What’s up with Doc?!

May 15, 2013, 3:00 PM

No longer a dominant force in the game, Roy Halladay is desperately trying to remake himself on the fly

I was trying really hard not to laugh. I had just asked Philadelphia Phillies utility infielder Kevin Frandsen, a veteran of seven major league seasons who once played with Barry Bonds, what it was like sitting at a locker next to Roy Halladay and he responded, “I like being around greatness.”

Like, really? Give me the real answer. What’s it like to sit next to the coldest, most mechanical guy in the major leagues? Dude gets to the ballpark before the sun does and works out for nine hours before robotically going through his routine, never breaking stride or focus, eyes flaring as he greases and oils the gears and pistons that surely sit just beneath his terrestrial-seeming skin. There must be a more telling observation than that. But Frandsen wasn’t joking. And he knew I wasn’t buying it. “I know people laugh when I say that,” he said. “But I just like being around greatness.”

All right, fine. Frandsen clearly wasn’t going to give me much insight into who Halladay is as a person, which was a theme during my fact-finding mission to Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., this spring, where my attempts to question Halladay and his teammates were mostly met with brick walls. But I guess it’s still funny that he said what he did, because greatness never seems to be around.

“Greatness” is, of course, Roy Halladay himself. I waited on it and him for no less than 12 hours spread across four visits to the Phillies’ expansive spring training facility. I suppose I’m not as fortunate as Frandsen, a 30-year-old journeyman, who I suspect was placed beside Halladay’s locker because he’s quiet and keeps to himself. Most teams either group their stars together in the clubhouse or put one of their promising youngsters next to such a storied figure. But if a rookie sat where Frandsen sits, he’d probably wonder what he’d done to make Halladay so angry.

Maybe that’s not the best word. Halladay isn’t overtly angsty, he’s just intense. Solitary, ascetic, hermetic. He rarely commences conversations unless he needs something specific, and certainly doesn’t want anyone entering his orbit to bother him with anything that doesn’t involve being the best pitcher of a generation. Which is a problem, see, because I was there to do exactly that. I was there to ask him about fishing and life—you know, to get the ball rolling—and then, once I worked up the nerve, about his uncharacteristic struggles over the past 12 months, the even more uncharacteristic injury to his throwing shoulder that made 2012 the first time in seven years that he didn’t pitch at least 220 innings, and, ultimately, the ever-looming inevitability of his end as a professional pitcher.

Yeah, I never had a shot.

You know Roy Halladay. Dominant in Toronto, legendary in Philadelphia, he’s the best pitcher of the past decade. His career abstract is dotted with an absurd number of inning-eating, walk-limiting, game-completing, swing-and-miss-inducing seasons, not to mention a couple of Cy Youngs, a perfect game, a post-season no-hitter and a mass of other notable achievements that would surely make even the crustiest fan tip his cap. Someday, Halladay will be inducted into Cooperstown and every baseball writer this side of the Atlantic will pen thousands of words about how insanely great he was at throwing baseballs. So you’ll just have to wait if a eulogy is what you’re looking for, because we’re here today to talk about what’s going to happen between now and then. And how Roy Halladay just ain’t Roy Halladay anymore.

The first signs of his impending demise appeared last May, the second of the month to be exact, when Halladay surrendered 12 hits and eight runs in Atlanta. He was fine through four innings as Philadelphia took a six-run lead, but the first three batters of the fifth reached on hard-hit balls to the outfield. Then, two run-scoring singles later, Braves catcher Brian McCann took a 91-mph cutter deep to right field for a game-tying grand slam. Halladay came out for the sixth and allowed three more hits and a couple of runs before he was lifted from the game. It was only the second time in his career he had allowed that many runs and hits, and the first time in nearly four years he had given up a grand slam. It also ruined his perfect 107-0 record when pitching with at least a four-run lead. The outing could have easily been written off as a mere aberration. But something was amiss.

Halladay went 1-3 in his next five starts, allowing 16 runs over 30 innings as opposition batters hit .281 off him—his career line is .252—before he crash landed on the disabled list with a strained throwing shoulder in late May. He returned nearly two months later and gave up 11 earned runs over 17 innings in his first three starts, eventually pitching to a 4.93 ERA in the 14 starts between his return from the DL and the end of the season. He was still a serviceable major league pitcher, but in comparison to the standards he’d set over the previous 10 years, the numbers didn’t look good.

Of course, there are more nuanced reasons for Halladay’s struggles than to simply say he lost the intangible X factor that made him so good. First, the uber-precise strike-zone artist’s command became startlingly inconsistent. His zone percentage has been dropping since 2009, from 52.6 down to just 42.3 in 2012. There is also the issue of Halladay’s velocity. In 2010, he threw his fastball at 92.6 mph and his cutter at 91.4; in 2012, his fastball averaged 90.6 and his cutter 88.9. The combination of softer pitches and unreliable placement equated to a surge of hard-hit balls. Halladay’s line drive and fly ball percentages jumped significantly last season, which indicates batters were making better contact. That translated into a heightened home run rate as well—Halladay was giving up more than a home run for every nine innings pitched, and 12 percent of the fly balls hit off him were leaving the park, his highest rate since 2006 and above the league average of 11.3 percent.

Halladay’s pitch selection also changed dramatically in 2012. While he relied heavily on his cutter during his most dominant years—often throwing it for the first pitch of at-bats and leaning on it when he fell behind in the count—he threw first-pitch cutters just 43 percent of the time against left-handers and 39 percent of the time against righties. He also used it less than half the time when he was behind in the count, mixing in his sinker and split-finger fastball more often than he had in the past.

With the exception of his zone percentage, which is up a slight 2.9 percentage points, those trends have all continued into the early 2013 season. His velocity is down across the board, his fly ball and HR/9 rates are both well above his career averages and he has moved even further away from his cutter. Through his first five starts of 2013, Halladay was actually throwing his sinker most often, using it more than a third of the time, while going to the cutter with just 20 percent of his pitches. He’s moved away from his trademark pitch entirely when starting an at-bat, and when he falls behind in the count he leans on his sinker against right-handers and his split-finger fastball against lefties.

Halladay has also altered his arm slot this season, pitching from a slightly lower angle than he has previously. His new release point is almost five inches below where it was in his dominant 2010 and 2011 seasons. So why change something that’s worked so well for so long? Well, it could be longevity. Often pitchers will lower their arm angle to take some stress off the shoulder, which both prevents injury and limits fatigue. But it also may be part of a greater change in Halladay’s very fabric as a pitcher. Much of this data indicates that Halladay may be undergoing a considerable transformation, from a hard-throwing grinder to a sinker-balling finesse pitcher. Halladay’s strength has always been that he could paint like Vermeer around the strike zone while reserving the right to reach back and blow a fastball or a cutter by a hitter when need be. But now, as his swinging strike rate has dropped for a third consecutive season and his fastball and cutter have lost much of the bite that made them so effective, Halladay has to start honing his secondary pitches even more, working almost exclusively in the bottom half of the strike zone where he can provoke grounders. It is almost a certainty that Halladay’s last 200-strikeout season—he’s had five in the past 10 years, tied with Johan Santana for the most over that span—is behind him.

As Halladay undergoes these adjustments to prolong his career, there are going to be growing pains, and at times they will be maddening, a fact never more glaringly on display than in Halladay’s first start of 2013 in Atlanta, where his struggles had begun almost a year before. It was like an elaborate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine. Halladay lasted just 3.1 innings, allowing five earned runs, three of which came on a pair of long home runs by Justin Upton and Evan Gattis. But he also struck out nine, the first pitcher since 1900 to record that many whiffs in such a short outing, and forced 14 swinging strikes—something he did only five times in 25 starts last year. Sometimes Halladay hit his spots perfectly, hardly requiring Phillies catcher Erik Kratz to move his glove. And sometimes he missed badly, sending Kratz stabbing at curveballs gone awry and cutters that sailed well inside on right-handed batters. He was simultaneously deceptive and hittable. Precise and wild. Pounding the zone and unable to command. See? Maddening.

That could all be part of the process of Halladay’s mechanical adjustments; even for a pitcher who made his name with precision, it will no doubt take some time to learn how to walk again. Or it could be what Halladay is now: an up-and-down pitcher who can be masterful some nights and confounding on others. The wise bets are on the former rather than the latter, and if you’ve followed his career, it’s hard not to believe Halladay will power through this rough patch and continue to be one of baseball’s most reliable pitchers. If he can transition into an off-speed pitcher, he could tack another five or six years onto his career and ride this thing out as long as his shoulder will let him. And what does Halladay think about all this? I don’t know. He wouldn’t let me ask him.

I spoke to Roy Halladay for no longer than 15 seconds, which was enough time for him to tell me—politely, I admit—to get lost. I tried to arrange an audience with him both informally and through the more stately channels of the Phillies’
caring, if not especially helpful, public relations department. Closed doors were all I found.

And that’s all right. Because what’s happening to Halladay is plain to see in the numbers and the very apparent adjustments he’s made to his mechanics and overall approach. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. I can’t imagine it’s something I’d want to think too much about either. That’s because Halladay’s decline can simply be boiled down to inevitability. Since he broke into the majors in 1998, Halladay has thrown more than 2,700 innings, the third most of anyone over that span. That’s an awful lot of mileage, and even for someone like Halladay, who stubbornly swims upstream, working harder than anyone away from the field to extend his career, there will be a day, certainly sooner rather than later, when he simply can’t do this anymore. All machines break down.

What is a reality right now is that Roy Halladay will never be Roy Halladay again. Thirty-six-year-old pitchers who have thrown more than 200 innings in eight separate seasons don’t just suddenly regain velocity. A baseball career is a parabola, and Halladay is on the wrong end of it. What remains to be seen is whether he has one year left or five. Whether he can reinvent himself and actualize all that effort into winning baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies, or for whichever team he ends up with when his contract runs out at the end of this season. And whether the hardest working player in the majors can top his Hall of Fame resume with an elusive World Series ring.

The end is nearing, but it isn’t here yet. Which means, for now, that the crowd at Halladay’s finish line, like me in Clearwater, will have to keep waiting until he arrives.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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