Numbers prove Roy Halladay is an all-time pitching great

Roy Halladay died in a plane crash Tuesday. He was 40 years old. He leaves behind a legacy as a devoted family man, admired teammate, and respected opponent.

Yet his impact on the field warrants further examination. At the height of his powers he was the best pitcher in baseball, making him a worthy successor to many of the all-time greats. What’s odd is that his reputation — or our fixation with revering the distant past while downplaying more recent events — often didn’t reflect Halladay’s status as one of the best to ever pitch.

The Blue Jays nabbed Halladay with the 17th overall pick of the 1995 draft, out of Arvada High School, just outside of Denver. The scouting report was optimistic, spotlighting a 6-foot-6 specimen with the upside to become a top-of-the-rotation starter in the majors. Doc made those scouting reports look prescient during his first exposure to minor league ball. He posted a 2.73 ERA in his first full season, an impressive feat for a high-school draftee pushed straight to the high-A Florida State League. As he matured, Halladay’s fastball ticked up to 95 m.p.h., complementing a wipeout knuckle-curveball that became his trademark.

Unfortunately, his development soon stalled. Halladay’s ERA ballooned to 4.77 in 1997, as he split time between Double-A Knoxville and Triple-A Syracuse. He struck out just 94 batters and walked an alarming 64 in 162 innings. Prospect experts wondered aloud if the Jays were rushing Halladay, to the pitcher’s detriment. They continued pushing him anyway, and Doc made his major league debut on September 20, 1998. A week later, in his second big league start, he hurled an eight-strikeout, no-walk, complete-game one-hitter against the Tigers.

He still wasn’t ready. Halladay walked nearly as many batters as he struck out in 1999. In 2000, he was so bad, his ERA swelled to a ludicrous 10.64. The Jays responded by relegating him all the way back to Single-A. Sure, future Hall of Famers like Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine needed time to work out their early-career kinks and develop into the strike-firing machines they would later become.

But finding lasting success as a pitcher means solving an elaborate and daunting puzzle, one that requires everything from smooth and repeatable mechanics to finding the right mix of pitches to the elusive blend of hard work, genetic good fortune, and luck to keep you off the operating table. Two-plus years into his major league journey, Halladay could have grown to become another Maddux, or another Joe Shlabotnik. There was no way to know for sure which way he would go.

Working with minor league pitching coach Mel Queen, Halladay completely overhauled his approach. Instead of a straight-over-the-top delivery, he dropped down to near three-quarters. His go-to pitches became a sinker and a cutter, a lethal one-two punch that turned him into PETA’s most wanted, given all the worms he wiped out by all the groundballs he generated.

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Prime Time Sports
Originally aired November 08 2017

Over the 11 seasons that followed, Halladay delivered a tiny 2.98 ERA, doing so against a fierce collection of hitters, with much of that time sitting in the high-offense PED era. Commanding the strike zone went from a constant challenge to his greatest strength, as Halladay began hitting his spots with pinpoint precision, more effectively than any other pitcher in the league.

He also became a frequent threat to achieve history. On May 29, 2010, Halladay became the 20th pitcher ever to throw a perfect game, beating the Marlins 1-0. A little over four months later, Halladay no-hit the Reds in Game 1 of the NLDS, becoming just the second pitcher ever to toss a no-no in the postseason.

Bill James devised an elaborate rating system to determine how deserving, and how likely a player was to gain induction into the Hall of Fame. First there’s the Black Ink test, which measures how often a player led the league in any statistical category. Halladay led the league in innings pitched four times, with a stretch in which he piled up 220 or more innings in six straight seasons (not counting playoffs). He led the league in shutouts four times, and complete games seven times. He paced the circuit in wins twice, if you care about such things. Mosy over to fancier stats, and Halladay led in strikeout-to-walk rate five times and park-adjusted ERA once, with six different seasons in which his park-adjusted ERA was 50 per cent better than league average, or better. He led all pitchers in Wins Above Replacement four times. Add it all up, and Halladay’s accomplishments bettered that of the average Hall of Famer.

Another James Hall of Fame stat is Grey Ink, which measures the number of times a pitcher finished Top 10 in the league in a significant statistical category. There, Halladay just barely misses the standards set by the average Hall of Fame pitcher. By James’ Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which gauges how deserving a candidate is overall, Halladay skates in easily. (See where Halladay ranks in those Hall of Fame-related departments on his Baseball-Reference page.)

The best Hall of Fame test for measuring a pitcher’s Hall worthiness is probably JAWS. Devised by SI writer Jay Jaffe, JAWS combines a pitcher’s career value with his peak value, as measured by his seven best seasons. By that approach, Halladay comes in slightly below the average Hall of Famer’s profile. Here, a dose of context is in order. The top of the scale for starters is skewed by pitchers who toiled a century or more ago like Cy Young and Walter Johnson, extreme outliers who pitched forever, during eras far more likely to breed pitching success. Halladay ranks 43rd all-time in JAWS; numbers 41 and 42 (Hal Newhouser and Bob Feller) are Hall of Famers, as are numbers 44 and 45 (Juan Marichal and Carl Hubbell).

The final test is how Halladay was regarded by his peers, and those who evaluated success while he pitched. Halladay won two Cy Young awards, and seven times finished in the top five in Cy Young voting. He made eight All-Star teams. He became the pitcher who every other great pitcher wanted to watch.

From a 10.64 ERA to the revered status of best in baseball, Roy Halladay harnessed his talent and perseverance to become a pitcher we’ll never forget. Up next: Cooperstown, and a permanent place in our hearts.