Why We Watch: Bartolo Colon's Buddha Nature

Bartolo Colon is not one of the more exciting or electric pitchers to watch. What he's after is something that seems much more enlightened than that.
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There's something about pitchers who not only don't but seemingly can’t miss the strike zone. Squint really hard and it could be seen as some elevated grace or Buddha Nature calm—throw the ball where it should be thrown, let it be hit, trust the universe. Look at it without the metaphysics and it's just the simple grace of being good at a given job, without any of the neurosis or mental or technical complication that might make throwing strikes hard. It keeps the game moving, at least.

This is a reasonable soft spot to have, it seems to me. I have a bigger one for insanely unlikely redemption narratives, which also makes a certain amount of sense. My biggest is for humans shaped like kegs who can somehow still make a living on the mound. Bartolo Colon, in Oakland’s contrarian green and YOLO and just a few days shy of his 40th birthday, hits the intersection of all three, on the bullseye as usual, with every pinpoint pitch. Barring injury or another steroid suspension, he will take the mound shortly after his birthday, look squat and impassive, and throw lots and lots of strikes. That's what he does, and he only stops when a winner has been declared: He will be removed from the game in triumph or in defeat. If his opponent could hit strikes today, they’d win. If they couldn’t, they’d lose. It's not that complicated.

***

Colon pours them in. He stretches Mariano Rivera’s one-pitch magic across the game, diluting it with different names and variants and sub-variants: fastball, cutter, sinker, hybrids of the aforementioned. It’s all the same pitch, basically, and he throws it almost exclusively. If Rivera’s pitch is a diamond, Colon’s is the coal that moves the game from point A to point B.

In a game of zany and freakish stats, Colon is a constant. All of us, fans and hitters and teammates and GM's considering tendering him a contract know exactly what we’re getting, which is rare for a pitcher. Even the great ones had bad days—Colon, at this point, just has days when he pitches and games where he doesn’t. Only the results change. He got knocked around by the Indians on a recent Thursday game but murdered the Red Sox in an early-season rainstorm. I watched both games; he was essentially identical in each.

The rain was the best thing that could have happened to him. The Sox flailed away, missing, wanting nothing more than to take shelter. On a perfect afternoon in Cleveland, the Indians were not in such a hurry, and they dented the ball pretty hard. The big story of the game wasn’t Colon’s zero walks—he has two all season—but Scott Kazmir’s brilliance, if only because it’s an open question of whether he’ll do it again. Ever.

For Colon, Cliff Lee, David Wells and others, that is a fundamental question that fans stopped needing to ask at some point. At some point everything just clicked, they threw strikes, and that was that. For Colon, it involved special surgery, a steroid suspension and a call from the Athletics. Billy Beane knows value when he sees it, and Colon’s a per-pound bargain at $3 million per year. He throws strikes in Major League Baseball games better than anyone who could do his job, cheaper. He plays the odds in a game that rewards them.

That mechanical control, especially in the absence of overwhelming stuff, leads to a fair share of home runs, but at this point the strikeout and walk rates more than compensate for Colon’s reliable double-serving of taters. His FIP this year is 3.94 as is, basically, his xFIP – you’d expect the Coliseum to take away some homers, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Maybe it won't: maybe homers off circa-now Bartolo Colon just always get hit a long way—in that game against the Indians, Jason Kipnis hit a mammoth opposite-field home run in the first inning; as always, Colon knew. He does a cartoonish hop after his right foot lands that makes him looks like a martial artist moving into ready position, which is basically what he’s doing. He’s ready to field, but when the homers leave the bat, you can see his shoulders slump just enough on the landing that you know he knows it’s not just out of here, it’s extravagantly, inarguably out of here. Then he shook it off and threw Asdrubal Cabrera that exact same pitch a handful times, and got him out.

•••

When I was in elementary school, the seventh-grade contrarian—the one that wore fatigues and a beret with the Anarchy logo on them, thatcontrarian—wrote a story about control that has stuck in my brain. It seems ridiculous now to say he was a good writer, given that we were in seventh grade and that beret and et cetera, but he seemed really good at the time, and anyway it stuck.

The story went like this: There was a stage somewhere that was controlled by a person backstage. Everyone knew a single person operated the performance, and when the show was terrible the audience would boo until the controller would be replaced by someone who pledged to control it. Only they couldn’t control it, either, and so the process would repeat. As more people failed, the narrator became more and more convinced in his own ability to operate it, and eventually he is chosen. He goes into the control room to find a single button, which he presses, and he is removed when the crowd predictably boos.

This was all very depressing and eye-opening in a way you’d expect from a kid who wrote a fake prisoner camp number on his arm after reading “Man’s Search for Meaning,” but the one-button approach reminds me of Colon. His control room has more than one button—he has other pitches, the dude won a Cy Young not so terribly long ago—but he chooses to only press one. He’s like Desmond in "Lost," maybe, punching in the same numbers over and over, only if Desmond was played by Hurley, because, you know.

If Bartolo Colon does not throw strikes, the baseball career that is his world could end. He’s playing the odds by simplifying the equation: he removes thought on one side and walks on the other. The remainder ends up in the bleachers and in crooked numbers on a scoreboard, but it’s a solid enough equation that there isn't all that much left over to worry about.

He has adopted the approach to the point of physical near-effortlessness. Compare Colon to someone like Trevor Bauer, the immensely talented and self-complicating Amadeus-type in the Cleveland Indians’ system, and it’s like they’re playing two different games. Bauer spends more time fidgeting and thinking between pitches than Colon does basically all game. Only then does Bauer enter into his elaborate, attention-starved windup, which sends the ball basically everywhere but the place it needs to go. He could well be great, but he is not yet enlightened in the way Colon appears to be.

Colon avoids excess motion the exact way you’d expect him to, given his girth. Aside from the Spider-Man landing, he’s pitching in a freight elevator the way a boxer fights in a phone booth, hypnotically chewing gum the whole time. (We only assume it’s the same piece from the previous innings, because that is how gum works for the rest of us.) This is, if you like, a metaphor for his whole dang career: like Colon, the gum is malleable and can only maintain its flavor for so long; like baseball, it is there to pass the time.

Bartolo Colon looks like a human sculpted out of Double Bubble but pitches like those science-y gums that last forever, with a persistent and pleasing flavor. Other gums will be better, of course. It will always be thus. But he pitches as if he doesn't know that, or doesn't care; he just pumps fastballs into the zone, just one fresh, mundane wonder after another.


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