September 10, 2012
Will Roy Halladay Ever Complete a Game?
On September 14th, Roy Halladay struck out Jose Altuve with a changeup in the dirt. His catcher turned around and gave the umpire a pat, then stood up and walked toward Halladay. His teammates walked in toward the mound. It was the last out of the game, and it was the last time that Roy Halladay has been on the mound for the last out of the game. September 14th, you'll note, was last year.
Halladay has been to complete games what Yadier Molina is to catcher defense, what Giancarlo Stanton is to GIFfable home runs. In 2011, Halladay threw more complete games than any other team in the National League. From 2008 through 2011, he threw 35 of them; the San Diego Padres, by comparison, have thrown 35 complete games since 2001. Every spring, a columnist or 10 will write about the sad death of the complete game in baseball, but Roy Halladay has been the faint pulse beeping on the monitor, or perhaps the last uninfected man in a zombie hellscape, or maybe the metaphor that just keeps pushing on and on, and on. Just continuing on. A metaphor that won’t die. A metaphor that doesn’t get tired and quit, but goes the distance. What a durable metaphor.
But now here’s a different Roy Halladay, with no complete games in the 2012 season and only four or five more tries. The complete games are, of course, the least of the matter; more concerning for the Phillies would be the strikeout rate (down about a whiff per nine from his 2008-2011 peak); the walk and home run rates (both up about 25 percent); the velocity (down a mile and a half per hour from last year); and the missed time (his first since 2005). The complete games matter mostly because the complete games reflect a little bit of each of these drop-offs. And the complete games matter because they reflect just what it is we’re seeing. We’re not seeing Roy Halladay going from amazing pitcher to bad pitcher. Not at all. We’re seeing him go from amazing pitcher to really good pitcher. A guy who throws seven or eight innings. We’ve lost a singularity.
The most obvious reason for Halladay’s lack of complete games is that Halladay isn’t throwing nearly as many pitches this year. In 2011, he made 32 starts and threw 110 pitches or more 20 times. He topped 120 pitches six times, and 130 once. This year he has made 21 starts and topped 110 just twice. He hasn’t thrown 120 pitches in a game.
The Phillies are being cautious with him, particularly since he missed June with shoulder soreness. Consider August 10th: Halladay finished the eighth inning against the Cardinals. He had allowed two hits and one run in the game and had retired 12 batters in a row: seven grounders, four strikeouts, and an infield pop-up. He had made the last out the previous inning, so there was no need to pinch-hit for him. He had thrown 99 pitches. The Phillies pulled him.
That wasn’t his first start back from the DL, though. It wasn’t his second. It was his fifth, and he still wasn’t allowed to pass 100 throws. Said Halladay:
The Phillies don’t look to be easing Halladay back into workhorse mode; rather, it looks like they’ll continue to be cautious with him in the tail-end of a lost season. He hasn’t topped 110 pitches in 10 starts since returning from the injury. It is, of course, awfully hard to know what the conversations are like inside the room, or how Halladay’s shoulder looks and feels.
The Phillies’ restrictions on him aren’t everything. Halladay has been, unlike in previous seasons, more hittable as the game has gone one. Well. Halladay has been hit more as the game has gone on. Whether he has actually been more hittable is a leap that we can’t take yet. But from 2008 to 2011, Halladay has been (by opponents’ OPS) almost exactly as effective the third time through the order as the first and second times. This year, he has been hit harder the second time through, and hit much harder the third time through.
First trip through the order
In fact, the first two times through the order, Halladay has been classic Halladay this year. It is only as the game gets deeper that he becomes ordinary. Consider the sample size, or course: just 149 plate appearances, the instability of which can be seen in the 2010 and 2011 third-trip stats.
That coincides with a bit more lost velocity as the game goes on, especially with his cutter.
His two-seamer velocity drop through the game isn't as severe, but it is larger this year (0.7 mph from the first stage to the later one) than last year (0.5).
The good news is that he’s still very efficient: last year, he threw 14.81 pitches per inning. This year, he's averaging 14.75 pitches per inning—eighth-best among all starters—despite the extra hits and walks mixed in. That efficiency is a big deal. Halladay used to throw a lot of complete games because he could throw a lot of pitches, and because he was good enough to keep his manager’s faith, but also because he was so efficient. Of his 35 complete games from 2008 to 2011, just eight required more than 115 pitches.
So the Roy Halladay who completed eight or nine games a year is probably gone. But he’s still a very good pitcher, probably still a great pitcher, and an efficient pitcher. Some part of his signature skill will probably appear again, like a metaphor introduced at the start of an article that shows up one last time for the kicker.