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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Cult of Halladay

I gave myself over to him completely on April 13, 2007.  In the fourth inning of a game against the Tigers, I realized that short of sex and drugs, there's nothing more pleasurable than watching Roy Halladay pitch.  The Tigers of '07, you may recall, were coming off an AL Pennant, and had a monster offense which would go on to finish second in the AL in runs scored.  In the fourth, Halladay was facing the meat of it for the second time: Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen.  A trio of professional hitters who would proceed to drive in 316 runs that season.

The inning got off to an auspicious start when Sheffield, clearly aware that whatever Halladay offered him was going to be in the zone, grounded a single through the right side on the first pitch of the at-bat, bringing Ordonez, who had already homered off Halladay in the second, to the plate with a man on.  Magglio won the batting title and finished second in the AL MVP voting that year.  He was clearly one of the most feared hitters in the league, but the moment he stepped into the box, Halladay ran a cut fastball across the inside half of the plate, right in his power zone, and Ordonez didn't even flinch.  The next pitch was a sinker diving toward the outside corner and Ordonez slapped it weakly to John McDonald who turned an easy 6-4-3 double play.  One pitch later, after Guillen bounced a cutter off the front side of the plate, allowing Greg Zaun to throw him out a first, Halladay was walking off the mound having retired one of the most lethal threesomes in the sport on a grand total of four pitches.  He would proceed to win the game by throwing a ten-inning complete-game which featured just two strikeouts and required only 107 pitches.

I can't say I really discovered the joy of Halladay until 2005, which was the year he joined my fantasy team in the longest-running keeper league I participate in.  He'd already won his Cy Young by that point, so of course I was aware of him, but I hadn't ever made any sort of effort to watch him pitch.  After all, he played for the profoundly mediocre Blue Jays.  By May, however, Halladay's starts had become a part of my weekly rountine.  Doc was cruising and in July he was named the AL starter for the All-Star game, two days before a Kevin Mench line drive broke his leg.  Halladay almost certainly would've won his second Cy Young that season, considering that the eventual field of candidates was rather weak (Bartolo Colon won with a 21-8 record and a 3.48 ERA) and at the All-Start break Doc had a 2.41 ERA and was on pace for 21 wins and 254 innings.

Since '05 I've missed only a handful of Halladay's starts and count myself among the growing number of baseball fans who are mesmerized by every pitch.  The Cult of Halladay is going to be adding many new members in 2010.  He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last week (check out the excellent article about Halladay's career and vaunted work ethic) and when he takes the mound for the Phillies on Opening Day he will be introduced to one of the sport's larger media markets.

More importantly, Halladay will presumably be pitching with a lead far more regularly, considering the potent offense in Philadelphia, which was exactly what happened yesterday in his Opening Day start against the Nationals.  Anybody who watched him frequently knows that Halladay is at his absolute best when he has a two or three run lead, because he attacks the strike zone with a ferocity unmatched in baseball.  Doc does not know how to nibble and he does not care about ERA or strikeout totals.

What Doc does care about is wins, obviously, but he also cares about innings.  In the role of Ace, he believes it is his duty not only to pitch well, but to pitch deep into games, to protect the bullpen, to stop losing streaks, and to set an example for the rest of the rotation.  In the last three seasons, Halladay has finished six games in which he allowed four earned runs or more.  On his career, he's finished ten games in which he took a loss, both things are rarities, even for exceptional pitchers like Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.

In his first start as a Phillie, Halladay gave up a run in the first.  The Initiated know that this isn't unusual.    If you're going to get to Doc, it's best to do it early, because he'll be throwing strikes, but his pitch location won't be as spot-on as it is later in the game.  Halladay had a 4.22 ERA in the first last season.  In the second through the sixth he had a 2.16 ERA.  He is among the rare starting pitchers who becomes more difficult for hitters in their second and third at-bats.  His opponents OPS in their first at-bat last year was 737.  In second and third chances that OPS dipped to 583 and 656.

That was exactly what happened to the Nationals yesterday.  The sent six hitters to the plate in the first, getting a run on a Nyjer Morgan infield single and stolen base, followed by a Ryan Zimmerman double. Pudge Rodriguez then doubled to lead off the second.  Doc retired the next sixteen hitters he faced, becoming particularly lethal after the Phils put a five-spot on the board in the fourth.  When he left the game after seven innings he had a 10-run lead and had thrown just 88 pitches.  Charlie Manuel wanted to get the bullpen some work in a low-stakes situation on Opening Day, but you can be sure, Halladay was itching to finish it all be himself, which Manuel would likely have allowed if he didn't have seven well-rested arms and a day off today.

The expectations are high for Halladay this season.  A World Championship is clearly what Philadelphia is shooting for.  Halladay is clearly the preseason favorite for the Cy Young (25 of the 38 ESPN staffers picked him, while the next most popular candidate, Tim Lincecum, got six votes).  Many projections have him well over 20 wins.  It's rare for a player to live up to that kind of hype, but Halladay made a strong first step towards justifying it on Monday.

While the Phillies look forward to what Halladay can do for them throughout the season, nothing loomed larger in Ruben Amaro's mind as he was pursuing his man for the last six months of 2009 than the image of him taking the mound against the Yankees in October.  There's nobody the reigning champs fear more than Doc.  His career record against New York (18-6) is second only to Babe Ruth's.

1 comment:

The Man With The Golden Arm said...

Thank you for writing that.