Roy Halladay never flinched. He had only faced the first two batters of the game, yet he was already trailing by a run. To make the situation seem more dire, the most feared slugger in the league strode to the plate. It was a grim prospect for any pitcher. But, the man toeing the rubber for the Philadelphia Phillies that night was not just any pitcher.
On Friday, October 7, 2011, an overflow crowd gathered at Citizens Bank Park to watch the fifth and deciding game of the National League Division Series. What they were about to witness was the greatest pitchers’ duel in recent memory. Unbeknownst to the 46,530 souls in the park that cool night, they were attending the final start of Halladay’s 10-year stretch of dominance.
To truly appreciate the greatness of the pitcher, one must go back to the beginning. The Toronto Blue Jays selected the lanky right-hander in the first round (17th overall pick) in the 1995 amateur draft. He made his major league debut three years later. Then came his second career start – a preview of future dominance. It was the final game of the 1998 season – Sunday, September 28. Halladay faced the Detroit Tigers that warm, early-autumn afternoon. By the end of the game, the Tigers were undoubtedly ready to for their offseason to begin. From the very first pitch of the game, Halladay began mowing Tigers’ hitters down with laser-like precision. Inning-after-inning was recorded and Detroit was still looking to record their first base hit of the game. As Halladay took to the mound for the top of the ninth inning, the 21-year old, baby-faced rookie, was three outs away from history. All that stood in his way of a perfect game was a fifth inning error by second baseman Felipe Crespo. But, the no-hitter was still intact. Halladay quickly dispatched Gabe Kapler and Paul Bako for the first two outs. One out away! All that was left was to retire pinch hitter Bobby Higginson. He had other ideas. Higginson lined an opposite-field home run – no-hitter and shutout gone in one fell swoop. Halladay completed the masterpiece by retiring the very next hitter. Eight strikeouts, no walks and barely a hard hit ball. All in a tidy, 1 hour and 45 minutes.
The 1999 season began with great promise for the young right hander. It ended with mixed results, however. Halladay spent most of the season shuttling between the starting rotation and the bullpen. While his numbers were respectable, they were unbecoming of a first round draft pick. The biggest concern was a lack of being able to throw strikes on a consistent basis. He averaged nearly five walks per nine innings. The Blue Jays weren’t sure whether they had a starter or reliever on their hands.
2000 was going to be a make-or-break season for Halladay. He wanted to prove that he belonged in the rotation. The Blue Jays wanted to see consistency along with significant improvement over the previous campaign. What they got was something nobody expected. Statistically, it was the worst season ever by a pitcher. Ever! Halladay finished with an unsightly, 10.64 ERA. The highest Earned Run Average for a pitcher with a minimum of 50 innings pitched in a season. A closer look reveals even more gruesome numbers: 2.202 WHIP, 14.2 H/9, 5.6 BB/9. The Toronto brass had seen enough. It was time to send their once-promising, top prospect, down to the minors to try and save his career. A trip to Triple-A Syracuse was in order. The results there were not much better. What happened next may have broken lesser pitchers. What it did was pave the way for brilliance.
In the spring of 2001, Roy Halladay received a ‘cold slap of reality.’ In fact, it was the coldest of all. He was being shipped back to the minors. But, not just any minor league – the Florida State League. Single-A! The Blue Jays brought their former pitching coach, Mel Queen, out of retirement to work with him one-on-one. What Queen did was put him through hell – physically and mentally. He literally broke Halladay down and rebuilt him from the ground up. The primary reason for Halladay’s struggles was the fastball. It was as flat and straight as a Nebraska highway. Sure, it was 95 mph alright. But when a young, stubborn phenom tries to blow a straight-as-an-arrow fastball that is up in the zone, past major league hitters – well, let’s just say it rarely ends well for the man on the mound. Queen’s first order-of-business was to break down the delivery. Halladay threw straight over-the-top which was causing his pitches to be flat and up in the strike zone. He taught him how to pitch with a three-quarter arm angle delivery to go along with an assortment of different grips. The results were immediate. The pitches were darting and breaking all over the zone. Nothing was straight. Queen also helped Halladay develop a new mental approach to pitching. He tried to make him understand that he was “unintelligent” about pitching – that he couldn’t just blow everybody away with a 95 mph fastball. Once Queen’s ‘boot camp’ had been completed, Halladay was released back into the wild. Single-A was followed by trips to Double and Triple-A as well. He eventually found his way back to Toronto later that summer. In reality, what Mel Queen did, was mold a wild animal that was about to be unleashed to wreak havoc on major league hitters.
Halladay’s 2002 season was harbinger of things to come. He became a dominant pitcher. His numbers drastically improved: 19 wins, 2.93 ERA, 157 ERA+, 7.4 WAR. Included, was Halladay being named to his first All-Star team. That was followed by another All-Star selection as-well-as winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2003. The following year was a pesky speed bump. He endured two separate trips to the disabled list with right shoulder issues. Halladay rebounded with an amazing first-half in 2005. He was a 12-game winner heading into the All-Star break. 2.41 ERA, 0.960 WHIP, and an outstanding 185 ERA+. It looked like he was a shoe-in to win his second Cy Young Award in three years. Unfortunately, he broke his left leg in a game against the Texas Rangers on July 8 and missed the rest of the season.
The subsequent seasons that followed were nothing short of stellar. Halladay was now in the upper echelon of pitchers in baseball. Sadly, he was pitching in relative obscurity in Toronto. He wasn’t pitching in Philadelphia or New York or Boston or Chicago. He was pitching in Toronto. In addition, the Blue Jays were not a very good team during the first decade of the new century. Plus, it didn’t help that they played in a stacked division with perennial contenders like the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and up-and-coming Tampa Bay Rays.
Roy Halladay was flying under the radar and the only remedy would be a trip to the postseason. With each passing season, it became more evident that a trip to the playoffs would have to come in a different uniform.
Then came the bombshell on December 16, 2009, courtesy of the master bombardier himself, Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. In a stunning turn-of-events, Amaro shipped 2009 playoff hero Cliff Lee, to the Seattle Mariners for what amounted to a bag of baseballs and a tub of sunflower seeds. Later that day, it was announced that Halladay had been acquired by the Phillies for a package of prospects headed north of the border in return. The trade was met with wide-spread skepticism in Philadelphia. Lee had nearly single-handedly pitched the Phillies to a second consecutive World Series championship. To most casual baseball fans, Halladay was an unknown commodity. Here was his chance at the ultimate goal - pitching in a baseball-crazy market, on a perennial contender, with a chance to win a World Series. What followed was two seasons of sheer dominance.
Halladay adapted to Philadelphia and pitching in the National League like a penguin to an iceberg. Halladay’s intensity matched that of the fan base. It was love at first sight. Those that were still skeptical were won over once-and-for-all on May 29, 2010. On a steamy night, in a near empty stadium in South Florida, Roy Halladay pitched the 20th perfect game in Major League Baseball history – blanking the Florida Marlins, 1-0. The perfecto was followed by another masterpiece – on a grander stage. On October 6 of that season, he pitched only the second no-hitter in postseason history – shutting down the high-powered Cincinnati Reds. Halladay became the fifth pitcher in Major League history to throw two no-hitters in one season.
His second season with the Phillies was just as dominant as the first. The numbers never lie. 2010/2011: 2.44/2.35 ERA, 167/163 ERA+, 1.04/1.04 WHIP, 8.3/8.9 WAR. Plus, a combined 17 complete games and five shutouts. Dominance!
Then, came that fateful night against the St. Louis Cardinals. He never did allow any further damage. Just that one lonely run. Unfortunately, the Phillies’ offense picked the absolute worst time to channel the 1962 New York Mets for offensive ineptitude. Halladay’s best friend and former Blue Jays’ teammate, Chris Carpenter, matched him pitch-for-pitch. Two grizzled gunslingers battling it out on the western frontier. Ironically, it was the last hurrah for both pitchers. During the offseason, the two friends headed to Brazil on a fishing expedition. In a twist of fate, coincidence or not, both pitchers arrived to Spring Training nowhere near their 2011 levels. Both ended up spending significant time on the disabled list. Just two short years since the greatest pitchers’ duel in a generation, both have retired.
Now comes the talk about Cooperstown. Halladay is not a slam dunk choice like Greg Maddux, but he’s pretty darn close. True, he didn’t pitch 20-plus years like Maddux, Nolan Ryan or Steve Carlton. But, he didn’t need to. He thrived in an offensive era that placed a premium on pitching. Once again, the numbers never lie. Halladay’s 10-year stretch of dominance covered the 2002-2011 seasons. 170-75 W-L, 2.97 ERA, .694 winning %, 151 ERA+ (both home ballparks were hitter-friendly), 1.117 WHIP, 62.4 WAR, 63 CG, 18 Shutouts. Two Cy Young Awards (one in each league), eight All-Star teams, a perfect game and postseason no-hitter. 203 career victories and a .659 winning % over a 16-year career. Over the course of that time period, he lead all major league pitchers in winning %, shutouts and complete games.
A pretty good barometer on a pitcher’s effectiveness is ERA+. 100 is average. Roy Halladay’s career ERA+ is 131. Compare Halladay to pitchers who are, or will be, in the Hall of Fame: Sandy Koufax 131, Greg Maddux 132, Tom Glavine 118, Tom Seaver 127, Catfish Hunter 104, Pedro Martinez 154, Randy Johnson 135, Nolan Ryan 112, Curt Schilling 127, Steve Carlton 115. Except for Martinez, who took dominance to an entirely different stratosphere during his heyday, Halladay is comparable to all of the other greats.
It was painful watching one of the greatest pitchers of his generation struggle through a sweat-filled, 1/3 of an inning that night in Miami. Many already knew it was the end of the road – only needing final confirmation from Halladay himself. That came a few months later. Baseball will sorely miss a man and pitcher of his caliber. Fans will miss watching a true professional ply his craft every fifth day. Players will miss following his example and receiving tutelage from the master. Three people will undoubtedly benefit from his retirement – his wife and two sons, who will finally have him all to themselves.
Sure, he never won that elusive World Series championship, but, Roy Halladay is one player that can honestly say, “I gave it everything I had.” One might believe that a bronze plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize.
I have a feeling there will be numerous bus loads of fans from Philadelphia, Toronto and all points in between, descending upon Cooperstown, New York in July 0f 2019.