On Tuesday evening, 39-year-old Bartolo Colon handcuffed the Los Angeles Angels for seven innings, only surrendering a single unearned run in his final inning of work.
Although that unearned run ended his consecutive scoreless inning streak at 22.1 innings, he does currently maintain a streak of 22.2 innings without surrendering an earned run. The last earned run given up by the right-hander came on a solo home run by the Yankees’ Curtis Granderson on July 22 in Oakland. Since that home run … nothing.
Extended stints without allowing an earned run are not uncommon in Major League Baseball. After all, Ryan Dempster threw 33-consecutive innings without surrendering an earned or unearned run in July.
Instead, the intriguing aspect of Colon’s streak lies in his pitch selection and how he is finding success on the mound.
On Tuesday against the Angels, Bartolo Colon threw 83 fastballs amongst the 93 pitches needed to span his seven-inning performance. He threw a fastball 89.2% of the time. The crazy part of that extreme reliance on his fastball is that it perfectly mirrors his seasonal numbers. In 2012, the Dominican Republic native has featured his fastball in 89% of his pitches. That is by far the highest in the league amongst qualified pitchers, with Justin Masterson (78.6%) ranking second.
We can take this even further, though. Since 2002 — when FanGraphs began having pitch-specific data — no pitcher (min. 100 innings) has thrown a higher percentage of fastballs in a single season than Bartolo Colon has in 2012. Justin Masterson again shows up in 2011, throwing his fastball 84.4% of the time, but that is the closest challenger to Colon’s 89% fastball usage this year.
Most pitchers who heavily rely on a fastball either generate a high percentage of ground balls — such as Justin Masterson or Aaron Cook — or miss a ton of bats with the fastball.
Bartolo Colon does neither. He is just above the league average for ground ball rates this season, sitting at 46.3%, and his career average ground ball rate is only 41.9%. Not only that, but he also has the lowest SwStr% of any qualified pitcher this year at 4.5%. On Tuesday evening, he threw 83 fastballs and got Angels’ hitters to swing and miss at exactly one fastball throughout his entire seven innings on the mound.
Certainly playing in the cavernous O.co Coliseum aids his success — as does having the Oakland Athletics defense behind him — but the majority of his success comes from pounding the strike zone, limiting walks, and getting opposing hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. Despite throwing mostly fastballs with a pedestrian average of 90.3 miles per hour, Colon induces swings at pitches outside the strike zone 32.6% of the time — though opposing hitters do not often swing and miss outside the strike zone. Instead, he is able to induce weaker contact outside the zone.
To narrow the scope to his last three starts, within which the vast majority of his recent streak has occurred, Bartolo Colon has thrown 290 pitches. Of those 290 pitches, 262 of them have been fastballs (90.3%). Of those 262 fastballs, the right-hander has only induced 11 whiffs, meaning he has generated a 4.2% SwStr% on his fastball over that stretch.
All of those numbers are almost identical to his season numbers, yet he is experiencing abnormal success. At 39 years old, Bartolo Colon has been fascinating to watch. He is once again finding success in a major league rotation, despite legitimately being a one-trick pony.
Colon is tentatively scheduled to pitch next Tuesday on the road against the Kansas City Royals, where he will attempt to lengthen his streak, and you can be sure the Royals hitters already know what’s coming: a heavy diet of fastballs in the strike zone.