Does this feat match Joe D.'s famous hit streak?

On this day in 2012, Bartolo Colon threw nothing but strikes

April 18th, 2020

On this day eight years ago, Giants and Phillies aces Matt Cain and Cliff Lee staged a masterful pitchers' duel in San Francisco. Cain threw nine shutout innings against Philly, but Lee was even better, twirling 10 shutout frames on just 102 pitches. The Giants still won on a walk-off.

Incredible? Yes. But, it wasn’t even the most remarkable thing to happen in baseball on the night of April 18, 2012. Because that was the night threw 38 strikes in a row against the Angels. You did not misread that. Thirty. Eight. Straight. Strikes.

Though it made some headlines, Colon’s “38 special” was treated more as a novelty than a landmark historic event. Bart’s big night won’t get the same segment in Ken Burns’ next “Baseball” documentary chapter the way that, say, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak did when Burns looked back on the 1940s.

But … maybe it should. Because, through one mathematical lens, throwing 38 straight strikes might be even tougher than you think. As in, beyond DiMaggio’s hit streak tough. Stay with us for a second …

The birth of late-period Bartolo

First, some quick background. There’s no shortage of Bartolo fans out there, and many will recall that April 2012 was both the start of the 39-year-old Colon’s first season with the A’s, and the start of his career renaissance. This was just Colon’s fourth outing in the green and gold.

Colon held a 3-0 lead when he walked out to begin the fifth. The rotund veteran opened Maicer Izturis’ at-bat with a ball, and the Angels wouldn’t see him throw another one until he was eight pitches into the eighth. By then, the A’s broadcast crew was calling strikes before the ball hit the catcher’s mitt.

When Colon’s 0-1 pitch to Bobby Abreu landed just outside, it stopped his streak at 38, eight more than the next-closest pitcher, Tim Wakefield, had strung together since full pitch-by-pitch data was first logged in 1988. (Yes, that Tim Wakefield, knuckleball distributor, once threw 30 straight strikes. We’re also baffled.)

We all think of Colon now as a strike thrower, but that wasn’t always his reputation. Prior to the 2012 season, Colon had averaged three walks per nine innings; over his last seven years, Colon flipped the switch and developed impeccable command of his running two-seam fastball. Indeed, April 2012 might have been the birth of “Bartolo Colon, zone pounder.” An incredible 35 of his 38 consecutive strikes were fastballs.

“You can’t get 38 strikes out of a pitching machine,” A’s outfielder Jonny Gomes said postgame. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

More unlikely than DiMaggio?

Colon wasn’t perfect during his streak; he allowed two hits, and Albert Pujols and Vernon Wells each drove balls to the warning track. But when DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games in the summer of 1941, he wasn’t perfect, either (though he did bat a phenomenal .408). This introduces our money question: Was Bart’s streak actually more unlikely than DiMaggio’s?

Start with this: Joltin’ Joe had to get one hit a day to keep history alive. Colon, though he was aided slightly by balls in play being counted as strikes, didn’t have the same margin for error. If he had released even one pitch wide enough from the plate to keep an Angels bat on the shoulder, this would have simply been a solid eight-inning start, and nothing more. And, by perhaps the sixth or seventh inning, Angels hitters must have known that Colon was pumping them nothing but pitches to hit. Still, they barely threatened the locked-in righty.

Unmoved and unconvinced? We get it. It’s Joe DiMaggio for crying out loud. That’s why we turned to senior data architect Tom Tango, who graciously ran some numbers to see whether Colon or DiMaggio bucked larger odds. (This will get a little math-y, but we’ll try to keep it simple.)

DiMaggio's odds

Running an apples-to-apples comparison between a pitcher and hitter isn’t easy, but Tango started by establishing each player’s skill level. By 1941, DiMaggio’s batting skill had ascended to that of a roughly .350 hitter. So, since the point of DiMaggio’s streak was to avoid going hitless, Tango took that average and reasoned that DiMaggio had a 65% chance of not getting a hit each time he came up. Multiplying that over an average of four at-bats in a game, Joe D held an 82% chance each day of not going hitless, and therefore extending his streak by one game.

Of course, stretching those odds across weeks and weeks is what made DiMaggio’s streak special. When multiplying that 82% rate exponentially across 56 games (.82^56), Tango calculated that the odds of a hitter as good as DiMaggio (again, a .350 hitter) would pull off his streak at roughly 1 in 60,000.

That sounds about right: If we sat and watched the Yankee Clipper play out 60,000 56-game segments, we’d see him get a hit in all 56 of them just one time. That’s why DiMaggio’s streak is considered “untouchable” -- and indeed, Pete Rose (44 games in 1978) is the only player who has come within 16 games since.

Colon's odds

But check out Bartolo’s odds. Applying similar logic, Tango started with Colon’s 70% strike rate in 2012 as his base skill level. With any one of Bart’s pitches carrying a 70% chance of being a strike (and again, this is a very rough estimate, not factoring in variables like pitch sequencing), Tango calculated the odds of Colon going 38-for-38 in any one of his hundreds of 38-pitch segments that year as 1 in 770,000 -- odds nearly 13 times higher than DiMaggio.

It’s true that Colon had more opportunities for his streak, given that he threw way more pitches (2,141) in 2012 than DiMaggio had games to play (139) in 1941. Bartolo also didn’t face the same pressure and attention that DiMaggio did during the summer of ‘41, when the whole country asked each morning, "Did he get a hit?" On the other hand, a pitcher can choose what he throws, and he has some (though not complete) control over where his pitches go. A hitter might not get any pitches to hit over the course of an afternoon, and he could be beholden to bad luck once he puts the ball in play.

But the odds of a pitcher pumping strike after strike dozens of times -- with no margin for error, against a lineup that’s continually processing more of his pitches (and, in Colon’s case, almost exclusively one pitch type) -- are still significantly lower than a hitter ending his day with at least one hit. There’s a statistical argument that what Colon accomplished one night in April 2012, in a game already being forgotten by most, was just as remarkable as DiMaggio's streak.