I remember when Bartolo Colon was coming up as a prospect almost solely because I opened up a pack of Bowman baseball cards and was pretty sure his surname was pronounced like one of the best known portions of the human digestive system. Hey, I it was 1995; my expertise in how to pronounce player names was not yet fully honed. As most rookie cards had the tendency to make me do, Colon’s sent me in search of more information on the up-and-coming pitcher. It turned out he was a bit short, a little chubby, and threw super-hard. I still have Colon’s 1995 Bowman card in a plastic box full of his colleagues, but I had no idea he would have such an interesting career.
With Colon’s recent positive banned substance test threatening to end the career of the best truly fat pitcher I can remember, it’s worth a look back over his 15 Major League seasons. Colon was not always the pitcher he is today, and sometimes that’s hard to remember. He once relied not on obsessive strike throwing but on serious heat, a more balanced repertoire, and the other positive attributes a pitcher has in his youth. It’s times like these when I really wish FanGraphs’ velocity data dated back before 2007.
Colon used his fast fastball to become a very successful starter in just his second season at the highest level. The rotund righty, who I swear was listed at 180 pounds on baseball sites for way too long (this number has since been updated to 265), logged 204 innings of 3.71 ERA ball in 1998 as a 25-year-old, striking out twice the men he walked. Colon enjoyed minimal improvements the following year before having a really weird age-27 season in which he struck out everyone (10.1 K/9) and walked everyone too (4.7 BB/9). Colon rode a lucky ERA (2.93 vs. his 3.73 FIP) in 2002 to some national media attention, and he even got to enjoy part of the season with his second team, the late Montreal Expos.
Colon saw his strikeout rate tumble after leaving Cleveland for Canada, but he remained effective. The 2002 season was also the first one in which Colon became more of a control pitcher than anything else; he never again struck out more than 7.4 per nine (which came in 2011), but also never walked more than 3.1 per nine. The Angels paid handsomely to add Big Bartolo to their rotation, and he stunk it up at first. Colon’s 2004 featured a 5.01 ERA, 4.97 FIP, and one of the highest home run rates of his career. Colon rewarded the Angels for their patience by winning the Cy Young award the following season. Colon’s results were aided greatly by his stellar 1.74 BB/9 figure, and maybe he didn’t deserve the award (peak-era Johan Santana was around that year, for God’s sake), but the honor almost represented the culmination of several very good seasons mostly in a row.
In fact, Colon had quite the stretch from 1998-2005. Over that eight season period, he was worth between 4 and 5 WAR (per FanGraphs) every season except for that terrible 2004 campaign. That prolonged run of solidity is one reason why Colon has been worth 42 WAR over the course of his career, a number that places him among the 10 most valuable active pitchers when considering total production. Colon has seriously had a career worth remembering, even if it is ending on a strange note and he was never actually the best guy in the game or anything.
Colon has also always been somewhat of a character, ballooning to weights that suggested a man more likely to throw a baseball at you to sneak ahead of you in line at Golden Corral than a man who was throwing baseballs by professional hitters. He, for a long time, had a hair style that could most affectionately be referred to as a “clown perm.” In fact, I once had a softball shirt that commemorated Colon’s massive and majestic follicle mound. If Bartolo never pitches again, I’ll remember him as a very good pitcher who probably relied on banned substances so that he could still play baseball as he approached 40. I don’t plan on demonizing him, and I hope you don’t either.