No starting pitcher has thrown his fastball more often this season than Bartolo Colon. Hitters typically see it four out of every five pitches.
But Colon's fastball is averaging only 89.1 mph this season, nearly a full mile per hour slower than last year. That also ranks among the slowest fastballs for a starter this season.
So why then is the 41-year-old Mets righthander having another solid season?
"Location,'' Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "It's all about location.''
An 89-mph fastball located exactly where a pitcher wants it, according to catcher Travis d'Arnaud, "is way harder to hit than a 95-mph fastball in your hot zone.''
And that's what Colon has been doing -- locating that pitch with near perfection, at least as of late.
Signed last offseason to a two-year, $20-million deal, Colon struggled with his fastball command early in the season, which led to a rough start.
He was 2-5 with a 5.84 ERA after eight starts. Opponents were hitting .316 off him, and hitting with power, too. One year after giving up 14 home runs in 190 1/3 innings for Oakland, Colon already had allowed eight home runs in 49 1/3 innings.
Warthen said a slight change in Colon's delivery -- keeping his body firmer -- has made all the difference with his fastball command, and it's showed in his performance ever since.
Colon is 6-0 with a 1.58 ERA in seven starts since then. During that stretch, opponents are hitting .191 with only three home runs in 51 1/3 innings, giving the Mets everything they were hoping for when they signed him to anchor their rotation.
It wasn't always this way with Colon. Back in his heyday, he had the well-earned reputation of a wild flamethrower. He regularly hit the high 90s with his fastball but didn't always know where it was going. That led to many strikeouts -- and many walks.
But with age, Colon has evolved into a much different pitcher. Now it's not the velocity of his fastball that gets outs, it's his command of the pitch.
"Everybody says he throws one pitch -- a fastball -- just like everyone always said Mariano Rivera threw one pitch with the cutter,'' Oakland A's slugger Brandon Moss said. "But because they can throw that one pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone, they really become four pitches.''
A teammate of Colon's last year with the A's, Moss saw firsthand how Colon mastered the combination of movement and location of his fastballs.
Some fastballs tail away from a lefthanded hitter, others slightly move back in. Some are up, others down. They may come at the hitter at the same speed, but they don't all look the same, which is the key.
"When veteran pitchers don't have the velocity anymore, they learn to mess with hitters' eye level and timing,'' Moss said. "Bartolo does that really well.''
Added Warthen: "He's a master of reading at-bats. If he thinks someone is looking inside, he throws it outside. If he thinks someone is looking hard, he throws it soft.''
And most importantly, when Colon is on, all those high-80s fastballs wind up exactly where he wants them to go.
All you have to do is watch where the catcher sets up his glove before a pitch. You might not always see the movement on the fastball that hitters say is there, but you'll clearly see how often Colon hits the catcher's mitt like the bull's-eye on a dartboard.
"When he's going good, I don't have to move,'' d'Arnaud said. "I could close my eyes and catch it.''
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