Toby Hyde, ContributorBartolo Colon is no ace, but he is a very strong value signing for the Mets.
The 40-year old Colon — the 2005 Cy Young Award winner — is round, surprisingly effective and hit the free agent market at exactly the right time. He has taken a unique path to this point. He earned his first All-Star game appearance with Cleveland in 1998, but won his first and only Cy Young Award seven years — and five teams — later.
After shoulder pain from a torn rotator cuff and damage to ligaments and tendons cut short his 2009 season, he had an experimental (and controversial) surgery with in which stem cells from his hip were inserted into his shoulder in March of 2010 and followed by platelet-rich plasma therapy. He missed the entire 2010 season.
The Yankees took a chance on him in 2011. After an effective year in the Bronx, he headed to Oakland in 2012 for $2 million, only to draw a 50-game ban for testing positive for testosterone. Then in 2013, he put together one of the best years of his career.
Why is his timing so good? In 2013, Colon posted a career-best 2.65 ERA in 190 1/3 innings of work for Oakland. He was very close to the same pitcher he was in 2012 for the A’s when he ran a 3.43 ERA in 152 1/3 innings, but he got lucky in two key areas: he stranded runners at an abnormally high rate, and fewer fly balls turned into home runs than in the year before. Colon’s FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching (which is scaled to ERA based heavily on strikeout and walk rates and normalizes batted ball events and timing) – dropped, but less dramatically so, from 3.82 in 2012 to 3.23 in 2013.
Here are Colon’s key rate stats since his 2011 comeback.
Note that Colon’s strikeout rate and walk rate have both declined in the last three seasons. In fact, his walk rate is now half of the Major league average, which is excellent. Also note that his left on base percentage (LOB%), which has more to do with luck than skill, has bounced around (as it should), peaking in 2013. That high LOB%, combined with his lowest HR/FB% since his return, helped produce Colon’s pretty, sub-3 ERA in 2013.
Colon’s LOB% of 80.0% was high – 8th in baseball in 2013 – but not off the charts. In theory, higher strikeout pitchers will tend to have higher strand rates because they can pitch for the strikeout with men on base if they need to. In fact, Colon’s strikeout rate (as measured on a per inning basis) was the lowest of any pitcher in the top 10 in strand rate in 2013.
Home run to flyball ratio is particularly important to Colon because he is an extreme fly-ball pitcher. In 2013, his groundball percentage (the opposite of fly balls) was 41.5%, 22nd in baseball. The fact that Colon was well, lucky, in 2013 and missed a few weeks with a groin strain, does not mean he cannot be an effective pitcher in the next two years.
In 2013, Colon led Major League baseball, among all pitchers who threw enough to qualify for an ERA title, in fastball usage percentage at 85.5% according to Fangraphs. In fact, he was the only pitcher above Justin Masterson at 73.3%. However, that camoflages the fact that Colon has two different fastballs: a fourseamer that averaged 92.9 mph that he threw 32% of the time and a sinker that averaged 90 mph that he threw 52% of the time per Brooks Baseball. His slider, at 11%, is his primary breaking ball and he throws a changeup about 5% of the time.
Colon is old, heavy, and unusual, but he represents good value for the Mets.
First, examine all of the free agent contracts that pitchers and teams have signed so far this offseason. This list comes from MLB Trade Rumors. Tim Lincecum never hit free agency, but his two year, $35 million deal with the Giants sure seems like a free agent-level contract from here, so we’re going to include him.
|Years||Total||AAV||3 Yr bWAR||2014 Age|
In the last three years, Colon has been the second-best pitcher of this group by Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement and it’s not really close. Hiroki Kuroda bests Colon by almost three full wins, while Colon is four wins better than Jason Vargas, who is third on the list. By average annual value, Colon’s $10 million contract is part of a three-way tie for seventh-highest in the group. By total value, it is eighth.
Now, lets look forward. For all of the free agent pitchers, I added up their RA9-WAR projections for the years covered by their latest contract, according to the Oliver model hosted at Fangraphs. Now we can construct a rough estimate of the value of each contract as measured by $ per projected win. I applied a major fudge: Oliver projects Colon to be worth 2.6 wins in 2014. However, he is the only pitcher for whom there is no win projection for 2015 and beyond. For 2014, Oliver projects 190+ innings of baseball with an ERA just under four. That seems high on the innings front for Colon for the following year, when he would be 42 in 2015. To be very conservative, I slapped in a win value of 1 in 2015. This lines up with Dan Szymborski’s ZiPs which projects Colon for 3.6 wins over the next two years.
By this metric, Colon’s contract is the fourth-best among starting pitchers by projected $/win so far. And there are major caveats with the three ahead of him. Kuroda’s deal is only for one year. Meanwhile, Scott Feldman (3/$30) and Jason Vargas (4/$32) each signed deals worth at least $10 million more than Colon’s for one or two more years. It does not take much optimistic tweaking beyond flipping the estimate on 2015 from one win to two wins to make Colon’s deal the top in terms of projected $/wins.
Lets step back and look at Colon’s bWAR totals from the last three years: ’11 – 2.1, ’12 – 2.7, ’13 – 5.0. Which of these things does not look like the other? The beauty of this deal for the Mets is that it does not suppose that Colon be as good or as fortunate as he was in 2013 to provide good value. Instead, he has to pitch at his more established level in 2011 and 2012.
According to Baseball Reference, there are 49 seasons in the expansion era of a pitcher earning 2.0 bWAR or better after age 41, and 30 of 2.5 bWAR or better. This is a remarkable group. The list includes knuckleballers (Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield), spitballers (Gaylord Perry) and all-time greats (Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Warren Spahn and Mariano Rivera), but it also includes more ordinary pitchers like David Wells and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Jamie Moyer. Pitching success at age 41 and 42 is unusual, but so is success at 40, which Colon now has on his resume.
The Mets need for Colon to be healthy and effective at the start of 2014. If he needs a few weeks on the disabled list by the heat of summer for a muscle strain, so be it. In theory, both Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard will make their rotation debuts for the Mets in 2014. By 2015, Matt Harvey and Jeremy Hefner will have successfully rehabbed their Tommy John surgeries.
Colon has been very effective recently, and has followed a wildly unusual career arc which, combined with his age – 41 in 2014 – makes projecting his next two years a little more shaky than usual. Still, the commitment the Mets made to Colon in years and total dollars is less than other teams were making to lesser pitchers this winter. This has the potential to be a very shrewd signing.