The sense of urgency that has permeated the National League East since the season's opening days appears to be waning. Or rather, the panic is pooling up on the far end of the emotional spectrum, the one emblazoned with a large Nationals logo. The Mets, with a comfortable lead heading into this weekend's four-game stretch against the abysmal Atlanta Braves, are riding high and looking at playoff odds firmly entrenched in the 90th percentile and higher.
It's good to be a Met these days, but it's exceptional to be Bartolo Colon, who has emerged in this second half of the season as the Mets' most reliable starting pitcher, which is a startling statement for so many reasons. First is that he's 42 years old. Second is that his pitch selection is comically predictable. And third, the Mets would, in theory, appear to have better options in their rotation.
And yet, it was Colon who just snagged NL Player of the Week for his 17 scoreless frames. Sure, those innings were against Miami and Philadelphia, which have a combined .392 winning percentage and are the two worst teams in baseball. Still, for a team that was on the verge of spinning its wheels perhaps into another regrettable September tailspin, Colon has proved a shockingly reliable stopper, the kind that Matt Harvey, for now, only longs to be.
Even as Colon races to the end of his two-year contract, the Mets are using every bullet they can muster from his vulcanized right arm. Over his first 20 starts this season, or through the month of July, Colon topped 100 pitches just once, compiling a 4.96 ERA and a 9-11 team record while opponents hit a healthy .290 off him. Since then, the Mets are 5-2 in his seven starts; Colon's ERA is 2.30 over that time and opponents are hitting just .259. Most importantly, he's hit 100 or more pitches in four of those seven starts.
If the Mets truly won't have a spot in their playoff rotation, then it behooves them to squeeze every pitch they can out of Colon, especially if it means relieving work on an increasingly taxed bullpen and giving the other starters a chance to work out their struggles. Harvey, as the Nationals showed on Tuesday night, clearly is not where he needs to be as a potential Game 1 starter in the NL Division Series. Jacob deGrom has been less than stellar against less-than-stellar competition (a .918 opponents' OPS in his three starts before Wednesday, although he rebounded against the Nats by giving up only 2 ER in 7 IP with nine K's). And rookies Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz are inexperienced and, for the most part, unproven. (Nope, not even going to mention Jon Niese.)
For Mets brass, that would be a dream four-man rotation in a long playoff series, if everyone was pitching at peak performance. But they're not, and with less than a month to play in the regular season, it's all hands on deck for whoever wants the ball -- and that will mean Colon, however far he can go. His ninth-inning mop-up in a 3-1 loss to Boston in late August could augur a more realistic role for him come playoff time. Bottom line: The Mets will gladly take whatever they can from Colon.
What's really remarkable about Colon's surge is that it's just a continuation of what has made him so reliable these past four seasons. A decade removed from his 2005 American League Cy Young Award, Colon is still very much a fastball/sinker pitcher who relies almost entirely on keeping a sufficient velocity gap between those pitches (roughly 7 mph) and hitting his spots whenever possible. His fastball percentage, according to FanGraphs, is about 84 percent, which is second in the Majors (by a significant margin). But his walk rate is just 2.9 percent -- also second-best in baseball, just ahead of The $210 Million Man, Max Scherzer.
As Jeff Sullivan said in May, Colon has refined his repertoire and release points to where if he can maintain his release point and accuracy, the ball will end up several inches apart in various directions. Point is, it's misleading to look at his fastball percentage and, say, ah, he's just gassing it down in the zone at 89 every time and hitters just aren't connecting. It's more than that. By keeping his sinker mixed in with his four-seamer and his breaking stuff enough ticks slower than the rest, Colon can keep hitters off-balance and uncomfortable. These are some of the basic tenets of pitching, and they're keeping Colon's career afloat.
But aside from the quality innings he's mustered, let's acknowledge yet again that no one in baseball is having more fun than Bartolo Colon. Every single at-bat is must-see television. His behind-the-back flip to first last week gave everyone at Marlins Park the vapors.
There is a non-zero chance that his career is now winding down to its natural end -- by the way, check out all the other pitchers who've pitched just as many innings as Colon and see where he ranks among the company he keeps -- and we should appreciate every outing, every pitch, every nonchalant trot back to the dugout to awaiting high-fives. Deadspin commissioned the creation of a Bartolo Colon-o-Meter to track his unlikely 2011 comeback with the Yankees. Were it still in operation -- the price of upkeep was simply not cost-effective -- we'd be firmly entrenched on the far-right reading: GOD BLESSES US WITH MIRACLES EVERY DAY.
Alas, for all his efforts, Colon is extremely likely to get squeezed out of a playoff rotation spot once the second week of October rolls around. In a five-game NLDS, Mets fans can expect something resembling Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard through the first three games. (If New York can somehow end up with a better record with the Dodgers and snag home-field advantage, then swap deGrom and Syndergaard in that order, as the latter's road split has been disproportionately dreadful.)
Whatever happens from here on out, Colon has more than contributed his fair share to the Mets' dream season of 2015, but with a seemingly indestructible arm amid a sea of staff uncertainty, he could yet play a critical role in October. Clayton Kershaw vs. Bartolo Colon, with control of the NLDS on the line. Who wouldn't watch that?
If the baseball gods are kind, it'll be worth it for Colon's at-bats alone.