2016-09-30 04:13:08
Bartolo Colon’s Secret: It’s the Wrist, Not the Waist

04:13, September 30 331 0

MIAMI — The best vantage point from which to truly appreciate how Bartolo Colon pitches is behind home plate. Focus on the ball, as a batter would, even though it temporarily disappears behind Colon’s head as he prepares to throw.

Of course, the pitch is going to be a fastball anyway — no one in baseball throws as many of them as he does — and at a pedestrian velocity, so there is still a chance for the batter to get a good swing at it. Yet when the ball suddenly reappears after it leaves Colon’s hand, there is a good chance it will remain a little mystifying.

When you swing at one of Colon’s pitches, said A. J. Ellis, the veteran Philadelphia catcher, “your eyes immediately go to the scoreboard because you don’t know if it was a fastball or changeup.”

Either way, Ellis said, he is often left asking himself, “What the heck is going on?”

Actually, that is what a lot of people who follow baseball are asking these days, because nothing involving Colon makes any sense anymore.

He is, after all, 43, making him the oldest active player in the major leagues. He is listed at 285 pounds, although who knows how much he really weighs? His right arm has now logged over 3,100 innings in a career that has lasted nearly two decades, and he has not missed a start this season. His fastball averages an unimposing 88 miles per hour, and he throws it nearly 90 percent of the time, meaning hitters should know it is coming.

Yet in a 2016 Mets rotation turned upside down by injuries to young, glamorous pitchers like Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz, it is Colon who was named an All-Star this season, who has posted a solid 3.42 earned run average and who has notched 14 victories, with one more big start looming before the regular season ends.

As the depleted Mets push toward an improbable National League wild-card berth, Colon is an essential reason they have made it this far. He is a mainstay, maybe the mainstay, amid all the injury mayhem.

“I’m surprised at myself,” Colon said in Spanish. “I thought that by now I wouldn’t even be in baseball.”

But here he is. Opponents know what Colon wants to do in each game — rely on location and movement — but he still outmaneuvers them much of the time. It is all a long way from 1997, when Colon reached the majors as a much skinnier 23-year-old with a fastball that crackled at 100 m.p.h. What he did not have is the control and the savvy he does now.

“When I threw 100 miles an hour, I wanted to throw 101,” Colon said. “Then I wanted 102. That pushed me. But the control wasn’t always the same. Now, it’s not like that. I want the ball exactly where I want it and with good control.”

In the first decade of his career, Colon became a 200-inning-a-season workhorse, and he won the 2005 American League Cy Young Award after a 21-victory campaign with Anaheim. As shoulder and elbow injuries ultimately slowed him, and as he served a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test, Colon transformed into what he is now — a crafty, strike-throwing pitcher who can essentially survive with one pitch by making it move three ways.

“I haven’t changed a thing,” Colon insisted, although clearly he has. “I’m exactly the same. The only thing is my age. The older you get, the more you learn.”

Colon still possesses one of baseball’s best two-seam fastballs, known casually as a sinker. While some two-seam fastballs drop, Colon’s moves most sharply away from left-handed batters.

“You know it’s a pitch that will be at your ribs and then come back to the plate,” said Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis, a switch-hitter who bats left-handed against Colon. “It’s easy to say it sitting here, but it’s very hard to swing at during the game. He commands it so well.”

The secret to the movement on Colon’s pitches is a strong right wrist and forearm. They are essential because Colon holds the ball with his index and middle fingers between two seams, and when he releases it, he applies pressure with his middle finger. This causes the movement.

“It’s all in the wrist,” Colon said.

Colon used to throw his two-seam fastball by holding the seams, but he picked up a tip from Greg Maddux, a Hall of Fame pitcher, when Maddux was with Atlanta and Colon was with Cleveland. One day in spring training, Maddux taught Colon the grip he used.

Over time, Colon perfected what Maddux had shown him. He learned which way to hold a ball if it was scratched and how to add and subtract velocity.

When Colon throws the two-seamer now, he said, he aims for a left-handed opponent’s ribs. “You try to hit them, and it moves back,” he said.

Colon also throws the pitch to right-handed batters, aiming it so it darts back to the outside edge of the strike zone as it crosses the plate.

“He throws balls that appear to be in the other batter’s box, and you take it, but you look back and it’s coming back,” Ellis said. “It’s crazy.”

While Colon’s two-seam fastball is his best pitch, he also throws a four-seam fastball that can hit specific targets in the strike zone. Occasionally, he also throws a cut fastball that does not move as drastically as his two-seamer, but does so in the opposite direction.

“He’s got such hand, finger and wrist strength that he’s able to manipulate the ball,” Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “It’s an art that not that many people have.”

Colon throws his four-seamer hard enough that it averages 90 m.p.h., and he can still reach back for an occasional 94-m.p.h. pitch, summoning up the old days. But he prefers location more than anything else. And, he added, the movement of his two-seamer is better when he throws it more softly, so it rarely, if ever, reaches past 88 m.p.h.

This, then, is the Colon repertoire. And it works.

“I watch him, and it’s so impressive,” deGrom said. “A well-located fastball is really tough to hit, and he can locate really well.”

Colon also throws a slider and a changeup, but not all that often. He uses them just enough to plant a seed of doubt in a hitter’s mind about what might be coming.

“When I have a strong, powerful hitter up, I use those because they have a fast bat and they’re always looking for fastballs to hit hard,” Colon said.

Experience has also taught Colon to read swings. The day before he starts, he usually stays inside the clubhouse rather than sit in the dugout. That allows him to watch the game on television, where, he said, the clear angles allow him to compile better mental notes on opposing batters.

“That’s where you see more of their weaknesses,” he said.

Opponents said that Colon’s quick and short delivery also added to his effectiveness. He does not extend his arm far before releasing the ball, instead bringing it close to his right ear. It is almost the way a catcher throws, and Colon played that position as a youngster in the Dominican Republic.

“If he had an arm that was higher up, you could always see the ball up,” Galvis said. “But it comes from behind his head, so it’s harder to see.”

Unafraid of letting the batters hit the ball, Colon peppers the strike zone. Although opponents are hitting .269 against him this season — a decent batting average — he often wriggles out of trouble because of the number of balls that are hit on the ground, which is less damaging; he issues few walks; and he fields his position remarkably well for his size.

“The most important thing when you enter the game to pitch is to attack hitters,” Colon said. “When you get behind, that’s when you get scared, and they get hits off you.”

The Mets’ grand plan for 2016 called for Colon to shift to the bullpen in the second half of the season to make room for another young, hard-throwing marquee pitcher, Zack Wheeler. But Wheeler, like deGrom, Harvey and Matz, was derailed by an injury. He never made it to Queens.

No problem. Old reliable — make that really old reliable — has just kept doing what he does. And now Colon, who said he would like to pitch one more season, preferably with the Mets, before retiring, is expected to make one more start before the regular season ends, perhaps Friday or Saturday. It is an assignment that could land the Mets right in the postseason.