Bartolo Colon and the fountain of youth

April 18, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Bartolo Colon (21) pitches in the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

In a year where there have been multiple interesting storylines for the A's — the education of Yoenis Cespedes, the emergence of Ryan Cook — the one that makes me scratch my head the most is the rejuvenation of Bartolo Colon.

After regularly posting mid-to-high 4 fWAR seasons in his youth, Father Time started to intervene. In 2005, at the age of 32, he won the Cy Young award with the Anaheim Angels. It was his eighth consecutive season of starting more than 30 games, a milestone he never touched again. Colon suffered a partially torn rotator cuff injury in the playoffs, and was never the same pitcher, constantly battling injuries and ineffectiveness. His fastball velocity went from 93.2 mph in 2002 to 89.1 in 2009. It may not seem like much, but it's a pitch he's thrown 78.7% of his career. So far this season, 86.9% of Colon's pitches have been (two-seam/sinking) fastballs.

(Colon's Fangraphs page)

  • 2006 (age 33): 10 GS, 5.11 ERA, 5.33 FIP, 0.3 fWAR
  • 2007 (34): 18 GS, 6.34 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 1.2 fWAR
  • 2008 (35): 7 GS, 3.92 ERA, 4.34 FIP, 0.6 fWAR
  • 2009 (36): 12 GS, 4.19 ERA, 5.70 FIP, 0.2 WAR

He didn't pitch at all in 2010, recovering from injuries suffered in 2009. But he did do something that could (possibly) change the way pitchers recover from injuries. It's just not quite possible in this country.

Colon and the Athletics take on Jeremy Hellickson and the Rays tonight at 4:10 p.m.

In April 2010, Colon returned to his native Dominican Republic for a controversial, trailblazing procedure. A Florida doctor took stem cells from Colon's bone marrow and fat cells and injected them into the pitcher's ailing arm.

A doctor in Florida would like to take some of the credit. Joseph R. Purita, an orthopedic surgeon who runs a regenerative medicine clinic in Boca Raton, said he and a team of Dominican doctors that he led treated Colon in April 2010. Purita said he employed what he regards as one of his more pioneering techniques: he used fat and bone marrow stem cells from Colon, injecting them back into Colon's elbow and shoulder to help repair ligament damage and a torn rotator cuff.

Purita said he flew to the Dominican Republic and performed the procedures for free, doing it at the behest of a medical technology company based in Massachusetts that he has done business with for several years. Purita, who has used human growth hormone in such treatments, said in an interview that that he had not done so in Colon's case. The use of human growth hormone is banned by baseball.

"This is not hocus-pocus," Purita said in an interview here. "This is the future of sports medicine, in particular. Here it is that I got a guy back playing baseball and throwing pitches at 95 miles an hour."

That much, you probably knew. Colon signed with the Yankees as a fifth starter in 2011 and surprised pretty much everyone. Over the offseason, the market was soft. No way he could do it again, right?

Wrong.

So far this season, he's accrued 1.0 fWAR, better than many prominent MLB starters: Zack Greinke, Yu Darvish, Matt Garza, Dan Haren, CC Sabathia, CJ Wilson, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Matt Cain, to name a few.

The sinking fastball has been moving and (small sample size alert!) his home run/fly ball ratio has been the lowest in his career by a wide margin. The velocity on his four-seam fastball is back. The Wall Street Journal reported last season that Colon's velocity jump from '09 to '11 was the highest of any pitcher since 2003. You might recognize another guy on that list.

As Colon has somehow transformed into the pitcher he was before injuries, I have a feeling that this treatment could someday be similar to Tommy John surgery, which is now pretty much standard operating procedure for any pitcher who throws harder than 95 mph. I'd rather not turn this into a political discussion of WHY stem cell treatments and research are in their current stage in the U.S., but I think that stem cells (and other experimental/new techniques) merit serious discussion, in terms of the potential for athlete rehabilitation.

Colon seems like a guinea pig, and a very successful one at that. We'll get to see another high-profile stem cell patient when new Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning takes the field. Manning, a future Hall of Famer, flew to Europe last year to get stem cells injected from his fat cells into his injured neck, a procedure not approved by the U.S.

Via ESPN the Magazine:

MLB continues to look into the treatment, but the league's medical director, Gary Green, isn't exactly sure what to make of this new sports medicine frontier. "There's always a fine line between what's a performance-enhancing drug and a therapeutic one," he says. "It's what all the leagues have to struggle with."

Similarly, WADA, which was built to police substances that athletes put into their bodies, seems unsure what, if anything, should be done about these latest advancements. When the agency first started looking at what it terms blood-spinning therapies, it banned all of them. But after studies failed to show that athletes were getting the kind of gains from PRP that come from steroids, WADA did an about-face earlier this year and lifted all its restrictions.

Now the antidoping cops are struggling with what they should do about stem cells. Friedmann favors WADA's doing nothing -- at least at the moment -- because of his skepticism about whether the treatments work. "I have no doubt that this science will become feasible," he says. "I just don't think it is now."

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