’s back and healthy and pitching like he is in the way that he is. But we appreciate change better than we appreciate stability, and Colon isn’t changing. He pitches like he’s 40, going on 29. Beyond his size and story, there’s something extreme about Colon: he throws almost exclusively fastballs. Susan Slusser just wrote it up well, and though Colon does have other pitches, and though Colon does have different fastballs, it’s still extraordinarily rare to see a starter with so little speed and break variation. Given his repertoire and ability to locate, Colon is our closest approximation to a starter version of Mariano Rivera. There’s something else too, though, if you dig a little deeper. Another statistical extremity, that’s a result of his approach, as I suppose is always the case. Colon makes it easy to find a starting point. He didn’t pitch at all in 2010, so we can look at his numbers going back to 2011. And since 2011, covering three full seasons, Colon has shown a rather pronounced split: Righties: .271 wOBA allowed Lefties: .334 If you’re the sort who worries about such things, let’s balance out some balls in play: Righties: 2.81 FIP Lefties: 4.37 So, actually, the balls in play don’t make a difference. At issue are the balls not in play. Colon’s strikeout rates are the same. He’s walked more lefties, but he hasn’t walked many lefties. Here’s the problem: 12 of 1,000 righties have hit dingers. Meanwhile, 40 of 1,099 lefties have hit dingers. You can look at this in two different ways: either Colon is awesome against righties, or he’s problematic against lefties. In reality, it’s both, and Colon’s split goes beyond the average. And the root of it? Against righties, Colon is a grounder machine. Against lefties, he’s got more in common with the big Chris Young. Since 2011, again, 124 different pitchers have allowed at least 1,000 balls in play. Here’s a table, showing ten of those pitchers: Pitcher rhbGB% lhbGB% Diff BIP Bartolo Colon 53.2% 34.8% 18.4% 1635 Doug Fister 58.4% 45.0% 13.4% 1805 Ubaldo Jimenez 48.8% 37.2% 11.6% 1589 Kyle Kendrick 52.5% 41.4% 11.1% 1474 Scott Diamond 52.7% 42.0% 10.7% 1209 Ian Kennedy 43.2% 32.6% 10.6% 1768 Rick Porcello 58.8% 48.7% 10.1% 1768 Ricky Romero 57.2% 47.2% 10.0% 1235 Tommy Milone 38.6% 28.7% 9.9% 1183 Edinson Volquez 54.4% 44.6% 9.8% 1347 These are the ten pitchers out of that group with the biggest positive differences between righty grounder rate and lefty grounder rate. Ubaldo Jimenez around 12 percentage points. Doug Fister around 13. Bartolo Colon north of 18. He doesn’t just have the biggest difference — he has the biggest difference by a big giant enormous margin. Colon’s fastball-heavy against everyone, but the right-handed everyones hit the ball down, while the left-handed everyones hit the ball up. Up means dingers, and there have been dingers. Going off Brooks Baseball, we can observe a difference in approach. Righties have seen a lot more sinkers, while lefties have seen a lot more four-seamers. Sinkers tend to mean grounders, while four-seamers don’t. However, that doesn’t explain everything. Against righties, Colon’s sinker has gotten three grounders per five balls in play. Against lefties, it’s gotten two. The sinker hasn’t done its usual job, and though Colon’s fastball assortment is probably more complicated than Brooks is capturing, the details aren’t going to change the general message. Colon throws types of fastballs. Lefties put them in the air. Hastily-selected examples of fastballs leading to different things: See, I told you Colon has gotten a grounder from a righty, once. I told you he’s allowed a liner to a lefty, once. I don’t know what more proof you need. So what does this mean for the Tigers in particular? So much of the attention has been given to Miguel Cabrera, and whether or not he’s healthy, and whether or not he’s healthy enough to produce. He hasn’t produced like himself for a month. It is a legitimate concern, for the series and for the overall playoffs, because Cabrera is the Tigers’ best player, and he gets involved in a lot of their runs. But Friday, even a healthy Cabrera would be facing a challenge, and though Cabrera probably holds the trump card over almost anyone, the Tigers could need to rely on the Prince Fielders and Alex Avilas and Victor Martinezes. Against Colon, there’s going to be contact, but the likelihood is that there will be different sorts of contact, with lefties in better position to drive the ball. One never knows how things are going to work out over a single game, but we can at least have a sense of the probabilities. Bartolo Colon is a good pitcher, but like any good pitcher, he’s a guy with his own strengths and weaknesses. He’s confident in his approach, and he’s not going to put many batters on base on his own. His command ranks among the league’s best. But he allows lefties to take better swing paths, and the Tigers’ roster has some good-hitting lefties on it. Key to the game? I don’t know if this is a key to the game. I hate the idea of keys to the game. But this is a part of the game. I’m content to say that much.
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