This afternoon in Oakland, the A’s face off against the Mets in a storyline-rich matchup of Scott Kazmir (whom the A’s signed over the offseason) and Bartolo Colon (whom the A’s allowed to leave because they’d signed Kazmir instead). Colon hasn’t been bad—he leads the American League in walk rate—but Kazmir leads the AL in ERA, so thus far, advantage A’s. Perhaps with that in mind, manager Bob Melvin was in a good enough mood to get a little lighthearted when discussing his team's approach against Colon:
I’m looking forward to watching him hit, not necessarily looking forward to facing him. I did [see his double recently]. I’ve seen some of his hacks here before, too. We may walk Bartolo intentionally a couple of times just to get him on the basepaths, see him run around a little bit.
Melvin was kidding, of course, but the first commenter on the HardballTalk post where I saw the story linked put into words what I was already wondering:
Honestly, is this that bad of an idea? I know the pitcher is supposed to be an easy out, but if you can get him to run around a lot more, thereby tiring him out and hopefully getting into the bullpen sooner…
As it happens, Russell Carleton and Eric Seidman wrote about the effect that hitting has on pitchers in the inning after a plate appearance in a 2010 BP piece, concluding that if there is one, it’s subtle enough to ignore:
The probabilities of the plate appearance ending in a strikeout went down by a matter of a few hundredths of a percentage point. Prorated out to 700 plate appearances, the effect was three strikeouts lost. Most of those percentage points seemed to go into the outs-in-play bin (about 2.5 of those strikeouts). That's assuming that a pitcher had to pitch after having just batted all the time. There was also an even smaller effect in which the rate of singles went down and the rate of extra-base hits went up slightly. It appears that a pitcher does become a little bit easier to hit and to hit hard. However, the scale of these effects was so small as to be negligible to any decision-making process.
A commenter on that piece, AWBenkert, noted:
A well-conditioned professional athlete ought to be able to sprint 30 yards without falling apart.
In this case, though, we’re discussing Colon, who isn’t anyone’s exemplar of a well-conditioned athlete. The 41-year-old righty rarely runs all the way to the first-base bag on an out, but he was winded after doubling and scoring in his most recent start:
Forget what the run expectancy tables and simulations say about the wisdom of intentionally putting a terrible batter on base. (They won't say it's wise.) We're speculating only about the impact on the pitcher, and if there’s any pitcher who would get a little loose on the mound after having to run around the bases, it’s Bartolo Colon. So how has he fared in the past when he’s returned to the mound after being on base?
Colon is famous for his 73:0 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he does have 11 career hits, and he’s been on base 14 times. (If you’re anything like me, you need to know: He’s totaled -0.65 Baserunning Runs). Here’s a list of those on-base events, eight of which came during his time with the Expos in 2002. (Admittedly, Colon was a much younger man then, but he wasn’t exactly svelte.)
The results: Colon completed the half-inning after his on-base adventure 13 out of 14 times. (On one occasion, he recorded only two outs.) In those 13 2/3 frames, he allowed six earned runs, giving him a 3.95 ERA. Bartolo Colon’s career ERA? 3.94. No difference! Maybe we should have seen that coming; even after his exertions last week, Colon's opponents went down 1-2-3.
Granted, Colon struck out 11, walked eight, and allowed a homer in those 13 2/3 innings, so his FIP was close to 4.70. And I’m not accounting for the quality of his opponents or ballpark and era effects, because this exercise is already ridiculous enough. This is far from the most statistically rigorous study Baseball Prospectus has performed, not that there’s any way to make 13 2/3 innings into a significant sample.
So what have we learned? Very little! We now know that Bartolo Colon, when asked to throw baseballs after being on base, has not collapsed, forfeited, or made a citizen’s call to the bullpen. He has shown less than his customary control of the strike zone, however, which suggests that further study might be worthwhile.
Which is to say: We need more data, and we need it now. Maybe Mr. Melvin will oblige.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.