November 9, 2017 – Roy Halladay

This is a full reproduction of the latest issue of Penning Bull, which went out to subscribers this morning. I feel odd keeping words about subjects like this one behind the implicit paywall, so I’m publishing it here. If the piece so moves you, please consider subscribing. 

Roy Halladay, 40, died Tuesday in a plane crash off the coast of Florida. He was the pilot and sole passenger of the plane, his own plane, one he’d purchased earlier this year. We’ve had far too many of these deaths, lately. Great players have died right in the middle of, or at the beginning of, incredibly impressive careers, in car and boat accidents. Beloved legends have died far too young, claimed by cancer. It’s enough (life in general, lately) is enough make one go numb. It’s hard to find anything to say, sometimes. It’s hard to find any meaning in the loss or any honest, to-the-bone assessment of the player and person. We find ourselves awash in platitudes and heartsickness, knowing their loved ones will suffer so much without them and that there’s so little we can really do to change that, and knowing whatever the real magnitude of the person and their legacy was, it will be swallowed and distorted now by the way we lost them.

All of that could, can, does apply to Halladay’s death, too, and dear reader, please feel free to feel all of that. For me, though, this case feels different, too. There’s a more visceral, more inescapable, and more energetic element to this. We can take no action, of course. Halladay’s wife Brandy and sons Ryan and Braden will want for nothing, monetarily, and this is not (to anyone’s knowledge, or in all likelihood) related to drug or alcohol use. Still, everyone has sprung to action. Players who knew Halladay, who loved him and learned from him, and many who only saw him from across a diamond, too, have posted stories on social media about what Halladay meant to them. That happens every time this happens. There’s something very different here, though. The boilerplate stuff—the rookie he took under a wing when it was needed, the friend he consoled when they were at their lowest—is out there, but the majority of the accounts are quite personal and unique to the players telling them: almost more about them, and about what they saw when they looked at Halladay, than about Halladay himself. The professional and personal respect and admiration so many hold for Halladay is on a level we don’t often encounter, even when they pass and we tend to hear only the best things about them.

Halladay was one of the hardest workers and most even-keeled competitors in the game, for over a decade. As many have noted, he was the last great practitioner of the complete game. He was certainly a physical freak, but that ability to work very deep into games also stemmed from his exceptional mastery of the mental aspects of pitching. After two dreadful seasons (his first two full ones) in 1999 and 2000, Halladay was in jeopardy of seeing his career disappear. According to our DRA-based WARP, Halladay was worth -2.7 wins during those campaigns.

He found himself in the minors the following spring, and was considering giving up the game. Then, he discovered The Mental ABC’s of Pitching: A Handbook for Performance, by legendary sport (and especially baseball) psychologist Harvey Dorfman. I’ve read that book, and Dorfman’s other well-known tome, The Mental Game of Baseball, and here’s the thing about them: they’re incredibly useful, precisely to the extent that one is open to their message and is of the right general disposition to put its counsel into action. Halladay, with his natural blend of tenacity and placidity, was the perfect audience at the perfect moment.

By the middle of 2001, Halladay was back in the Majors, and he was dominant. He had the sinker that would make him the most efficient starter in baseball, and he had the delivery that would make him the most durable one, but most of all, he had the mental edge that would make him the best.

It’s my instinct to look, in moments like these, for things I can tell people that others don’t know. I searched through the Control and Command metrics we’ve built over at Baseball Prospectus, and then dug into Halladay’s tunneling data, looking for a relationship between his pitches or the quantitative expression of some unique skill that might lend us all a greater understanding of Halladay, the pitcher. All of that turned up nothing. In those ways, Halladay wasn’t exceptional. He beat opponents in a different way.

The first two paragons of modern pitching (if we’re being generous, but not overgenerous, with our definition of ‘modern’) were Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. They pitched at a time when hardly anyone was a threat to hit a home run, so games turned slowly and rallies came together only if the offense beat the pitcher and the defense a few times in one inning. Both Mathewson and Johnson masterfully availed themselves of that reality, throwing from a low arm slot, pacing themselves, and always being ready for the moment when they really needed an out. Mathewson’s memoir, “Pitching in a Pinch,” became the first definitive philosophical text on the craft.

After those two, though, the game was without pitchers of similar, prolonged brilliance for decades. The game belonged to the hitters for years, through the Babe Ruth/Rogers Hornsby/Lou Gehrig era and on into the Joe DiMaggio/Ted Williams/Willie Mays/Mickey Mantle era. When pitchers took the game back, in the 1960s, the art looked very different: Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver led a generation of men who came flying down the mound, all their emphasis on power, mostly throwing over the top and focused on keeping the ball away, away, away. Even Gibson, known for pitching inside, talked about working the outside edge to get outs, and about coming in only to keep hitters honest and as far from the plate as possible.

That became the dominant pitching philosophy, and when Leo Mazzone came along in the early 1990s (with the strike zone two and a half feet wide and a trio of aces who would have been great no matter when or how they pitched under his guidance), an emphasis on establishing the fastball and pounding it, low and away all day, brought us right up to what a 2017 fan would recognize as modern orthodoxy.

Halladay didn’t live by that orthodoxy. That’s not to say that he didn’t get many, even most, of his outs by throwing cutters and curveballs away (to batters of either handedness), but he used his sinker—and especially the inside sinker, either front-dooring it to left-handers or running it in onto the hands of righties—differently than most great pitchers of the Expansion Era have. He threw with the same kind of easy, impeccably repeatable delivery that Johnson and Mathewson used, and (despite pitching in an era in which almost everyone was a threat to hit a home run, and the texture of games could change in an instant) he picked spots at which to reserve his effort and pitch to contact, and others at which to bear down for strikeouts. That doesn’t make him unique among the great recent pitchers, but it sure helps set him apart, and it helps explain his trademark trait: that exceptional ability to pile up innings. He was a mental giant, perhaps unrivaled by anyone this side of Greg Maddux and those two ancient masters.

He’s a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. He won two Cy Young awards, threw a perfect game, and threw a playoff no-hitter. Since 2001, he’s the leader in Wins Above Replacement Player, based on DRA, despite having retired four years ago (and having pitched an entire, mediocre season in pain and without effectiveness, in 2013). Even since 1999, when the story of his career has to begin (because his greatness really was forged in the fire of that adversity), he’d edged out only by Randy Johnson. None of that seems terribly important right now, of course. It’s wonderful that he’ll be enshrined in Cooperstown and that we have a way to demonstrate, so clearly, that he was the best pitcher of his generation.

None of it brings him back, though, so we’re left wanting to focus mostly on the things that do, in some small way, bring him back. Story after story of his generosity of spirit, of his devotion to his family, and of his passion for people and life do bring him back, at least for those of us who already lost him once (the way we lose all ballplayers, once they retire and their day-to-day life no longer plays out as a backdrop to our own). His own pictures of the plane in which he died, along with his expression of such joy at the prospect of flying it, underscore that he died doing what he truly loved—something, perhaps, he loved even more than baseball. So many pitchers were either inspired or directly influenced by Halladay. A blogger who started a baseball blog entitled “I Want to Go to the Zoo With Roy,” which is a ridiculous thing that the guy knew was ridiculous, which was a preposterous joke from the beginning, actually did get to go to the zoo with Halladay, because that’s the person Halladay was.

Slowly, pitchers are coming to look more like Halladay. Corey Kluber is this generation’s (lesser) answer to Halladay: able to pitch much deeper into games than his peers, ruthlessly efficient, incredibly even-keeled on the mound. Ray Searage brought Halladay’s approach (that sinker in against same-handed hitters, complemented by sliders or cutters that veer away) to the Pirates and ended their two-decade playoff drought. Charlie Morton, who famously copied Halladay’s delivery almost movement-for-movement in order to revive his career some years ago, got the final 12 outs of this year’s World Series. A number of the game’s biggest breakouts this season came when pitchers lowered their arm slots and focused more on stability during their delivery. If we’re luckier than we deserve to be, the world (and especially baseball) will also come to reflect Halladay on a personal level.

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