In 2011, Bartolo Colon did a weird thing. Actually, I guess he did two weird things. First, he revived a dead major-league career at 38 after having an experimental procedure that can be explained thusly:
- Broken shoulder
- Functional shoulder
Armed with a functional shoulder, Colon pitched well for the New York Yankees of all teams before fading a little bit down the stretch. And the second weird thing is that, in pitching well for the Yankees, Colon generated called strikes and strikeouts. A whole mess of 'em. Everybody generates called strikes and strikeouts, but not to the extent that Colon did.
Last season, nearly 23 percent of Colon's pitches went for called strikes. That was the highest rate in baseball among starting pitchers, with an average of 18 percent. Put another way, 34 percent of his strikes were called, against an average of 28 percent. Colon was exceptional in this regard.
And, predictably, it carried over to his strikeout rate. Colon had more called strikeouts than swinging strikeouts, with the third-highest called-strikeout rate in baseball. Colon averaged more than seven strikeouts per nine innings for the season, even though his contact rate allowed was decidedly subpar. Colon posted the same contact rate as Blake Beavan. I'll give you a minute to check how many strikeouts Blake Beavan had.
The reason this is weird is because called strikes and strikeouts aren't considered very sustainable. There's ability in getting hitters to swing and miss: Contact rate shows a very high correlation year-to-year. Called strikes and strikeouts don't show nearly the same relationship. It stands to reason that some guys can get more called strikes than other guys, but not by much, and you wouldn't think that a guy like Colon would stand out given that he throws fastballs almost exclusively. He does have other pitches, but he leans on his fastball more heavily than he leans on his knees. (fat joke)
Colon was layering his weird like a two-tiered weird cake. It was weird that he was back, and it was weird how he was succeeding. Dave Allen investigated the called-strike phenomenon last July. It looked like it had to do with Colon's pitch location, but Allen couldn't be sure if it would keep up. Colon's history doesn't reflect this ability - his career called-strike rate is basically average - but it's possible that his new shoulder allowed him to do something different.
This has all been entirely too much build-up to a point of only moderate interest. Over the offseason, Bartolo Colon signed with the Oakland A's, and Thursday he made his regular-season debut against the Seattle Mariners. He went eight innings, with six strikeouts.
D. Ackley struck out looking
J. Montero struck out looking
I. Suzuki struck out looking
C. Figgins struck out looking
K. Seager struck out looking
M. Saunders struck out swinging
Colon threw 86 pitches - 63 of those for strikes. Of those strikes, 28 were called. Colon didn't back down from what he'd done in 2011. If anything, he ramped it up. Colon had a great game Thursday, and it was great in large part because the Mariners weren't swinging at many of the strikes he was throwing.
What does it all mean? Ultimately, this is just one more start to go with Colon's 26 starts in 2011. This didn't confirm that Colon has a definite ability to freeze hitters. It adds to the pile of evidence, though, and more than that, it's just strange. Colon kicked off his season by reminding us that he's a curious guy, worthy of more analysis than we figured we'd be devoting to Bartolo Colon after he left baseball with shoulder problems a few years ago. That looked to be the end. Instead, it wasn't the end, and now he's back and good and weird.
We'll give Colon a few more starts. Especially a few more starts against not the Mariners. But I'm beginning to think there might be something here.