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He's a rotund, cuddly teddy bear out there on the mound, the kind of guy who should have his own rocking chair in the dugout. Perhaps the bat boy should bring him slippers and a pipe between innings.
At age 44, Bartolo Colon just keeps on throwing strikes, like he did last Thursday as his Twins trimmed the White Sox 5-4 to complete a three-game sweep of the South Siders. Leaving after six innings of work with the scored tied at 3, Colon kept his team in the game despite giving up 10 hits, not an unusual occurrence for the 20-year veteran who clearly loves to pitch and compete.
Steve Stone reminded viewers time and again that Colon throws his fastball more than 80 percent of the time. Early in his career, the Dominican righthander's heater was consistently in the mid-90s, and he reached 92 last week.
But that's not the story. Pinpoint control is. Colon rarely walks anyone. He's issued 10 passes in 55 innings for the Twins this season. Against the White Sox, he didn't walk anyone. If a fastball under the hitter's hands is called for, Colon is your man. If an opponent tends to swing at pitches in his eyes, Colon is more than willing to cooperate.
Colon appeared to be finished in 2009 when he was a member of the White Sox. Ineffectiveness and arm woes sent him to the DL, and he actually disappeared in July. Then-manager Ozzie Guillen confessed that he didn't know the whereabouts of his pitcher. Colon was inactive the entire 2010 season before making a comeback with the Yankees in 2011 when he was 38.
When the great Cuban pitcher Luis Tiant rebounded similarly in the early '70s, Harry Caray commented, "You coulda had this guy for a ham sandwich," as Tiant went on to win 146 games after a disastrous 1970 season in Boston when he won just one game.
It might have taken some cheese added to the ham to sign Colon seven years ago after he underwent stem cell treatments in the Dominican Republic for elbow and shoulder injuries. Dr. Joseph Purita, who got his medical training at Georgetown, used Colon's own stem cells from his bone marrow and fat, of which he had plenty. Injecting those cells into Colon's torn rotator cuff apparently did wonders.
"This is not hocus pocus," Dr. Purita told the New York Times, consistently denying that human growth hormone had anything to do with Colon's miraculous recovery. The big guy did lose 50 games to suspension in 2012 for synthetic testosterone, but who can be sure that this had anything to do with his desire to dominate opposing batters. It all makes for a storybook tale.
We assume that young Sox pitchers like Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodon and Reynaldo Lopez were watching closely last Thursday. All are capable of throwing hard and striking people out. Yet Colon, using an assortment of dancing fastballs, fanned eight in his six innings against the Sox while displaying his unflappable manner with runners on base.
Sox pitchers this season have walked 530 batters, more than any other staff in baseball. Last week, while losing four of six games, they put 23 runners on base via the walk. Seven of those scored. Consider that the Sox dropped 6-4 and 5-4 decisions to Minnesota and a 3-1 decision on Friday against Tampa Bay, and you might have the answer to why Ricky Renteria's ballclub is no closer to .500 than 27 games.
Sure, this is a rebuilding team, but you still have every reason to believe that big league pitchers have to ability to throw strikes. As silly and simple as it sounds, there is no defense for bases on balls. The batter always gets on base. Is it too much to expect that anyone whose talent propels them to the major league level would have the ability to get the ball over the plate? Apparently, that is a false assumption.
Historically there have been other pitchers who enjoyed longevity because of their command of the strike zone. Jamie Moyer gave up more home runs (522) than anyone in history, yet he pitched for 25 seasons, retiring at age 49 in 2012 with 269 wins. Key to his success were the 2.6 walks per nine innings that Moyer accounted for.
The next four pitchers in home runs allowed - Robin Roberts, Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, and Don Sutton - are all in the Hall of Fame, and none walked more than three batters per nine innings. Furthermore, all pitched at least 19 years in the big leagues. Roberts retired when he was 39, the youngest of the quartet to do so. Knuckleballer Niekro pitched until he was 48.
Fans love the old guys who rely on guile and cunning to befuddle hitters. Greg Maddux's 23 years, 355 wins, 3.16 ERA, and, lest we be remiss, the 1.6 walks per nine innings are mind-numbing milestones that are so much more meaningful and important than today's soup de jour of exit velocity, 100 mph hummers, and tape measure dingers.
However, we may have seen the last of the 40-year-olds who continue to be effective due to their ability to hit spots and fool hitters. Today's top pitchers like Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber and Zach Greinke have not been called upon, as yet, to cajole and nudge hitters with an array of laser-directed fastballs, off-speed offerings, with maybe a knuckler or two mixed in.
No pitcher in baseball history has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than ex-Sox Sale, whose 5.11 mark is markedly better than the runner-up, a guy named Tommy Bond whose last pitch was thrown in 1882. Sale is just 28. If he keeps this up for the next dozen years, throwing as hard as he does, he'll be one of the greatest of all-time. We'll see, but his style is nothing like the vast majority of the pitchers who have enjoyed notable longevity.
While on the topic of pitching, Chicago was the scene of a rare phenomenon on Sunday. Last week I noted that White Sox prospect Lucas Giolito was a product of the Harvard-Westlake School, the tony private school in Los Angeles. He and prep teammate Max Fried both were first-round draft choices in 2012.
As fate would have it, both were starting pitchers Sunday 70 blocks apart in Chicago. Giolito took the mound for the Sox while Fried, pitching for Atlanta, faced the Cubs at Wrigley. Both allowed a single run - Giolito over seven innings and Fried over five - earning victories, the first for Fried and the second for Giolito. I'm not sure if the saber guys keep tabs on events like this, but I'd bet two high school teammates have never been starting and winning pitchers the same afternoon in the same city where one of them (Fried) was making his first-ever big league start.
Giolito was magnificent. The lone blemish was a solo home run off the bat of Lucas Duda. Giolito fanned 10 and - you knew this was coming - he walked just one hitter. Who knows? He might have been paying special attention to Colon last Thursday.
Joining Giolito on the mound last week for the White Sox were young prospects Carlos Rodon, Carson Fulmer and Reynaldo Lopez. The foursome accounted for 19 innings pitched, allowing just 11 hits, six walks and 23 strikeouts. Their combined ERA was 2.84, and Fulmer got his first major league win on Saturday in a rain-delayed 5-4 win over the Rays.
With 27 games remaining on the schedule, the opportunity to observe the progression of the Sox' young pitchers is enough to keep our interest. Now if they just keep throwing strikes.
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