Editor’s note: This story originally published when the Twins announced the Bartolo Colon signing. With the reports that he’ll start Tuesday for the Twins, we decided the post was worth re-sharing.
MINNEAPOLIS – The Twins announced a surprising acquisition during Friday night’s game: 20-year MLB veteran Bartolo Colon is now one phone call away from pitching in the Majors for Minnesota.
The Twins agreed to minor league contract on Friday with the veteran right-hander. Twins CBO Derek Falvey said that the team wants him to get a start with Triple-A Rochester to “make sure he’s in a good place… before we make the decision for him to come here.”
In some ways, it’s a surprising move because Colon posted an 8.14 ERA before the Braves kicked him off their roster. On the other hand, Colon had a 3.43 ERA last year with the Mets, and the Twins have basically had a constant need for more pitching this year. The 44-year-old signed a $12.5 million contract in Atlanta this winter and it didn’t work out. And sure, a lot of baseball fans seem to enjoy the spectacle of the portly Colon, especially when the big-bellied hurler swings a bat.
Let’s dig beneath the surface of that initial buzz of enthusiasm. Can Colon still get outs in the big leagues?
“When you think about the entirety of his career, he was a big-velocity, swing-and-miss guy for a long time,” Falvey said Friday. “To reinvent yourself and be the command guy that he was, and be able to get swing-and-miss and the deception that he has — a lot of guys can’t do that, so that’s a credit to him. I know he wants to pitch more than the rest of this year; he loves baseball and that’s been relayed to us, for sure.”
Colon has a 4.02 career ERA – a career that began with the Indians in 1997 and includes a few matchups with current Twins manager, 60-year-old Paul Molitor.
First, some bad news. Colon’s strikeout rate has gone down each year since 2014. His swinging strike rate has declined each of the past three seasons to just 4.9% this year; if Colon had enough innings to qualify for the leaderboard, it’d be the second-worst rate for a starting pitcher this year. And his walk rate has climbed each of the past three years.
Still, his walk rate this season is right in line with his career 6.6% rate, although in his most successful recent years, he’s limited walks even more than that. His career strikeout rate is 17.6%, but that’s down a bit to 14.1% this year.
Colon’s fastball is in the 90-91 mph range these days, according to Brooks Baseball. He throws that more than 80% of the time, according to FanGraphs.com, and he’ll also mix in a slider and changeup. Twins manager Paul Molitor said that when Colon first broke into the league — while Molitor still was an active Major Leaguer — the righty threw 97 mph with a 2-seamer that registered at 95 mph. That big velocity is a thing of the past for Colon.
Now, for some reasons to be optimistic on whether Colon’s next stop could be better than his previous one.
“He’s a guy who has reinvented himself a number of times over the course of his career. This was a guy who relied almost exclusively on velocity at a much younger age,” Falvey said. “And now has learned how to pitch more effectively at a lower velocity rate.
“We felt like there were some signals that maybe the stuff was similar to what it had been in years past but maybe he was a little bit unlucky. Strand rates or otherwise – ball-in-play rates. We felt like the stuff was similar to where it had been, so this was a good opportunity for us to add a guy who’s been really successful over the last couple seasons, who has had a little bit of a tough start to this year.”
Over the past 3 seasons – excluding this year – Colon has a 3.90 ERA and a 415:86 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 588 2/3 innings. This year, that earned-run rate ballooned to 8.14. So, has he lost it at age 44? Or, as Falvey, suggests, has he been unlucky?
My answer to that is that while I don’t think Colon will run up 200 innings of sub-4.00 ERAs any longer, it does look to me like there has been some bad luck this year.
For one thing, Falvey mentioned Colon’s strand rate. Colon has stranded just 48.2% of base runners who’ve reached safely this season, and that’s an incredibly low rate. Anecdotally, there’s a skill set involved in keeping base runners from scoring. But the data say there’s only so much a pitcher can do in that regard. For comparison, Colon has stranded 72.5% of base runners in his career, including 76.5% last year, 71.9% the year before, and 70.2% the year before that. Last year, the worst strand rate in the big leagues among qualified pitchers was Mike Leake’s 65.6% and the best rate was Jon Lester’s 84.9%. This year, Clayton Kershaw leads the world by stranding 89.3% of runners, while Tanner Roark is the worst among qualified starters at stranding runners: 64.2%.
Clearly there’s a wide range between the best and the worst each season. But to see more than half the base runners come around to score against Colon is a little surprising, and could be an indication that the ball wasn’t bouncing his way in Atlanta.
The other underlying stat Falvey mentioned was ball-in-play rate, or BABIP. When opposing batters put the ball in play this year against Colon, they’ve reached safely 36% of the time. Put another way, opponents are hitting .360 when they put the ball in play. That’s higher than any other starting pitcher with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
Colon’s career BABIP is .296, including .291, .307 and .307 the past three seasons. The league-average BABIP this year is .297, and in general, every pitcher’s rate gravitates around that average. Sure, guys who give up screaming line drives and gap-shot fly balls and likely to sustain higher BABIPs than pitchers who get weak ground balls and infield popups more regularly.
But Colon’s .360 BABIP is higher than any qualified pitcher posted last year or the year before that or the year before that. So either Colon was getting pulverized by hitters this year, or a few extra batted balls found the soft spot in the defense. Based on the batted-ball data publicly available on FanGraphs, it seems to me like the unlucky explanation might hold some water.
Like I said, I don’t expect Colon to post a 4.00 ERA over a full season again. But his Fielding Independent numbers – his FIP and his xFIP – both suggest he deserves a better ERA he has, closer to a 5.00 ERA than an 8.00.
If you’re hoping for a rejuvenated Colon in a Twins uniform, just keep that number in mind. Then again, the Twins have used 10 starters now this year, and only three of them can boast about having an ERA better than 5.00.