The pitcher with the biggest K/9 in the AL is Rickey Romero of the Blue Jays. Former Jays GM JP Ricciardi took a lot of guff for selecting Romero over Troy Tulowitzki with the fifth overall pick of the 2005 draft, but Romero has, maybe as quietly as anyone every drafted that highly, turned into an excellent pitcher. Three slots and .25 K/9 below Romero in the rankings is (and you could have made lots of money betting on this) Bartolo Colon. Yes, this guy.
You may recall Colon pitched for the Red Sox back in 2008. I saw him in spring training that year, where the photo above was taken. He didn’t pitch particularly well but he didn’t throw particularly badly either, accumulating 3.2 VORP over 39 innings before leaving the team after refusing a demotion to the bullpen. Since then he spent 2009 on the South Side with the White Sox and was so successful there that he was out of the majors last season.
Yet Colon has been a revelation for the pitching-starved Yankees this season. His 3.26 ERA in 37 innings has helped to stabilize a rotation suffering from an ineffective and then injured Phil Hughes. Colon has by far the highest K/BB ratio of his career, 5.29. There is nothing in his career that says he can sustain that Lee-esque performance, but other than the fact that it isn’t consistent with past performance, there is nothing in his peripherals to indicate a fall is coming. His LOB% is high (77%) but not ridiculously so as league average is typically around 71%. His HR/FB rate is actually high (15%) and will likely fall over a larger sample as league average is typically around 10%. His walk rate is low for him (1.7) but it isn’t ridiculous by any means He has had two full seasons where his walk rate was right in that range though they were five and six years ago.
Despite of all that, it is assumed that Colon will turn back into a pumpkin. Maybe literally. This is based simply on his recent track record. Since (unjustly) winning the AL Cy Young award in 2005 Colon has thrown 257 innings over four seasons for three different teams. He’s given up 178 runs for a 6.23 RA. He’s 38 years old this season and weighs, conservatively, 7,000 pounds. This is why he had to take a minor league deal with a spring training invite from the Yankees.
How did the pitcher of the most recent paragraphs become the pitcher of the first two? For one, he stopped eating human babies. Actually, kidding aside, Colon was the recipient of a stem cell treatment which Jay Jaffe covered quite well over at Pinstriped Bible. The essence though is that Colon had stem cells from his own body injected into his shoulder which helped to repair his torn rotator cuff, a small muscle in the shoulder which gets a disproportionate amount of stress from pitching. Colon’s treatment came from a doctor who has been linked to HGH, though the doctor denies using HGH on Colon. Shockingly MLB isn’t willing to take their word for it and has launched an investigation.
During our most recent podcast, I asked our guest, Steven Goldman of the aforementioned Pinstriped Bible, what the difference is between Colon’s treatment and taking steroids? He replied by asking me what the difference is between taking steroids and aspirin. It’s an excellent (and well played) point. I’m sure MLB and some perpetually angry segment of the general public will draw a false distinction, but the reality is that both are drugs that allow a player to perform on the field. The rest is just semantics.
As for Colon, he may yet turn into a pumpkin. As far as his pumpkinization goes, I’d watch for two things tonight. Colon has walked only seven through 37 innings this year. John Lackey walked six last start. Fewer walks means Colon’s higher than average homer rate hasn’t hurt him as much as might be expected. Also watch his velocity. Colon’s velocity is up over the past few seasons, one reason he’s been more effective. If he can maintain it through the start while keeping his walks in check, he’ll be tough to beat.