March 24, 2011
The Yankees’ signing of Bartolo Colon to a minor-league deal in late January was greeted by a chorus of jeers that didn't begin to subside until his successful first outing of the exhibition season. It wasn't that Colon didn’t have a Yankee-caliber pedigree: the Dominican's resume includes two All-Star appearances and three top-ten showings in the Cy Young voting, including a 2005 first-place finish fueled by an AL-leading 21 wins (though that year's award probably should have gone to Johan Santana, who had earned the honors for the first time in 2004 and would return to the winner's circle in 2006). However, while Colon is hardly the first hurler with a history of acehood to be lured to the Bronx, his more recent track record pales in comparison to those of the team’s previous high-profile pitching imports.
By the time Colon was fitted for a supersized set of pinstripes, he’d left his greatest on-field achievements far behind. Since his Cy Young victory, the right-hander has gone 14-21 with a 5.18 ERA in 48 appearances, and his conditioning—the hurler is listed at 5’11”, 265, which might undersell where he'd actually tip the scales—makes him an easy target for the tabloids. Even more damning, Colon sat out the entirety of the 2010 season following a string of injury-plagued campaigns, and he'll turn 38 in May. Considering the question marks associated with the portly pitcher, one can’t blame New York Magazine for crowing, “With Mark Prior and Bartolo Colon on board, Brian Cashman has finally filled out his rotation, provided he can get his hands on that time machine.”
That the Yankees have been forced to rely on such retreads does speak poorly of the club that boasts baseball's biggest revenue stream. This spring, the Yankees have thrown a trio of over-the-hill fifth-starter candidates against the Grapefruit League wall in the hopes that one would stick, and thus far Colon has proven to be by far the most adherent. His primary rivals for the role, Freddy Garcia and Sergio Mitre, have posted spring ERAs near six. (Prior has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen.) In contrast, Colon has strung together four highly effective starts, culminating in a 2.40 ERA with 17 strikeouts and only one walk in 15 innings. Even more encouraging, the scouting reports match the peripherals, as the rotund right-hander's fastball has been clocked at 93 mph, compared to the 89.6 mph it averaged during his last stay in the majors in 2009. Coupled with a strong stint in the Dominican Winter League under the watchful eye of Yankees bench coach Tony Pena—which may have given him a leg up against the rusty hitters he's made mincemeat of so far—Colon's spring performance has made him the apparent leader in the race for the back end of the Bombers' rotation.
Colon's small-sample exploits of this winter and spring can be taken as positive indicators, but they’re hardly conclusive proof of a successful comeback in the making. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system foresees a replacement-level 5.18 ERA in Colon’s immediate future, but we can also look to baseball’s past to determine the likelihood that his unanticipated success will continue. Is there any historical precedent for a successful comeback by a pitcher in Colon’s position? To find out, we assessed the performance of pitchers 35 and older who made at least one start in the majors in a season following a campaign of fewer than 40 innings pitched.
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. If the Yankees do settle on Colon as their fifth starter, they would be wise to keep one of the other candidates on call. 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. The Yankees would be thrilled if he could reproduce that ERA on their roster this season, but even should be manage that feat, he's unlikely to provide both high-level performance and durability, a combination that the club may require in order to outgun the Red Sox and Rays.
The Yankees aren't the only team in recent years to stake their rotation on the hope that a formerly effective pitcher could turn back the clock. A year after the Red Sox took an unsuccessful flyer on Colon, they tried the same trick with John Smoltz, who was recovering from serious shoulder surgery. Although Smoltz’s 3.92 SIERA suggested that he still had something left in the tank, he allowed nearly two home runs per nine innings for Boston, who designated him for assignment in August with 40 innings and an 8.33 ERA to his name. (He would go on to post a more respectable figure for the Cardinals over the balance of the season.)
The Dodgers attempted to salvage some value from Jason Schmidt in 2009 after the high-priced righty missed all of 2008 recovering from shoulder surgery, but he mustered only four starts before calling it a career. As alluded to earlier, Pedro Martinez saw significant time with the Mets in 2008 after losing most of 2007 to a rotator cuff operation, but neither his results (5.61 ERA) nor his stuff lived up to expectations. David Cone authored another underwhelming comeback for the Mets in 2003, making just four ineffective starts before hitting the DL with an arthritic left hip. Upon being activated, he remarked, “Some guys just don't know when to hang it up, you know?” but hung it up himself after a final outing in relief. The list of aborted comebacks includes plenty of other prominent elders, including Jose Rijo, Bret Saberhagen, Dave Stieb, Frank Viola, Dave Righetti, and Mickey Lolich, but despite teams’ willingness to wring one last hurrah out of these formerly fertile arms, few showed any hint of regaining their bygone glory.
The No-Comeback Kids: Prominent Veteran Pitchers After Missing a Year, 2001-2010
After an offseason spent in fruitless pursuit of Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees may have to resign themselves to employing the much-diminished pitcher for whom Lee was once traded, at least until homegrown arms like Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Brackman are ready. The risk is low—Colon will earn only $900,000 if he makes the majors—but the failures of his predecessors suggest that the Yanks' chances of reaping a high reward are even lower. If history is any guide, taking a chance on Colon won't forestall a search for his replacement.
Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.