OAKLAND – As a catcher who changed uniforms over the offseason, John Jaso has spent the past few months learning a new pitching staff, including this trend from the six times he has caught A's right-hander Bartolo Colon:
"My knees feel better the next day," Jaso said.
The less time in the squat, the less punishment on those joints. And at the ripe age of 40, Colon, who improved to 8-2 with the A's 6-4 win over the New York Yankees on Tuesday night, is so far this season establishing a new personal standard for efficiency.
A year after setting a career low by averaging 1.4 walks per nine innings, Colon has taken his penchant for strike-throwing to a new level. He entered Tuesday having allowed six walks in his first 12 starts for the lowest rate among American League starters – a mark that rose from 0.7 to 1.1 per nine innings as he issued four walks to the Yankees – and averaging a league-low 13.7 pitches per inning.
That can have ripple effects, such as on Jaso's knees. Or between innings, when infielder Adam Rosales noted Colon likes to blow through his "four or five warmup pitches, and sometimes if the game's on TV the umpires have to be like, 'Hold on 'til the break's over.' " Or in the A's bullpen, where reliever Pat Neshek said when Colon starts, "A lot of times you know you might get a night off."
"Sometimes when you're throwing a lot of strikes, too, you get hit," Neshek added. "But he's had a great year lately."
With his six shutout innings Tuesday, Colon has allowed one run over 29 innings in his last four starts. His two losses this season are the only two times he has failed to complete six innings, another result of his going after hitters early and keeping his pitch count down.
It's a tactic that, as Neshek indicated, doesn't work for everybody. Since 2004, only four pitchers have walked fewer than a batter an inning while throwing at least 160 innings. While still early, Colon is not only around that pace but parlaying it into success, already with his most pre-All-Star break wins since his A.L. Cy Young Award season in 2005.
Part of the reason, Neshek hypothesized, is guile and an idea of how to pitch in the strike zone developed over time. Colon has gravitated toward more of a strike-heavy approach later in his career, having posted five of his lowest season walk rates since turning 31.
"He knows that some of his stuff may not be there," Neshek said. "Back in the day he had a power slider. I think he's still throwing (his fastball) 95, 96 (mph) when he wants to but he does a lot by subtracting a couple miles per hour, then adding it back on."
Another factor, Jaso said, is that while Colon's pitches are often starting out or ending up as strikes, even the fastballs are rarely traveling a straight line.
"He moves that two-seamer around the plate a lot," Jaso said. "And another thing he does a lot, too, is he'll throw his four-seamer at 94, 95, and that pitch he's throwing over the white part of the plate, but elevated.
"I think changing eye levels in the strike zone is kind of like an art that's not really used as much in today's game. But he does it."
Tuesday, Colon appeared unusually tentative in the first inning, walking Robinson Cano and Travis Hafner to load the bases with one out. But he got Kevin Youkilis to pop out and retired Lyle Overbay on a fly ball to escape the inning.
As the A's preach to their pitchers the importance of working ahead in counts, manager Bob Melvin said, Colon's aggressiveness should be the norm.
At the same time, Melvin said, Colon has "a good idea of when he needs to expand (the strike zone) a little bit more he knows who the first-ball hitters are."
"If you've watched his starts here recently, he's mixed in some (first-pitch) breaking balls, whether it's change-ups or sliders," Melvin said. "But he throws strikes with those too.
"That's just kind of who he is. Everybody knows it, we know it, the opposition knows it. But he still continues to do his thing and be successful."