Going into 2011, the Yankees had a bit of a pitching problem. They had CC Sabathia as the reliable ace at the top of the rotation, but after that, things were a bit iffy.
A.J. Burnett had struggled in 2010, and it was unclear what he could bring to the table. Phil Hughes started out 2010 well and made the All-Star team, but fell off down the stretch. The Javier Vázquez 2.0 experiment from the previous season failed and he left in free agency. Andy Pettitte wouldn’t pitch as he had what ended up being a gap year, “retiring” after 2010 — although he would later return for 2012 and ‘13.
That left the rotation in a bit of weird spot. Burnett and Hughes would prove to be unreliable. Veteran Freddy Garcia and Iván Nova would help pick up the slack somewhat, but that still left a bit of a hole.
That hole would end up being filled in one of the more unexpected source in recent memory in Bartolo Colon.
2011 Statistics: 29 games, 26 starts, 164.1 innings, 8-10, 4.00 ERA, 107 ERA+, 3.83 FIP, 1.290 WHIP, 1.5 bWAR, 2.3 fWAR
After debuting with Cleveland in 1997, Colon had become a renowned pitcher over the next decade. He was a multi-time All-Star and won the Cy Young Award with the Angels in 2005. However, he fell off a cliff after that and played for three different teams in the four seasons after winning the Cy.
That drop came in large part due to injuries. Things got so bad that he would miss the entire 2010 season after undergoing surgery. Said surgery would be a bit controversial as it involved using stem cells to help repair Colon’s damaged shoulder. MLB did clear the procedure, and Colon announced that he would attempt a comeback. In January 2011, the Yankees decided to be the team to give him that chance and signed him to a minor league deal.
In spring training, Colon impressed, putting up a 2.25 ERA in 16 innings, striking out 17 batters. He was good enough that when the Yankees broke camp, they brought Colon with them, giving him a spot in the bullpen.
Colon made his first three appearances of the season out of the bullpen in long relief duty. However, after a horrid start to the season, the Yankees placed Phil Hughes on the injured list with a “dead arm.” Needing a starter, they gave Colon the ball on April 20th in Hughes’ spot in the rotation.
That day, Colon was pretty good, allowing two runs in 6.2 innings as the Yankees beat the Blue Jays. Including that day, he then went on a run of 10 starts with a 2.96 ERA in 67 innings, holding down a rotation place with the Yankees in a pretty tough spot.
In the 10th of those starts on June 11th, he came down with a hamstring strain after injuring it while covering first base on a grounder, and would be out until July.
When Colon did return, he was not quite the same pitcher he was before the injury. He put up a 4.81 ERA for the rest of the regular season, leaving his overall season total at 4.00. He ended up being put in the bullpen for the postseason, where he wasn’t used in the ALDS loss to the Tigers.
That being said, without his run right after joining the rotation, who knows where the Yankees end up. They won 14 of the games Colon started, and he was a massively important steadying force with Burnett and Hughes struggling. His overall season numbers don’t look as good as some of the others who made this Top 25 list, but he was a such a fun, out-of-nowhere addition to the team.
Colon’s 2011 with the Yankees also kickstarted a career resurgence, albeit not in the Bronx. He would go on to play seven more seasons, making two more All-Star appearances, and generally became a beloved figure across the league. Him hitting a home run in a 2016 game is one of the funniest baseball moments in recent memory.
Twelve years later, it is somewhat easy to forget about Bartolo Colon’s brief tenure as a Yankees. However, in the moment, it was so unbelievably fun.