Who’s Afraid of Alex Colomé?

How Alex Colomé gets big results despite underwhelming peripherals.

Real quick, let me show you a table. Seven relievers around baseball have compiled at least 100 saves since the start of the 2016 season. Here they are:

100+ Saves, 2016-2019

(Source: Baseball-Reference)

There’s no spoiler alert, because you know who exactly who this is about. There’s a big picture up him up top. Over the past four years or so, just about every pitcher on that list has been in the conversation for the best few closers in baseball. Except for Alex Colomé.

It’s not tough to figure out why that is. By just about every measure other than ERA, Colomé has clearly been a tier below his end-game peers. Still, there’s something to his consistent success. Beating FIP by a good margin for four years running might mean there’s something going on that the numbers aren’t picking up.

 

Location, Location, Location

 

As Colomé closed out the White Sox’ final scrimmage with the Cubs in less-than-seamless fashion, longtime broadcaster and former AL Cy Young Award winner Steve Stone opined that Colomé was successful in part because of his ability to move his cutter all over the plate very well. I usually listen to Stone when he talks about pitching. He’s seen and done more of it that most of us could ever hope to, and I trust that he knows what he’s looking at day in and day out. I was curious if there was anything to back up Stone’s observation.

Colomé’s cutter has been his primary weapon for several years now, throwing it more than 60% of the time since 2017. The rest of his arsenal consists solely of a hard, low-spin, and ineffective four-seamer. Hitters usually have a pretty good idea of what’s coming, and the cutter does a lot of heavy lifting.

Given Colomé’s success, the numbers also think there’s something noteworthy about that cutter. It’s held hitters to a .218 wOBA over his big-league career, with expected numbers (.240 xwOBA) not falling too far behind. It turns out that Stone was at least somewhat right. Colomé does work his cutter to both sides of the plate more than most. Here’s where Colomé has thrown his cutter compared to league-wide right-handed cutters since 2017, with the numbers in each zone indicating pitch percentages:

 

 

That might be a little tough to make out, but what we’re essentially seeing is that righties with cutters are usually pounding it to the glove side. Low and away to a right-handed hitter is the most natural location for a right-handed cutter, but Colomé throws 33%, exactly a third, of his cutters inside to righties and away to lefties (gameday zones 1, 4, 7, 11, & 13, for those keeping track). That’s more than all but four of the 61 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 cutters since 2017.

 

Lefty Damage

 

Of course, the fact that he works to both sides of the plate more than most doesn’t mean it’s the reason it’s working for him. Location in one direction is just one of a million variables that make a pitch effective or not. So I went back to the video. A trend quickly emerged upon seeing what some of those successful arm-side cutters looked like. At lot of those pitches looked like this:

 

With a two-strike count, catcher James McCann sets up outside, Colomé hits his spot perfectly, and Nicky Lopez is so thrown off he can barely put the bat on the ball. Success. Those pitches also looked a lot like this:

 

With a fresh count, Carlos Gonzalez gives up on that pitch pretty much as it leaves Colomé’s hand. Free strike! Sometimes, they work even better, like these:

 

Whether it’s timing, location, deception, or some combination thereof, Colomé appears to be really good at keeping lefties guessing. But cutters aren’t typically a great out pitch for a righty pitcher to a lefty hitter. They can be pretty hard to throw for a strike without risking leaving one right in the hitter’s wheelhouse. The league-wide splits back this up, and they also illuminate where Colomé is working his magic:

Right-Handed Cutters vs. Right-Handed Hitters
Right-Handed Cutters vs. Left-Handed Hitters

(Source: Baseball Savant)

It’s a perfectly good pitch against righties, but Colomé is genuinely one of the league’s best at putting away lefties with the cutter. Circling back to Stone’s comments, saying that he has the ability to move it around the plate better than most, is more or less saying that he commands the pitch well enough to throw it where he wants to better than most. As we just saw, it’s tough for a hitter to pick up a 92 mph front-door cutter on the outside corner. Colomé’s overall control and command aren’t exceptional by any means, but he undeniably has a better handle on his A-pitch than most who throw it.

I’m not saying that we need to start putting him in the same sentence as Kenley Jansen or pre-2019 Craig Kimbrel. The margin for error is razor-thin when you’re giving up louder contact than 95% of the league. But it would he erroneous to attribute all that success to simple luck. Exceptional skills sometimes give way to exceptional results, and we have show at the very least that Colomé’s ability to dominate lefties with the cutter is exceptional.

 

Beating The Odds

 

When those skills erode in some way or another, when he loses velocity or can no longer command that arm-side cutter, his performance will inevitably drop off, as it does for all. Until that happens, though, don’t anticipate a significant drop in effectiveness solely because the expected and predictive numbers say so. I like to think of “fool me twice, shame on me” as applying to FIP and xwOBA, too. Repeated deviation from the norm sometimes doesn’t happen by accident!

Returning to Colomé’s platoon splits for a moment, it’s noteworthy that his average exit velocity to lefties is head-and-shoulders higher than it is to righties, in spite of the pitch being far more effective against lefties. This may be a fine time to remember that expected statistics are not perfect, and that not all 95 MPH grounders at a certain launch angle are created equal. I’ve seen enough to conclude that in spite of everything else, Colomé is simply quite good at getting hitters to make outs without flashy peripherals.

So with that, I’ll bring back the chart of where Colomé throws his cutter, this time alongside a chart of his batting average allowed by the same zones. Yes, I know, batting average is forbidden and all that, but Colomé is concerned about where he’s getting outs when he throws the ball, so it works for us here:

It can be a little difficult to figure out exactly what you’re looking at there, but what matters is that he simply locates the most where hitters just don’t do damage. Colomé is excellent at picking his spots, throwing the ball in red-tinted zones (with opponent averages above .250) just 13% of the time. Without premier strikeout stuff, it’s difficult to get away with missing low and at the knees, and his exit velocities suggest he gets hurt there a fair amount. Otherwise, however, he’s as good as playing to his strengths as any reliever out there.

Colomé found what works for him, and he’s good at doing it! We all know the margins are going to be thinner for players who don’t throw triple-digit heat or have a devastating slider. That doesn’t mean they’re going to stop being good at what they do well! I may be completely wrong, and Colomé may slide towards ineffectiveness or even completely collapse. Pitching in relief is volatility. But until that happens, I wouldn’t expect Colomé to be any less than what he’s been for the last half-decade solely for the sake of expectation.

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Zach Hayes

Zach is a graduate student at Brown University focusing on sports, politics, and culture, and contributing baseball analysis at Pitcher List and Prospects365. Follow Zach on Twitter (@PineTarKeyboard) for periodic rants about Chicago sports and politics.

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