Stage hypnotists make a living calling people up on stage and making them believe that they’re something they’re not, be it a lion, a pirate or even Kanye West. Someone may want to look at the Yankees payroll to see if they have a hypnotist on payroll this season, because all of a sudden Bartolo Colon — after allowing just three runs in his first 14 2/3 innings as a starter this year — has been transformed into a quality Major League starter once again.
In his piece on Colon a couple of weeks ago, Tommy Rancel noted that all parties involved would likely be thrilled if Colon could go six innings, 90 pitches and keep the Blue Jays to around three or four runs in his first start. Tommy was right on track — Colon went 6 2/3 in 89 pitches and held the Jays to two runs. Last night, Colon upped the ante, going eight innings over an economical 99 pitches, allowed just one run and struck out six White Sox. He even managed to inspire the first ejection of the season for Ozzie Guillen, which is always a nice feather in your cap. By WPA, it was the best Yankees start of the young season.
One thing that jumps out immediately is the velocity differences in his offerings. From 2004-2009, Colon’s average fastball was 91.5 MPH, with his slider clocking in at 84.3 and his changeup at 83.0. His fastball has been more or less the same thus far, but his slider and changeup have been slower — both are just a hair over 82 MPH right now. As a result, instead of a 7 MPH difference between his fastball, his slider and changeup are nearly 9 MPH different. The difference may be making his fastball that much more effective. Heading into today, Colon’s fastball, by wFB/C, has been the 24th best in the game (non R.A. Dickey division).
The other thing that sticks out so far has been his aforementioned efficiency. Perhaps realizing that he only has so many bullets to fire, he has only gone to seven pitches on one batter in his first two starts, and 68% of his plate appearances were concluded in four pitches or less. Against the Blue Jays, he had a one-pitch AB in five of his first six innings. In that first start, he did labor, compiling a six- and seven-pitch sequence in his final inning. But last night, he stayed efficient throughout, needing just 16 pitches to get through the seventh and eighth innings. By staying efficient with his pitches, he is keeping his walk rate down, and thus allowing himself to stay out of the big inning. His WHIP, as it currently stands, is hovering right where it did during his Cy Young season in 2005. And it’s not as if this has been fueled by an unsustainable BABIP like some early-season surprises (see Tomlin, Josh). His .300 BABIP is not only right around league average, but it is also very close to his .292 career mark as well.
Before we go ahead and crown him though, let’s look at some caution signs. First, it’s two starts. The list of pitchers who have made two effective starts before tailing off, be they 21 years old or 38, is extensive. Second, let’s remember that the White Sox haven’t exactly been tearing the cover off the ball this season. While they are a team chock full of talented hitters, they are currently last in the Majors in hitter WAR, 21st in wOBA and 24th in wRC+. Third, Colon only managed five swinging strikes last night. In fact, his abnormally (for him) high K/9 mark is betrayed by an O-Swing% and SwStr% that are both below average. Something will have to give there, but given how good he has been, a little regression will still leave him comfortably in the above average range.
Colon skipped last season, and from 2006-2009 spent at least part of each season in the Minors. If you told me that this same guy — at age 38 — would have the 14th best FIP- and the ninth best xFIP- in the Majors near the end of April, I promptly would have asked where you got whatever you had been smoking, but that’s where we are right now. He has been a life preserver for a team that has had to deal with Phil Hughes and his arm issues, and has in general been searching for back-end rotation help for quite some time. There are some warning signs on the horizon, but if he can keep this up, the Yankees could once again have a devastating rotation if and when Hughes returns to form.