“Anytime you lose quality starting pitching, you have concerns, and that’s why we’ve got to be more cautious than ever here in the first few weeks of the season to make sure we don’t overdo it,” Manager Terry Collins said. “We came out of spring training saying, ‘Hey, we’re seven deep right now,’ and right now, we’re not. We’re five deep.”
Even some of the healthy five have concerns. Noah Syndergaard developed a blister on his middle finger while overpowering the Braves in the opener. Matt Harvey is returning from thoracic outlet syndrome and Zack Wheeler from a two-year absence after having Tommy John surgery.
Yet Colon seems indestructible. He started his career for Cleveland in a game against Collins’s Angels on April 4, 1997. That was also the day the Braves opened Turner Field, the park they just abandoned. Officially, then, Colon has outlasted a stadium, and he is again the oldest player in baseball.
“We were once something other than what we are now,” said R. A. Dickey, another former Met and new Brave, who at 42 is the second-oldest pitcher in the majors. “We were once hard throwers, potential power pitchers, and now we are much, much different. I know for me, in particular, I’m much more successful in the industry’s standard by being the thing everybody thought shouldn’t have success. And it’s the same for him. So I can empathize with him on how to become something else and still hang on to the thing you love to do.”
For Dickey, of course, the knuckleball is the secret to survival. For Colon, it is the fastball — a sinking two-seamer that runs away from left-handed hitters. According to Fangraphs, Colon used the fastball for 89.5 percent of his pitches last season, or 15 percent more often than any other qualified starter in the majors. It is a relentless commitment to one pitch.
“He’s done something that no other older pitcher has tried to do, other than the guys that have gone to knuckleballs,” said Ron Darling, an SNY announcer and former Mets pitcher. “He’s done something that’s 180 degrees different. Everyone in the sport who gets bad over time — loses their stuff over time — tries to invent pitches. He went the other way. He said, ‘I’m just going to master one pitch.’
“And not only has he mastered it, he’s controlled the movement on a natural pitch. So innately, if he picked up a ball when he’s 60 and threw it, it would have a little sink on it. But what he’s done — with finger pressure, really — is he’s controlled not only how much the ball moves but, by the pressure he puts on the ball, how fast it goes.
“So let’s say that there’s some times he’ll strike out a guy on the inside corner; he’ll be throwing 87, 88, and then he’ll throw 85, and the ball beats them inside. Well, he does that on purpose. He takes a little off, which means the ball moves a little more, which means it starts almost behind the left-hander and ends up right down the middle.
“And you say to yourself, ‘How can a guy take a ball right down the middle?’ Well, it’s because he is able to control the movement of the pitch. It’s the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.”
In New York, alas, that singular pitching artistry was obscured by Colon’s other distinctive traits. Nobody in uniform looks like him, and perhaps nobody on the planet swings like him. His nickname is utterly ridiculous.
“The legend of Big Sexy is much different than the actual human being of Bartolo Colon,” Dickey said. “That dichotomy is really fascinating. In here, he is professional; he’s quiet; he’s encouraging; he’s a good teammate. The other stuff has kind of taken on a life of his own, but he does not play into that. He is not the creator of his own legend.”
The legend of Colon is a lot of fun. The usefulness as a pitcher is what the Mets may miss most.