As the baseball world natters on about the positives and negatives of various 2017 Hall of Fame induction candidates, my mind wandered to greats I’ve seen depart in recent years. Namely, Roy Halladay.
He'll be up for election next year, after a very excellent career that just sort of ended suddenly from shoulder problems.In this era where pitching has reached a new level of dominance, Halladay is already disappearing into the past along with Johan Santana and Tim Hudson. it's amazing how quickly time moves, how quickly baseball replaces itself, that these men are increasingly now just figures of history. Halladay, in particular, was more fantastic than most, in every sense of the word. Whether in skill or numbers he was unlike anyone else of his era, and he also may have been the unluckiest pitcher of the new millennium.
Alright, maybe you could find a more unlucky player. Brandon Webb was felled in the flower of his career. Tim Lincecum was a shooting star, burning bright and quick. Shoot, Steve Dalkowski was allegedly the fastest pitcher ever, and he blew his elbow out days before the Orioles were finally planning on calling him up. Halladay had a full career, at least. But it was so poorly timed. He was quite simply the best pitcher in baseball for at least six or seven years. He was the greatest of horses, averaging 219 innings per season with Toronto and Philadelphia, going 175 and 70 (which means something to me at least, with that winning percentage) and a 2.93 ERA with 3.12 FIP in that stretch. Not many many have peaked as he did. And like Dennis Reynolds, when he peaked, everyone knew it. It looked like a perfect game and a no-hitter, the second one in his first postseason start. But for all his efforts, the world conspired against him.
Halladay was a marvel because of what made him so great. He didn’t do anything obviously incredible like throw 98 or drop balls off tables, he just mitigated contact and didn’t let you know which way the ball was going to go. Whether a cutter, two-seam, four-seam, sinker, even his slider, they all looked the exact same for most of the way, almost the same speed and suddenly it’s headed exactly where you don’t expect it. It was Maddux-like, in that he utilized location and slight movements to get the ball off the sweet spot, out-think and master hitters. Then he’d drop a changeup at 83 or so and the batter would sob helplessly. I even loved his delivery. There was simply nothing to it. He merely pitched like a robot would pitch, with out the funk of Lincecum or the hitch of Lee. Compact, economical excellence, forged over years of work. He was everything Ayn Rand might like, without being hideously insufferable.
I’ve written before about Josh Tomlin being a destitute man's Roy Halladay. I’ve successfully convinced myself that Tomlin, with just a few more ticks on the radar gun, would be truly dominant. He merely can't sneak one by a guy, or get an easy out. Of course, who’s to say how good Halladay would be even now. The average fastball velo has risen about 1 mph in the last eight years. Which doesn’t sound like much, but that extra little bit of timing batters had against slower pitches meant everything. And that's velocity across baseball, a game where middling soft-tossers still find their way to the game. Halladay would certainly be great now, and he worked religiously to maintain his greatness, but you have to wonder where he’d rate now. Regardless though, he was the perfect pitcher. He guiled and tricked his way to victory, or else just clicked and started striking out sides with power. He could do it all. His team just let him down.
Just look at those mid-2000's Blue Jays teams. His rotation mate was AJ Burnett. Burnett had all the talent in the world. An absurd curve, mid-90's power, and an utter inability to find the strike zone for long stretches of games. Or the offense that was to back Halladay. General manager JP Ricciardi was bamboozled by Vernon Wells into the worst contract in baseball history. Alex Rios’s play kept suggesting he might get better than he ended up being. Adam Lind continues to be Adam Lind TO THIS DAY. The Red Sox had just found their own stretch of incredible dominance while the Jays were simply good, and the Yankees were already great, then spent $450 million in one offseason. In a world where timing means so much, Halladay’s was just dreadful. Through no fault of his own, and you can believe that by his leading baseball in complete games three years in a row before he left for Philly, he was stymied in any attempt to get over the hump.
Then of course, he joins with Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels to make one of the greatest pitching staffs in baseball history. Oh, and Roy Oswalt was their fourth best starter. There was one year where the Phillies didn’t lose a single series. That’s truly incredible to do, and that three headed beast did it. Halladay looked set to make the playoffs and the World Series, only to be waylayed by Even Year Bullshit and the San Francisco Giants. That 2010 season was probably his best. He worked 250.2 innings with a 2.44 ERA, won 21 games, and threw a no-hitter in his first playoff appearance. It was stunning. Then that damn Panda and Big Time Timmy Jim and of all people Cody Ross worked together to off the powerhouse. Looking back, that was the only real shot the Phils had, even with that pitching staff. Ruben Amaro did so little to supplement an aging core of Howard, Utley, Ruiz and Rollins, and they leaned so hard on that pitching staff that the margin of error was slim as all hell. As the team fell apart and got slowly sold off, Halladay lost the magic, and like a wink he was gone. It just happened so suddenly, nobody was prepared. One year he was his usual self, the next he couldn't get anyone.
This is a quiet doom you don’t wish on any player. Seeing a generational talent like Halladay toil fruitlessly on a poorly run, bad luck team is frustrating. We got to see him in the postseason for a bit and it was glorious, but thinking of all those wasted years in Canada where he baffled powerhouses up and down the East Coast only to go home in October. It’s a sad reflection on what could have been. Wasted talent is the worst crime a franchise can commit. Halladay will find his way into the Hall of Fame, hopefully sooner rather than later. Even if you think his career wasn’t long enough, and how 2750 innings is too short a career I have no idea, he had one of the greatest peaks ever. He had a ten year stretch where he averaged 6.2 WAR a season. That’s with a two year span, his 27 and 28 age years when he was supposed to be entering his peak, where he got hurt. He still compiled 274 innings and 7.4 WAR. He was appointment viewing on a very mediocre team. He and Felix Hernandez were telling the same tale with their careers, but at least Halladay got the shot in October, and never disappointed. He is proof championships aren’t all that matters. Every five days he took the challenge to prove who was the best, usually in the most rugged division baseball has seen in a long time. Most of the time he came out on top. He may fade into the past with other great pitchers who never won that ring, but that would be a travesty. Nobody in the 2000’s mastered pitching like Roy Halladay.