Bartolo Colon Has Been Baseball’s Best-Fielding Pitcher

A few months back, Jeff Sullivan asked me what type of baseball dork I am. A big one, is probably the answer, but Jeff was inquiring on a more specific level. He asked: hitting or pitching? I answered: defense. It’s what I was best at when I played the game. It’s what my favorite players did best growing up. It’s the area of the game, analytically speaking, which most interests me. I derive more pleasure doing deep dives on defense in cases of dissenting opinion — talking about guys like Eric Hosmer, Jose Iglesias, or Jay Bruce — probably moreso than any other type of post I write. This won’t be a super deep dive. This is more of an observation, some video, and maybe a few chuckles. With Bartolo Colon, there’s always some chuckles. We’re all Bartolo Colon dorks.

Because I’m a defense dork, I hand out my own Gold Glove Awards at the end of each year, which really are just the numbers’ Gold Glove Awards, because all the different defensive metrics in one is all I use for those posts. And so, because I do that at the end of each season for the posts, I often find myself doing it at the midway point of each season, as well, just to see. I bring this up because I just did it, and that’s why this post exists. Because here’s how the pitchers currently grade out:

Total Defensive Runs, Pitchers

  1. Bartolo Colon, +3.8 runs saved
  2. Zack Greinke, +3.6
  3. Dallas Keuchel, +3.2
  4. Tyler Chatwood, +3.0
  5. Justin Verlander, +2.9

Greinke and Keuchel’s place on the leaderboard helps validate the process — they’re unanimously agreed upon as two of baseball’s best-fielding pitchers. They came out on top in their respective leagues by the numbers last year, and they were each awarded with actual, real Gold Glove Awards. And they weren’t the first, for either. Chatwood’s young, he’s athletic, finally healthy, and has graded well in the past. Verlander’s long graded well, and probably would have deserved a Gold Glove or two during his prime, if not for the existence of Mark Buehrle.

But we know that Greinke and Keuchel are truly great, and the same numbers that help us know that are also saying that Bartolo Colon’s been better. Been the best. We all understand why this is enjoyable; it doesn’t need to be said. It needs to be seen.

First thing you notice about Colon playing defense is the fielding position with which he ends his delivery, much to the pleasure of youth baseball coaches across America. This is something Greinke does about as well as anybody…

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 3.12.54 PM

… and while a pitcher probably shouldn’t craft his delivery around his fielding position — he should craft it around what makes him comfortable pitching — it’s the way Colon’s delivery naturally takes him, and it leaves him in an advantageous position to make plays.

And then there’s the decisiveness with which Colon makes the throw. I’m about to pull a number out of my ass, but I’d wager 70% of throwing errors committed by pitchers with runners on base are the direct result of indecisiveness. Pitchers just don’t get many fielding opportunities in general, less so with runners on base, and so the muscle memory just isn’t there, defensively, like it is for other fielders. So often, you see a pitcher field a bunt or weak tapper, look to second or third, hesitate, pump, turn, and fire one wildly over the first baseman’s head. At that point, it’d have been better to just trust the instincts. Don’t need to tell Bartolo Colon twice. He made that play like a guy who’s been pitching in the major leagues for two deca — oh, right.

There’s that good fielding position again! Robbed Yasiel Puig of a hit. Colon doesn’t make that play if he’s falling off the mound. Colon’s falling off the mound, and this type of hit could make the stadium go silent. But Colon doesn’t fall off the mound, he falls square to the batter, and he’s got a low center of gravity, and impressive balance:

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 2.51.41 PM

A lot of times, the line-drive-back-at-the-pitcher-caught-for-an-out play comes off as luck. There’s something athletically impressive about this one. Maybe that’s just the Bartolo Colon talking.

Starting to notice a pattern here! Another hard-hit ball right at Colon, another play made by Colon. This one went for two outs, when for many pitchers it would’ve gone for none. The positioning is a big part of it, but at a certain point, you’ve got to give credit to Colon for his hand-eye coordination and glovework.

One more:

I understand this might not’ve been what you were hoping for. You were probably hoping for a bunch of .gifs of Colon running around the field all surprisingly athletic-like, flipping baseballs behind his back down the first-base line like he did that one time. This isn’t that. But this is what Colon, the fielder, does. It might not be something he does with defense in mind, falling into a perfect fielding position the way he does, but it is something that happens after every Colon pitch. After every pitch, Colon is in a better position than most to field a ball hit right back at him, a position to help hide his sub-par footspeed on a bunt or dribbler, and he’s got the reaction and instincts to take advantage of it all.

Fielding metrics can be messy, and even more understandably so with pitchers, but consider that, among pitchers dating back to 2014, Colon ranks in the top-10 overall when it comes to fielding. He grades as a plus in making plays like the ones shown above, and he grades as a plus when it comes to controlling the run game. Colon needs every bit of help when it comes to making his raw stuff play, and he even needs every bit of help in his delivery to make the defense play. Just like with his pitching, Colon makes it happen. Of course he does.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Original Greaser Bob
7 years ago

Ok I give up, Colon IS awesome.