Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.
The panic set in as soon as Cliff Lee agreed to rejoin the Phillies in early-December, and then it multiplied when Andy Pettitte officially announced his retirement a few weeks later. The free agent pitching well dried up almost instantaneously, leaving the Yankees to scramble as they tried to fill out their rotation. They finally made a move in late-January, signing the long forgotten Bartolo Colon to a minor league contract.
“It’s nice to see the Yankees going after reclamation projects as back of the rotation possibilities,” wrote Joe at the time of the signing, “but I find it nearly impossible to envision a scenario in which Colon can help the team.” I felt the same way, and I’m sure many of you did as well. But hey, it was a minor league contract with no risk, and the Yankees had the benefit of Tony Pena’s input after he managed Colon during winter ball. The Yankees had nothing to lose but time.
Colon started the first game of the Grapefruit League schedule in February, and something weird happened. He came out throwing bullets. I mean 93-94 mph with the four-seamer, plus a two-seamer that ran all over the place. Bart looked healthy and strong, and he continued to not just pitch well in camp, but show stuff that could get big league hitters out. When time came to trim down the roster, the Yankees decided to go with Freddy Garcia as their fifth starter, but Colon had made the team as a reliever.
The bullpen role was short lived. After three impressive long-relief outings in April, Colon moved into the rotation as Phil Hughes went down with what was then a mystery shoulder ailment. His first start came on April 20th in Toronto, when he gave the Yankees 6.2 innings of two-run ball. Colon struck out seven and walked just two, raising his season K/BB to 20/5 in just 18 IP. Seven days later he dominated the White Sox (8 IP, 1 R), and five days after that he held down the Tigers (7 IP, 3 R).
A few days after that start, we all learned Bart’s secret, how a 38-year-old pitcher that had missed the vast majority of the last five seasons due to major arm problems was able to come back throwing so hard and with so much movement. Stem cells. Colon underwent an experimental procedure in 2009 that used stem cells in addition to platelet-rich plasma treatment, a non-surgical procedure that took less than 40 minutes. MLB investigated the procedure because of HGH concerns, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, Colon just kept dominating.
After throwing a complete game shutout against the Athletics, Bartolo ended the month of May with a 3.26 ERA and a 62/15 K/BB in 66.1 IP. Colon was a full blown revelation, pitching at a near ace-like level five seasons after last being an effective starter. On June 11th, however, the comeback hit a speed bump when Bart pulled up lame covering first base on a rainy afternoon against the Indians. He’d suffered a strained left hamstring, an injury expected to keep him out somewhere between two or three weeks.
Colon was never really the same after the injury, and at first it was blamed on being apprehensive about the hammy. He had his moments after returning in early-July, specifically a five-start stretch from July 19th through August 11th in which he allowed no more than two earned runs any time out. Bart hit the wall in his final eight starts, showing reduced velocity and less command than he had a few weeks prior. Ultimately, he pitched poor enough in the season’s final month to be left off the team’s playoff roster, a damn shame if you ask me.
Despite the slow finish, Bart pitched better than anyone could have possibly expected. He held up long enough to make 26 starts (and the three relief appearances in April) and throw 164.1 IP, nearly as many as he’d thrown from 2007-2010 combined (200.2 IP). Colon’s 3.82 FIP was built on the strength of 7.4 K/9 and just 2.0 BB/9, a 3.38 K/BB ratio that was ninth best in the AL. Although his ERA finished at 4.00 on the nose, it was closer to 3.50 pretty much all season before the poor finish. At 2.4 bWAR and 2.9 fWAR, Colon exceeded every possible expectation, hitting on the best case scenario as a shot in the dark minor league signing. I don’t know what 2012 holds for him, but I do know that for the first four months of the season, Bartday was my favorite day of the week.