It’s an easy-enough list to sort. You go to the leaderboard for pitch types and you select the fastball column. There, at the very top, is Bartolo Colon, the only starter in baseball throwing heaters more than 80% of the time. From there, you get to build the narrative, that Colon is extraordinarily weird. He doesn’t look the part of an athlete. He’s 41 years old, and 42 later this month. His average fastball has dropped into the 80s, approaching his rate of contact allowed. And he throws as many pitches as he has walks issued (one). The overall profile doesn’t make a lot of sense — it doesn’t feel like this kind of pitcher ought to be able to succeed.
And, yeah, Colon is weird. It looked like his career was over until it wasn’t, and other pitchers don’t share his current approach. It’s an unusual strategy with which Colon so routinely manages to get hitters out, but the reality isn’t as simple as him getting by with weak fastball after weak fastball. Reality is — guess what! — more complicated than that. Reality is always more complicated. Maybe especially with the freaks.
There are two ways to do this. One, we can say that Bartolo Colon isn’t literally a one-pitch pitcher. He does have other pitches, and though they aren’t a central part of his game, they’re not rarities. This year, against righties, Colon has thrown 15% sliders. Against lefties, meanwhile, he’s thrown 13% sliders or changeups. So you’re looking at at least one or two non-fastballs per inning. A hitter can get away with sitting on a fastball, but the other pitches remain present. Once every nine or 10 pitches, Mariano Rivera would mix in an ordinary fastball. They were rare enough to be surprising, but common enough to be remembered. Colon does have a velocity range.
This is Adam Jones, making the mistake of expecting a heater:
Then there’s the matter of Colon’s fastball. On that pitch-type leaderboard, Colon has the highest fastball rate, then there’s Jarred Cosart in second. Cosart has thrown his fastball almost 80% of the time. Colon has thrown one of his fastballs about half the time. He’s thrown the other one about a third of the time. This is a very simple, fundamental point: there are different types of fastballs. Colon has a four-seamer and a two-seamer, and while they belong within the same umbrella category, they are different pitches, just as a curveball and a changeup are different pitches.
I keep going back to this post Eno wrote about a conversation with Chris Young last season. Young throws a four-seamer that’s hovered in the mid- to high-80s, but he made an interesting point, in explaining some of his success:
“Working vertically is just as important as working horizontally,” Young said. “Being able to locate the fastball gives you four different pitches: down and away, up and away, down and in and up and in.”
Young’s fastball can look different, depending on what he does with it. And he possesses just one fastball type. Colon has two fastball types, and he has command of them both. Most simply, Colon throws a lot of his fastball. More accurately, Colon throws a lot of two fastballs. Most accurately, Colon throws a whole array of fastballs. Nothing about the batter-pitcher matchup is as black and white as you want it to be. You can use a lot of fastballs, and survive. You just have to make sure to be inventive and unpredictable.
What, exactly, is Colon working with? Let’s borrow from Brooks Baseball. His average four-seamer is almost three miles per hour faster than his average sinker. So there’s a subtle difference there. The average sinker has more than five inches more horizontal movement. And the average sinker also has about five inches more drop. If Colon were to aim a four-seamer and a sinker at exactly the same place, they’d end up more than seven inches apart, at the front of the zone. When it comes to hitting, seven inches of location might as well be nine feet. You can’t swing such that you’d square up a four-seamer and a sinker, and the two fastball types look very similar out of the hand.
And let’s go back to something real quick. Colon’s average sinker has about five inches more drop than his average four-seamer. And this year, Colon’s average sinker has been located about five inches lower than his average four-seamer. You get the idea. Though the pitches are still overall similar, they’re different enough that they give Colon an actual repertoire.
A repertoire he’s able to keep in and around the zone. Of course Colon has a high zone rate — not only does he have good command, but he also messes around relatively infrequently with secondary stuff, and those are the pitches that tend to miss. Every pitcher would have a better zone rate if they threw fastballs as often as Colon does. Few of them want to do it. Colon’s both willing and successful.
It’s easy enough to see how he’s so mystifying. He tends to work around the edges with two different fastballs, and depending on which fastball it is, you’ve got a pitch that will either be over the plate or several inches off. Consider the case of Caleb Joseph, here. The first pitch he saw was a four-seamer over the middle. Two pitches later, he got a sinker down, and the next pitch was a sinker up, that probably should’ve been strike three. Alas, it wasn’t, and two pitches after that, Joseph got another sinker:
The location was perfect. And not only was it in a difficult hitting zone — Joseph couldn’t know if it was a four-seamer, in which case it would’ve stayed inches off the plate. That makes it hard to pull the trigger, and it’s not an accident that Colon racks up so many called strikeouts.
As a fuller example, let’s watch Colon and Chris Davis in the sixth inning. By this point, they’d already faced off twice. Davis had seen a few changeups.
This was actually a pretty bad first-pitch sinker. Davis still swung under it. He’ll do that. Then came a slider away, that Davis hadn’t seen:
Colon just missed the edge, but he at least put the idea in Davis’ head. Then, for the first time in three plate appearances, Colon threw Davis a four-seamer:
Perfect location, with Davis maybe expecting the pitch to break away and down. So he’d seen a slider for the first time, and a four-seamer for the first time. Pitch No. 4 was like pitch No. 1, but this time of the four-seam variety:
It didn’t find the right part of the plate, but it also didn’t find the wrong part of Davis’ bat. It’s impossible to know why any individual pitch was or wasn’t crushed, but this was Davis’ first time seeing a four-seamer up. The previous one was down by the knees. It’s a different four-seamer.
And then Colon came with a sinker, that easily could’ve gotten him out of the inning:
He didn’t get the call, but he could’ve. Davis gave up on the pitch, the four-seamer fresh in his mind, and then the ball ran toward the corner. To this point, Davis had seen a good two-seamer, and a good four-seamer, and a couple fastballs in a more hittable area. He’d also seen one backdoor slider. Pitch No. 6 finished Davis off:
It wasn’t the best showdown of Colon’s evening, but it was a successful one, one where he showed new weapons to a hitter in his third time through the order. That doesn’t sound a lot like a one-pitch pitcher.
One thing you wonder about Colon is how much longer this can go. Games like Tuesday’s make you think he could keep on doing this forever. There certainly aren’t any immediate red flags, aside from Colon’s age, which seems a relative non-factor.
Another thing you wonder about Colon is whether he should be something of a role model for younger pitchers. Young guys always talk about establishing the fastball, but none of them establish it like Colon does. None of them command it like Colon does. Or should I say, none of them command two of them like Colon does. And as Colon demonstrates, if you’ve got a couple fastballs, you don’t need a whole lot more. It’s simultaneously complicated and simple, and perhaps by putting greater emphasis on mastering a couple fastballs, we could see a lower rate of injuries. Pitching is complex, and understanding pitching injuries is complex, but a guy with Colon’s approach is probably less likely to go under the knife than a guy with, I don’t know, Tyson Ross‘ approach. That’s me speculating, but it’s a thought on my mind.
And in that way, Colon could be both a freak in his own day, and the future of pitching. It’s a hell of a thought. It’s also a reach, but in cases like this, you always want to see what there is to be learned.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.