With Bartolo Colon closing in on a spot on the Yankees' pitching staff and possibly even a role in the rotation, the number one question — besides, "What in the hell, the Yankees really wouldn't do that, right?" and "Daddy, did they have to sew two shirts together to put a uniform on that guy?" — concerning the burly rotation hopeful is, "How good can he be?" After all, this is a pitcher who since blowing out his shoulder in the 2005 postseason has gone 14-21 with a 5.18 ERA in parts of four big league seasons, never making more than 18 starts, and not pitching at all last year. As noted before, many a pitcher has wandered in from the outskirts of oblivion to put up passable spring stats, only to quickly revert to being his subpar self once the regular season began.
Today, Baseball Prospectus colleague Ben Lindbergh takes a look at the grim historical precedents among pitchers aged 35 and older who made at least one start in the majors following a season of fewer than 40 big league innings the season before:
Fifty-four pitchers have attempted such comebacks since 1954. The results offer scant grounds for optimism: as a result of both advanced age and the injuries that caused them to miss time in the first place, almost none of these hurlers resembled the players they’d been before their respective layoffs... Only three age-35-plus pitchers have managed to last as many as 100 innings as a starter after spending a season (or most of a season) away from the game, and two of those—Bert Blyleven and Pedro Martinez—are headed for the Hall of Fame. The third was John Tudor (a Cy Young runner-up in his own right), who made 22 starts with a 2.54 ERA for the 1990 Cardinals, only to retire immediately afterward as a result of the same elbow woes that had kept him out in 1989.
Tudor's comeback season has no analogue in the historical record. The best ERA recorded by any non-Tudor qualifier to make more than six starts in his comeback season—4.19—belonged to Colon himself, who received an audition from the White Sox in 2009 after throwing only 39 innings for the Red Sox the previous year before back stiffness sent him home to the Dominican Republic. After 62 1/3 innings for Chicago, Colon again succumbed to injuries, this time to his elbow and knee.
Lindbergh's article also includes an incomplete list of the more prominent names in the batch:
Name Year Age IP ERA
John Smoltz 2009 42 78.0 6.35
Bartolo Colon 2009 36 62.3 4.19
Jason Schmidt 2009 36 17.7 5.60
Pedro Martinez 2008 36 109.0 5.61
David Cone 2003 40 18.0 6.50
Jose Rijo 2002 37 77.0 5.14
Bret Saberhagen 2001 37 15.0 6.00
Ouch. That table accounts for eight Cy Young awards, but none of those once-great pitchers — including Colon, whose last go-round with the White Sox is represented — was able to muster anything close to a complete season, and of that group, only Martinez, who enjoyed a nice late-2009 comeback with the Phillies, did anything of note in the years following the seasons listed above.
Because of the limitations of Linbergh's query, I decided to take a slightly different tack and search for comeback candidates who fit the pattern of Colon's post-breakdown career. Using the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, I sought pitchers who from their age 33 seasons onward (the same age as Colon when he began his comeback) pitched at least 250 innings total with a 4.75 ERA or higher. Not terribly surprisingly, very few pitchers fit the bill, because who wants to keep giving such over-the-hill types the ball when you've got kids on the farm to break in? (Wait, don't answer that). Just 44 hurlers in that post-1954 time frame lasted that long while pitching that poorly.
From among that group of pitchers caught in a downward spiral, I went looking to see what kind of upside there was to be had, looking for any 75-inning seasons — roughly half a season as a fifth starter, basically — which those pitchers put up in their age 36 or older seasons. Suffice it to say that they were few, far between, and mostly better left under the rocks where they were hiding:
Pitcher Age Year Team IP ERA
Tim Belcher 36 1998 KCR 234.0 4.27
Aaron Sele 36 2006 LAD 103.1 4.53
Brian Moehler 36 2008 HOU 150.0 4.56
Steve Sparks 37 2003 2Tm 107.0 4.88
Steve Trachsel 36 2007 2Tm 158.0 4.90
Mark Hendrickson 36 2010 BAL 75.1 5.26
Vic Raschi 36 1955 KCA 101.1 5.42
Brian Moehler 37 2009 HOU 154.2 5.47
Bill Swift 36 1998 SEA 144.2 5.85
Mark Langston 37 1998 SDP 81.1 5.86
Pedro Astacio 37 2006 WAS 90.1 5.98
Steve Sparks 38 2004 ARI 120.2 6.04
Paul Abbott 36 2004 2Tm 96.0 6.47
Tim Belcher 37 1999 ANA 132.1 6.73
Seventeen of those 44 pitchers were so bad from ages 33-35 that they didn't even make it to their age 36 seasons, and a few more just limped over the line. In all, 12 men were able to reach 75 innings in a single season from amid their late-career slides, three of them doing so twice. Two not listed above (Rick White 2005 and Dave Burba 2004) did so entirely in relief roles, so I excluded them from the table. Belcher, who was still a healthy workhorse at that point in his career, and Sele, who pitched in a utility role, were the only ones who managed at least an ERA+ of 100 in one of those seasons.
Because of the limitations of the Play Index, It's possible I've missed somebody who more or less fit the bill but pitched well enough in one of those seasons to take his ERA from age 33 and beyond below 4.75. However, lowering the cutoff to 4.50 nearly doubles the size of the group, and gets further away from the type of latter day performance Colon has offered to date.
All in all, the numbers suggest that no matter how good a spring Colon has had — and tip your cap to him, because he's had a hell of one — the odds of him giving the Yankees something substantial at his advanced age and with his track record are as slim as he ain't. Or something like that.