The Oakland Athletics have a better record than the Detroit Tigers, yet while the Tigers have six All-Stars, the only All-Star for the A's so far is a fat, 40-year-old pitcher who went 32-40 with a 4.38 ERA from 2006 to 2012 and throws almost nothing but fastballs.
But there was Bartolo Colon on Monday night, listed at 265 pounds but not looking a pound under 300. He pitched another gem in the opener of a big series between the first-place A's and, entering the game, the first-place Pirates. His opponent was another unlikely All-Star in Jeff Locke and both showed why they earned those selections as the A's won 2-1. Colon got the win with seven solid innings to improve to 12-3, but we know a win-loss record can be misleading. Let us focus instead on some of Colon's other stats like his 2.69 ERA and the second-lowest walk rate among major league starters.
There's nothing fluky going on here with Colon. He doesn't rack up a lot of strikeouts, but with just 15 walks in 18 starts he's nearly eliminated free baserunners. He keeps the hits down due to a pinpoint location, changing speeds and movement on his fastball. His velocity isn't bad either for an old man: He averages 90 mph on his fastball, but due to the changing speeds part; he can still crank it up to 96 on occasion.
In fact, his biggest and fastest pitch of the night was his final one. With one run already in, the Pirates had runners on first and second with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and All-Star Andrew McCutchen up. McCutchen swung through a high inside 95 mph fastball, took a fastball up high and then a 95 mph fastball at the knees. The 1-2 pitch was a 96 mph heater up in the zone. OK, it actually wasn't a very good pitch as catcher Derek Norris had set up high and away but Colon caught too much of the plate and McCutchen lined it hard to center, where Coco Crisp made a fantastic diving catch to save the day.
Usually, of course, Colon hits his spots. He threw his fastball on 89 of his 108 pitches on Monday, an 82 percent ratio that matches his season average of 84 percent fastballs. Sixty-seven of the 89 pitches were strikes. What makes Colon so unique isn't just the percentage of fastballs he throws but that he's still effective with it against left-handed batters, who are hitting .276 against his fastball with a .296 on-base percentage -- the MLB average for right-handed pitchers against left-handed batters is a .274 average but a .349 OBP. Again, it is really that ability to limit walks more than anything that has made Colon successful.
Look how he pitches left-handed batters with his fastball: Outside, outside, outside.
As you can see from the percentages, he throws more fastballs off the plate and outside the strike zone than he does on the inner third of the plate. But as the pitch moves and sinks away from lefty hitters, they cannot lay off. For the season, Colon has 23 strikeouts and seven walks in plate appearances against lefties ending with a fastball; compare that to a guy like Stephen Strasburg, who has 13 strikeouts and 18 walks.
A great example of this approach was against Pedro Alvarez, leading off the sixth. Colon wasn't about to let Alvarez beat him on an inside pitch and threw six straight fastballs -- all outside, all just off the plate. Alvarez finally grounded out on the 3-2 pitch. Don't be deceived by Colon's waistline: The guy can pitch.
As Crisp's catch showed, however, the A's win as a team -- much like last year, when relief pitcher Ryan Cook was their lone All-Star and right fielder Josh Reddick their only player to accumulate 4.0 WAR. This year, Colon and third baseman Josh Donaldson are the only players on pace to exceed 4.0 WAR. Donaldson got snubbed for the All-Star Game despite his excellent all-around season and shortstop Jed Lowrie and Crisp were borderline candidates (closer Grant Balfour may end up replacing Colon, who is scheduled to pitch Sunday and will thus be unable to pitch), but, really, the A's can't cry about a lack of respect when it's really a testament to their depth. They win as a team, not as a team of stars and scrubs.
The A's are still trying to win over more believers, as many will point to their 9-0 record against the Astros as helping inflate their record. (Of course, they still get 10 more games against the Astros.) This week will provide a good test with these three games in Pittsburgh and then three at home against Boston. Maybe if they head into the All-Star break still in first place they'll get a little more of that respect they deserve.