For the better part of the last three years, Bartolo Colon has been a fan favorite, arguably one of the most popular and well-known players in the league. After going through a resurgence period with the Yankees in 2011, and then with the Athletics, he became even more popular with the Mets. There his difficulties hitting, his ultimate triumph in swatting a home run, and remarkable consistency for a pitcher over 40 made him somewhat of an oddity and object of fascination.
It’s incredibly rare to see pitchers perform at that age, given the difficulty of pitching in the era of Tommy John Surgery. At the same time, though, it’s likely that there will always be a few in baseball at a time. If you can dodge that injury bullet, modern conditioning and nutrition can keep a pitcher going for a while.
Despite his rough start to the season, Colon is remarkable for a starter over 40. In the post-World War II era, Colon is 8th in fWAR for pitchers in their forties. He also sports the third-lowest walk rate and sits 13th in FIP-. Considering he isn’t some generational talent like a Randy Johnson, this is just incredible.
There very well could be another Colon, though, and it might be CC Sabathia. Colon and Sabathia had similar career up until their age 34 seasons. At that point Sabathia had a 117 ERA+, and Colon a 112. While Sabathia was much better, and pitched for nearly a thousand more innings in that time, they were similarly aces until their late career.
That’s when the bottoms fell out. Colon had serious shoulder and elbow problems, which is why he only threw about 200 innings from 2007 to 2010. At that time, it seemed like he would be out of baseball completely. Sabathia has been dealing with a degenerative knee condition that caused him to miss most of 2014, and he had his own struggle with alcoholism that came to a head at the end of 2015. He went into treatment late that year.
Both, however, bounced back to some degrees. Colon’s comeback was extensive: from 2011 to the 2013 with the Yankees and Athletics, he pitched to a 121 ERA+, cutting his walk rate in half and reducing hard contact. He tailed off a bit with the Mets and Braves, a cumulative 91 ERA+, but he has logged 644 innings in that time. This has a lot of value in the modern league.
Sabathia’s future is unclear, obviously, but I trust his new profile a lot more than the pitcher who struggled from 2013 to 2015. The key to success is basically pitching backwards. Instead of throwing his four-seam fastball at a 60% frequency, he’s throwing it only about a quarter of the time. He’s also mixing in a cutter along with his usual slider and changeup. Even though the home run can still bite him, and his loss of velocity means he’ll never be elite again, he is great at one thing: inducing weak contact.
Pitching into your forties is incredibly difficult, which is why there are only 33 qualified instances since World War II. I’m not sure if Sabathia can do that—I certainly wouldn’t bet on it—but I think he’s a candidate to be a good late career starter, something that is still rare. As long as he is able to keep his knee at bay, which might be a tall order, he has the makings of a league average innings eater. Every team needs that. It may not be the Yankees, but after this season, some team is going to try to harness that Colon-esque magic for as long as possible.