Bartolo Colon is the ultimate strawman. He’s a glimmer of hope for every old-timer, has-been, or never-was.
Listed at 5’11”, 285 pounds, and 45-years-old, this living incarnation of a meme threw 146 1⁄3 innings for the Texas Rangers in 2018. They weren’t particularly good innings (5.47 FIP, 81 strikeouts), but they were innings all the same, and in the major leagues no less.
“If he can do it, why can’t I?” asks the local loudmouth at happy hour. “I’m younger and in much better shape! I can do what he does easily!”
As the voice of reason (or at least possibly sobriety), you point out that he’s been pitching in the major leagues since 1997, and despite his appearance, is a world class athlete.
“C’mon,” burps your light beer-chugging counterpart, “Look at him! He’s even more of a sloppy mess than me! You can’t honestly believe he’s any kind of real ballplayer!”
You turn to the TV. You didn’t see the play, but Colon is sitting on his keister between the mound and first base, grinning stupidly. He’s not making it easy for you to defend him. Given his performance, appearance, and comportment, you begin to realize you’re losing the debate.
If only there was something remaining of the former Cy Young winner, you could prove he was still a high caliber athlete. As it turns out, there is!
Lowest BB% in Three Ball Counts, 2018
Out of all MLB pitchers who reached at least 50 three-ball counts in 2018, only Bartolo Colon threw ball four less than 1⁄4 of the time!
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean he’s successful. There are worse things than walks. His .534 slugging percentage against in three-ball counts was one of the worst in the league: he gave up 21 hits and four home runs. He’s one of only seven pitchers to strike out less than ten percent of opponents in three ball counts.
Regardless, it’s good to lead the league in something. It validates his continued employment as a baseball player just a little. However, maybe a few more walks would’ve been better than some of those hits.
Colon is not an anomaly; here’s another pitchers who might need to work on his three-ball count approach:
The Dodgers’ All-Star swingman enjoyed a breakout year in 2018. His 6.18 strikeout:walk ratio was fourth best in baseball (minimum 120 innings) behind Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber. That’s great company to have on any leaderboard!
While Stripling doesn’t reach three-ball counts very often, he needs to rethink how he pitches in those situations. As shown above, he was second-best behind only Colon in fewest walks allowed. Also like Colon, this means he probably left too many fat pitches over the plate in order to avoid a walk.
Batters tagged him for seven dingers in 86 three-ball counts, which was the second worst home run rate in baseball behind Anthony Desclafani. His .688 slugging percentage allowed was the third worst trailing only Jason Vargas and Domingo German. Now he’s no longer keeping such great company.
It’s not difficult to see why Stripling gets hit so hard in three-ball counts.
Stripling hangs out in the middle of the strike zone way too much. Obviously, he’s trying to avoid walks, but at a great cost. Batters tee off those get-me-over pitches because they’re usually right down the middle.
On the Other Hand
Only one pitcher finished in the top ten in both walk rate and strikeout rate with three balls. Justin Verlander reached 141 three-ball counts, striking out 46 batters while walking only 37.
Verlander’s zone profile with his back to the wall is much more diverse than Stripling’s. He varies his location quite a bit, but generally likes to bust right-handed hitters inside. The results show that he’s much more effective.
Most likely, none of this will win you an argument in a sports bar. You’ll have to settle for an inner feeling of intellectual superiority over the guy yelling at the TV. It’s also still nice to know that even Colon is still the best in the game at something. Especially since he wants to come back in 2019.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983