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April 23, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Bartolo Colon and the Comeback Kids

by Jay Jaffe

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Sure, it came against an Angels lineup whose centerpiece, Albert Pujols, has yet to get untracked, but it was difficult not to be impressed with Bartolo Colon's eight shutout innings last Wednesday. For one thing, it marked the 38-year-old Oakland righty's second consecutive scoreless start; he had tossed seven scoreless against the Mariners on April 13. For another, he reeled off a streak of 38 consecutive strikes, running from the second pitch of the fifth inning through the seventh pitch of the eighth inning, a span that included balls in play; he allowed only a single and a double during that time. Pitch-by-pitch records only go back to 1988, so there's no definitive account of whether Colon set a record, but via the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser, the next-highest known total was 30 in a row by Tim Wakefield in 1998.

Since reemerging with the Yankees last season after five years in the wilderness due to shoulder woes, Colon has done nothing if not pound the strike zone. Relying heavily on a mix of two- and four-seam fastballs that he can pump as high as the mid-90s, he struck out 135 and walked 40 in 164 1/3 innings last year, good for a 3.38 K/BB ratio, 10th in the AL. He led the majors in strikeouts looking thanks to the combination of outstanding movement and incredulity that this rotund 38-year-old zombie could seemingly put the ball wherever he wanted most of the time. Even in his salad days—as opposed to his start-seriously-considering-salad days, Colon excelled in that area, recording more strikeouts looking than any pitcher from 2002-2005, the season in which he won a (rather dubious) Cy Young, then tore his rotator cuff in the postseason, setting off his half-decade walkabout through oblivion.

Colon emerged from that stretch—which saw him post a 5.18 ERA in 257 innings from 2006-2009 and bolt both the Red Sox and White Sox in midseason before sitting out 2010—thanks to a controversial, cutting-edge medical procedure in which he had stem cells from his bone marrow injected back into his elbow and shoulder in an effort to help repair ligament damage and his torn rotator cuff. So successful was that effort that the similarly aged C.J. Nitkowski tried it in a bid for a comeback with the Mets this spring, and Kiko Calero has considered it as well. More damaged pitchers of a certain age will doubtlessly ask their doctors about such a procedure if Colon continues to thrive.

For further evidence of just what a rare breed Colon is, consider that pitchers aged 35 and over who miss full major-league seasons for any reason rarely return to the big-league scene, and when they do, they tend not to last long. Since 1993—a timespan that has included more opportunities than ever for pitchers to extend their careers thanks to the creation of four expansion teams, pitching staff enlargement due to specialization, and the increased use of the disabled list—just 14 have done so. Half of them accumulated less than 25 innings upon returning. Colon already ranks second in post-comeback innings and WARP:

Pitcher

Pre
G

Pre
GS

Pre IP

Pre
ERA

Pre
WARP

Return
Age

Post
G

Post
GS

Post
IP

Post
ERA

Post WARP

Orlando Hernandez

124

121

791.7

4.04

10.3

38

95

90

523.0

4.28

7.0

Bartolo Colon

328

325

2076.7

4.1

26.0

38

33

30

191.7

3.80

2.8

Arthur Rhodes

653

61

1011.0

4.31

15.6

38

247

0

176.7

2.75

2.2

Mike Jackson

835

7

1017.7

3.26

15.9

36

170

0

170.7

4.32

0.6

John Franco

998

0

1150.3

2.75

15.0

42

121

0

95.3

4.63

0.8

Dave Stieb

424

409

2845.0

3.41

25.4

40

19

3

50.3

4.83

0.4

Mark Leiter

315

146

1148.3

4.60

8.9

38

20

3

36.0

3.75

0.3

Todd Stottlemyre

367

335

2171.3

4.25

18.0

37

5

4

20.3

7.52

-0.3

David Cone

445

415

2880.7

3.44

49.4

40

5

4

18.0

6.50

-0.1

Brett Tomko

389

266

1798.3

4.65

12.6

38

8

0

17.7

4.58

-0.3

Jamie Moyer

686

628

4020.3

4.24

38.2

49

3

3

17.7

2.55

0.1

Bret Saberhagen

396

368

2547.7

3.33

40.2

37

3

3

15.0

6.00

0.3

Kent Mercker

677

150

1311.7

4.16

10.1

40

15

0

13.7

3.29

0.0

Hideo Nomo

320

318

1972.0

4.21

26.9

39

3

0

4.3

18.69

-0.4

Totals

6957

3549

26473

3.90

313.0

 

747

140

1350

4.18

13.4

To the extent that these pitchers were able to return to action, their performances took a relatively modest hit collectively, in part because they were were on such short leashes that if they underperformed drastically, they were likely to wind up back on the disabled list or the waiver wire. Collectively, their ERAs rose 0.28, while their FIPs rose 0.38 (from 4.05 to 4.43) and their Fair Run Averages 0.22 (from 4.54 to 4.76). Their strikeout rates actually rose as well, from 6.7 to 7.1, but that oddity owes disproportionately to one pitcher you’ll read more about below.

Four of these pitchers missed full seasons due to Tommy John surgery. Not coincidentally, all were lefties: Rhodes, Franco, Mercker, and Moyer. All had the fortune of undergoing a procedure that has become relatively routine in terms of recovery time, and because of their handedness, all had a pretty good inkling that a job would await them if they could rehab their way back despite their advanced ages. If you're left-handed and can throw a baseball 60 feet, your phone will ring. Moyer, of course, is the one in the headlines these days, in the midst of a remarkable comeback at age 49 after missing the last two months of 2010 and all of 2011 due to TJS. After two mediocre starts for the Rockies against Houston and San Diego, he became the oldest pitcher ever to notch a win when he threw seven shutout innings against the Padres on April 17, this despite not throwing a single pitch that broke 80 mph.

Rhodes, who spent most of his career as a LOOGY, rates among the most positive stories here, as he was more effective upon returning in terms of both ERA and FIP (3.94 pre-absence, 3.51 after). After post-season disappointments with Baltimore (1996-1997) and Seattle (2000-2001), he reached October again with the Reds in 2010 (after making the All-Star team for the first time), and last year not only made the World Series for the first time in his 20-year career, but he also had the distinction of spending time with both Series participants. He began the year with the Rangers but was released on August 8, then got picked up by the Cardinals and sparkled in the postseason, retiring nine out of 10 hitters and yielding just one walk. He told reporters last fall that he wanted to play one more season, but he didn't go to camp this spring and may have decided that helping his team to a Game Seven win by getting a key out is a pretty good way to ride into the sunset.

Franco had already been to a World Series and had saved 422 games over the course of an 18-year career with the Reds and Mets when he underwent surgery. He was reasonably effective upon returning in 2003 at age 42 (2.62 ERA in 34 1/3 innings), but he struggled in 2004 and spent a half-season as a LOOGY in Houston before losing his job. Mercker didn't even last half a season, primarily due to lower back woes that limited him to just two appearances after May 4.

Nomo didn't have Tommy John surgery, but he didn't last long after coming back from an elbow cleanup. He had pitched his way out of the major leagues in 2005, getting torched for a 7.24 ERA in 19 starts for the Devil Rays before being released, then failing to convince the Yankees he was worthy of a recall after a stint at Triple-A. He missed all of 2006-2007 at the major-league level and made just one minor-league appearance in the White Sox organization in the former year before going under the knife. He pitched in the Venezuelan winter league in late 2007, but didn't make it through the following April in his return with the Royals.

Nomo's pattern is more typical of the pitchers who missed full seasons due to shoulder surgery, most of whom have generally fared less well than the elbow gang. Saberhagen had actually undergone two prior surgeries before missing the 2000 season. He lasted just three starts when he came back in 2001. Stottlemyre was a victim of multiple surgeries as well, but all of them piled up at once. He missed 2001 after undergoing elbow, shoulder, knee, and hernia surgeries, and was also battling a thoracic nerve problem. He continued to have so much trouble that he made just one appearance after May 1, 2002. Leiter missed most of 1999 and all of 2000 due to rotator cuff surgery; he was active for the first six weeks of 2001, and then hit the DL until rosters expanded in September, though at least he appears to have walked away on his own terms after a busy month.

Jackson was something of a success story in that he actually returned from not one but two missed seasons late in his career. He lost 2000, his age-35 season, to surgery to repair a torn labrum, struggled with Houston in 2001 (4.70 ERA, −0.2 WARP in 69 innings), pitched well with the Twins in 2002 (3.27 ERA, 0.7 WARP in 55 innings), then cooled his heels in 2003 after being cut by the Diamondbacks at the end of spring training. He returned in 2004 and threw 46 2/3 innings of 5.01 ERA ball, a stint notable mainly because he became the ninth pitcher ever to throw 1,000 games (15 have now done so).

The enigmatic and seemingly ageless “El Duque” Hernandez holds the record for the most innings pitched and the highest WARP following a late-career full-season absence. He alone accounts for 39 percent of the post-absence innings to date, 64 percent of the starts, and 52 percent of the WARP. After occasionally dazzling during his 1998-2002 stint with the Yankees, he was traded to the Expos in a three-way deal in early 2003 but ended up missing the year due to rotator cuff surgery. Re-signed by the Yankees the following spring, he rehabbed his way back by midseason and gave the team a strong 15-start stint (3.30 ERA, 2.3 WARP in 84 2/3 innings). He spent the next four seasons bouncing from the White Sox to the Diamondbacks to the Nationals, generally effective when available. He last pitched in the majors with the Mets in 2007 but had stints in the minors in 2008 (Mets), 2009 (Rangers) and 2010 (Nationals) in search of yet another return before finally hanging up his spikes just shy of his 45th birthday.

Interestingly, it's Hernandez to whom the higher post-absence strikeout rate owes. He was particularly able to miss bats once he moved to the NL, where he whiffed 8.5 per nine in 310 innings, compared to 7.1 per nine during his days in the AL. Take his contributions away from the before and after groups and the K rate drops from 6.7 to 6.5, this during an era when strikeout rates have consistently been on the rise.

Tomko may not have written his last chapter yet. He missed 2010 due to thoracic outlet syndrome, and then made a brief return to the Rangers early last year before spending most of the season in Triple-A. He's currently pitching for the Cardinals' Triple-A Louisville affiliate, awaiting one more call.

Stieb and Cone both came back after retirements. The former was considered one of the majors' best pitchers in the 1980s with the Blue Jays, making seven All-Star teams from 1980-1990, and finishing as high as fourth in the Cy Young balloting. He was perhaps most famous for his near no-hitters, four of which he took into the ninth before giving up hits, including back-to-back starts in 1988 when he was one strike away from finishing the job. Fortunately, he did complete a no-hitter against the Indians in 1990. He was still around during the 1992 season when the Blue Jays won a world championship, but back troubles shut him down in August of that year, and he made just four appearances with the White Sox in 1993 before retiring due to continued problems. He mounted a comeback in 1998 at age 40, spending the second half of the season mostly pitching out of the Blue Jays' bullpen without recapturing his former glory.

Cone's retirement and return were both even more short-lived. After enduring a gruesome 2000 season with the Yankees in which he was lit for a 6.91 ERA, he had salvaged his dignity with a solid season in Boston in 2001, then sat out the 2002 season, effectively retired. He mounted a comeback with the Mets in spring 2003 and broke camp as the team's fifth starter, but he hit the disabled list for five weeks with a hip injury after four starts and made just one more appearance before retiring due to arthritis in his hip. Ironically, the Mets used his roster space to activate Franco in his return from Tommy John surgery.

Speaking of ex-Yankees, there's one more pitcher who's likely to reach this list in the coming weeks. Forty-year-old Andy Pettitte is in the midst of a comeback attempt for the Bronx Bombers after sitting out all of last season; thus far, he has made two starts for the Yankees' High-A Tampa affiliate and is scheduled to start for their Double-A Trenton affiliate on Wednesday. Though he lost most of the second half of the 2010 season due to a groin injury, Pettitte had been pitching at a high level when he retired, posting a 3.28 ERA in 129 innings and taking a pair of strong turns in the postseason. As odd as it sounds, he nonetheless faces a steep uphill battle to provide the kind of comeback contribution that Colon has.

Last year, Colon wore down during the second half, with his ERA climbing from 3.20 to 4.96 as his home-run rate crept upward, his strikeout rate dipped, and his batting average on balls in play shot from .279 to .335. Then again, he had pitched winter ball prior to the season, so it's not surprising he hit the wall, so to speak. With a winter off and a chance to pitch in a pitcher-friendly ballpark in a particularly pitcher-friendly division for a team that isn't likely to contend, he's in the early stages of positioning himself as an attractive deadline acquisition for some team. Who knows where else his unlikely comeback will take him?

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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