Roy Halladay, 1977-2017

marc w · November 7, 2017 at 8:54 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Roy Halladay faced a good M’s team three times in 2000. He tossed a total of 7 innings across 1 start and 2 relief appearances, yielding 13 hits and 7 runs. He walked 5 and struck out 2. He was 23, and would start the next season down in the Florida State League after compiling an MLB ERA over 10 in that season. Sure, the year before, he’d put it all together against Seattle, going 7 shutout innings in a duel with Jamie Moyer. But in July of 2000, it looked like that’d be a great bar story, the talented kid who’d made the show but couldn’t stick.*

Halladay wasn’t exactly a young phenom, and he’d amassed over 200 big league innings. Sure, his minor league numbers were better, but they didn’t scream can’t-miss-prospect; his BB/9 in AAA was about 3.5, while his K/9 was just over 5. He’d been a first-round pick, so it’s not like the Jays were giving up on him, but in the years since the draft, he’d showed little evidence that a breakthrough was imminent.

At the time, there were a couple of closely-related tenets of the nascent sabermetric community that pretty much everyone agreed on. The first was that minor league stats could effectively predict major league performance, indeed, they were at least as good as *MLB* stats at predicting future MLB performance (once adjusted for level/context, of course). As you can see, there was little in Halladay’s MiLB resume to suggest he could either a) miss bats at an elite level or b) develop pinpoint command. The conclusion that’s distinct, but clearly similar to this theory held that raw stuff, or talent, or ability, or skillset was essentially fixed, innate. It’s what allowed minor league stats – and stats in general – to be predictive: they were an indicator of skill. That’s not to say that all a pitcher could ever be was what he was at 19 years old, but it implied that development was about figuring out what in a pitcher’s bag of tricks was particularly good or noteworthy and honing that skill into a weapon. You couldn’t just “develop” into a hard-throwing strikeout artist – you either were or you were not. If you were throwing 89 but had good control, it would probably be best to focus on command. If you threw a sinker, you should focus on being the best ground ball pitcher you could be. Roy Halladay had so-so command and so-so stuff: his stats told us. Things were looking bleak.

You all know what happened next, and while Toronto’s coaches and player development staff get a lot of credit, the primary reason Roy Halladay not only got another big league shot but became ROY HALLADAY was that he worked incredibly hard. Sabermetric ideas worked well on the population at large, but they couldn’t identify players like Halladay who simply wouldn’t stop improving themselves. Armed with a new approach, Halladay first became an absolutely elite control pitcher and what we would now call a contact-manager (a species the nascent sabermetric community was pretty sure did not exist back when Halladay was evolving into one). Even then, when he’d become a very good MLB starter, he *kept* developing and by 2008, he was a strikeout pitcher as well, and by far the league’s best overall arm.

Given his insane work ethic, it wouldn’t have been a shock if Halladay had been a hyper-competitive gym rat, a guy fueled by resentments real and imaginary. Instead, Halladay was the kind of guy even those who couldn’t hit him wanted to talk to. During and after his playing days, he was reaching out to younger pitchers, especially those who were struggling – often for the first time – and didn’t know why. He wanted to help, and his example must’ve been the focus of dozens or hundreds of young pitchers who got roughed up in their first taste of the bigs. That’s what made Halladay so much more than the story of an extemely talented pitcher who shook off early struggles and reached his potential. That’s pat and boring. Instead, Halladay showed that what you are now isn’t what you’d always be. Other pitchers soaked it up, either directly or, as in the case of Brandon McCarthy, by carefully and meticulously copying his every move.

After McCarthy found success by completely overhauling his repertoire, the A’s essentially codified it and institutionalized Halladay-mimicry for a while, something I’ve talked about a few times on this blog. The damage to the old idea of a fixed quantity of “stuff” went far beyond the more literal “throw cutters and sinkers.” I don’t want to oversell this; coaches and teammates have passed on new pitches for years, and things have clicked for many, even after years of fruitless struggle. But THE story of 2017 wasn’t the ball, it wasn’t stockpiling draft picks, or Statcast – it was the very Halladay-esque idea that you could go out and fundamentally change everything about a ballplayer. You could smash through the hypothetical ceiling that prospect people always talked about. Charlie freaking Morton could throw 98, because hey, why not. Chris Taylor could slug .500 in the majors, but finish a few HRs shy of Zach Cozart’s season total. Roy Halladay didn’t teach Taylor to elevate the ball, but he started something that’s still working its way through the game. By being not only relentless but open, friendly and helpful, Halladay fundamentally changed a few people’s careers, and the ripples of those changes have altered the game for the better.

Roy Halladay died today at the age of 40. He’s a few months younger than I am, and by all accounts was as dedicated to his family as I try to be. Even with a Halladay-like work ethic, I’d never be able to throw 80, let alone 90. But there’s something about his personality and the way he related to others – athletes or not – that’s inspiring. I don’t think a Chris Taylor-like transformation of my personality or abilities is in the offing, but Halladay is one of the people who makes me want to be a little bit better, and, crucially, that putting the work in to do so is worth it. I hope his example and his legacy is some comfort to his loved ones and especially his kids. RIP.

* The proper name for outings in which replacement-level pitchers toss one great start against Seattle and then fade away is a “Waechter” after former Tampa hurler Doug Waechter.


4 Responses to “Roy Halladay, 1977-2017”

  1. Coug1990 on November 8th, 2017 6:18 am

    Thanks for the positive message regarding RH. He appears to be a better person than he was a pitcher and he was a great pitcher. Condolences go out to his loved ones.

  2. hailcom on November 8th, 2017 9:43 am

    This was a great post, Marc. I was familiar with Halladay, of course, but learned something new and inspiring as well. Thanks.

  3. Westside guy on November 9th, 2017 2:48 pm

    Thank you for the write-up, Marc.

    On another sad note: Today the ex-Mariners beat writer for The News Tribune, Larry Larue, passed away. I always enjoyed reading his stuff. He was unfortunately blackballed by the players after he wrote about Ken Griffey and “Nap-Gate”.

  4. mrakbaseball on November 9th, 2017 3:46 pm

    RIP Roy Halladay and Larry LaRue.

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