Monday, July 10, 2017

Bartolo Colon, The Savior Minnesota Needs?

When the Minnesota Twins signed Bartolo Colon to a minor league deal, my initial reaction was one of disbelief. I'm not sure where the feeling came from. It could've been because Colon is a big name, maybe because he has a big ERA, or maybe because at 44 years old, he's a big guy still playing baseball at the highest level. I've now had time to mull it over, and I couldn't be more ecstatic.

Coming out of the All Star Break, the Minnesota Twins will go with a rotation consisting of (and, in order): Jose Berrios, Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, and Adalberto Mejia. Of that group, Gibson has continued to struggle, and Mejia remains unproven. They'll need to address what to do with Hector Santiago at some point, and Phil Hughes appears to have been jettisoned to the pen despite being owed $26.4 million over the next two years. Where we sit today though, the home nine need another starter.

At this point, we've seen Quad-A type pitchers like Nik Turley and Adam Wilk get a shot. We've brought in veterans like Dillon Gee (who has now seemingly been passed over), and we've watched a Double-A hurler in Felix Jorge make the jump. None of the options Minnesota has cycled through have looked the part of someone that can immediately stick long term. Enter Colon, Bartolo.

Yes, Bartolo Colon has been an atrocity for the Atlanta Braves in 2017. He owns an 8.14 ERA and an equally bad 5.08 FIP. Over the course of 13 starts for Atlanta, he has just two quality starts, and has failed to make it to the 5th inning on six occasions. If you look at his last 10 starts, negative two gems to start the season, he owns an even worse 9.59 ERA. All that said, it's about as bad as it gets. There's rays of hope however.

Let's start with where he was a season ago. With the 2016 Mets, Colon was a mainstay in one of the best rotations baseball had to offer. Across 33 starts (34 games), Colon owned a 3.43 ERA and a solid 3.99 FIP. In fact, prior to 2017, the last time Colon posted an FIP higher than 4.00 was 2009 in a 12 start year for the Chicago White Sox.

As a right-handed pitcher, Colon has generally kept same-handedness hitters in check. During 2016, he allowed a .664 OPS to righties while giving up a .795 mark to lefties. The script has flipped in 2017, as he's surrendered a 1.011 OPS to righties and an .879 OPS to lefites. The surface numbers don't suggest all that much has changed either. His 6.0 K/9 is in line with career norms, while his 2.9 BB/9 is up from where he's been since 2011, it isn't an egregious total. If there's an number that pops off the page, it's the 13.1 H/9 and 1.6 HR/9. It's pretty obvious that extra baserunners, and balls leaving the yard, aren't a recipe for success. What's promising is what lies beneath.

Thus far, Colon has been victim to a .360 BABIP number in 2017. That's way up from a .296 career average, and well above the MLB average this season. Not in line with the rise, Colon is allowing a 32.6 Hard%, which is below his 2016 number, and essentially his average dating back to 2014. A 14.3% HR/FB rate explains the rise in longballs, but well hit baseballs aren't something that seems to be a large problem for Bartolo. On top of all of this, his velocities have held strong. He's averaging 90.7 mph on his fastball this year, up slightly over 2016, and at a normal rate of decline given his age and career arc.

So, what we see is that Colon's surface numbers are an outlier, and that the supporting numbers don't necessarily suggest such a drastic change should be taking place. Of course, we're dealing with a 44 year old who has more than 3,200 innings on his arm. It's very possible he could be cooked, and that everything would fall apart at once, it's also quite likely that isn't the case.

The way things stand for the Twins, Colon is as little of a risk as you can possibly get. They pay him a prorated portion of the league minimum, or just over $200k for the rest of the year. He's not a long term solution, but expecting him to provide valaue is a decent bet. Given the financial implications are next to moot, being a contributor in a rotation that so badly needs it would be a huge boost.

Maybe Colon needed a change of scenery. He'll get a much better defense in Minnesota (the Twins rank 7th in MLB in DRS, Braves are 24th), and he'll get a better team as a whole. The Twins aren't serious playoff contenders, but there's a shot, and that gives Colon something to play for as well. If none of it works out and things go up in flames, neither side is out much, and can move on. For Minnesota though, Colon could represent a boost the club desperately needs.

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