If he hadn’t out-pitched Justin Verlander and completely baffled the defending world champions for seven innings on Sunday Night Baseball last week, there is a decent chance that Bartolo Colon might not have started another game for the Texas Rangers. The pitcher whose spot Colon filled last Sunday is now healthy, that pitcher beat Colon for that place in the rotation with relative ease after a spring competition that played out like a bleak dizzy-bat race, and while Colon had pitched well in a previous spot start, his role with Texas is that of an all-purpose innings absorber. On Saturday, in his first start since the one in which he carried a perfect game into the eighth, Colon took a no-decision after allowing four runs in five-and-two-thirds innings against the Mariners. He threw 78 pitches, and the Mariners swung and missed at just three.
A month from his 45th birthday, this is where Bartolo Colon is in his career—keeping Doug Fister’s rotation slot warm, soaking up carelessly spilled innings as directed, changing uniforms as needed. That Colon is still capable of short-circuiting one of baseball’s scariest lineups with nothing but 86-mile-per-hour fastballs for seven innings and change is not any less miraculous than it sounds and reliably even stranger to watch than you’d imagine.
When Colon is right, his two-seam fastball moves at about the same speed that it does when he is not, but it tumbles or darts in subtle but insistent ways and winds up precisely where he wants it to. When he is not right, it is just an 86-mile-per-hour fastball, which is to say that it looks to Major League hitters like one of those gigantic Renaissance Faire turkey legs. This has been Colon’s reality more or less since he successfully rebooted his career in 2009 after missing most of the previous three seasons. He was 38 then and roughly as knobby and Muppetesque as he is now, and during the six seasons that followed he proceeded to pitch somewhere between effectively and brilliantly while throwing more or less that one pitch, repeatedly and notably slower than any of his peers throw it.
When Colon finally pitched badly last year—more precisely he pitched terribly in Atlanta and merely poorly in Minnesota—the experience of watching him serve up one scalding double after another made more visual sense than the years of inexplicable ease that preceded it. When Colon made his first All-Star team as a 25-year-old, back in 1998, he pitched like an All-Star pitcher; when he made his fourth and most recent one, as a 43-year-old in 2016, he pitched like a Jugs machine. It has never made nearly as much sense that Colon was not just surviving but thriving with nothing but these laser-guided meatballs, and when they were finally treated as rudely as such pitches are generally treated it at least scanned. He is still Bartolo Colon, and as such still absolutely capable of carrying a perfect game into the eighth inning against the fucking Houston Astros without ever really seeming to notice that he was pitching in a baseball game. But he is also, in both the most specific and broadest senses, hanging on from one appearance to the next.
The Rangers need pitching as much as every other big league team, and they will take it from Colon for as long as he’s able to give them a usable version of it. Because no one has really done what Bartolo Colon has already done, it’s hard to know how long this will last. Because it seems likely that he will just continue doing the same strange thing he’s done for the last seven seasons, it is safe to say that watching him do it will be great television, both because he pitches in such a peculiar and refined way and because he pitches with the blissed-out anti-urgency of a retiree idly perusing socket wrenches at Lowe’s. Periodically he will do something amazing—shut down the Astros, or somehow outrun Dee Gordon over a short distance. It will all be very odd and good.
But while we might as well appreciate what Colon does for as long as it’s worth appreciating, there is one element of Colon’s career that’s just as easy to enjoy on days when he’s not out there doing the strange thing he does. It’s a nerdy one, and necessarily a little abstract, but as I have recently and happily lost decent portions of some afternoons to it I feel compelled to share it with the general public. Here it is.
That is a link to Baseball Reference’s collection of Bartolo Colon’s record against every batter he has faced over the past two decades and change, and it is as crystalline and appropriately uncanny a representation of what Colon has done and is still somehow doing as any of the individuated highlights that he still periodically throws off. Baseball has changed a great deal since Colon debuted in 1997, but it has also turned over multiple times; it is one thing to say that Colon started pitching in the majors when Bill Clinton was President of the United States, but it makes more concrete emotional sense, at least to me, when you consider that Colon faced Kevin Elster and Kevin Young and Jim Leyritz and Tim Raines and Mike Blowers six times each.
It is normal to have a hard time getting your head around what Colon does and how long he’s done it, but I think this is the way. Bartolo Colon has been some version of Bartolo Colon at the Major League level long enough to have struck out Tim Salmon 13 times and Dean Palmer 12 (in just 25 at-bats). Colon has pitched in the majors for Mo Vaughn Hit Four Homers Off Him years. He is Quinton McCracken Hit Two Triples Off Him years of age. Colon never retired J.T. Snow or Andy Benes or Mark Lewis; neither Charlie Hayes nor Eddie Murray nor Rich Aurilia ever got a hit off him. He struck out Chili Davis four times, Otis Nixon three times, Gregg Jeffries and Terry Steinbach twice each, and Darryl Strawberry once. That’s Bartolo Colon. I hope this helps.