He never flinched. Roy Halladay had only faced two batters, yet was already trailing by a run. The less-than-ideal situation became even more so as the most feared slugger in the game strode to the plate. But the man standing on the bump 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 pitcher’s duel in a generation.
We are just a couple days away from the announcement of the 2017 class of the baseball Hall of Fame. Halladay will be on the ballot in 2019. There seems to be a debate whether he is a Hall of Famer. Not only does he belong in Cooperstown, but on the first ballot. Let’s take a look back.
To truly appreciate the greatness of the pitcher, one must go back to the beginning of his professional career. The Toronto Blue Jays selected the lanky right-hander in the first round (17th overall pick) of the 1995 amateur draft. He made his major-league debut three years later. His second career start was a preview of future dominance.
Sunday, September 28, 1998, was the final game of the season. Halladay faced the Detroit Tigers on that warm, early-autumn afternoon. By the ninth inning, the Tigers were undoubtedly ready for their offseason to commence. From the very first pitch of the game, Halladay began mowing the Tigers down with laser-like precision.
As Halladay took the mound in the top of the ninth inning, the Tigers were still searching for their first base hit. The 21-year-old, baby-faced rookie was three outs away from history. All that stood in the way of a perfecto was a fifth inning error. Halladay made quick work of the first two batters in the ninth before pinch-hitter Bobby Higginson walked to the plate. One out away!
Higginson had other ideas – he lined an opposite-field home run. No-hitter and shutout gone with one swing of the bat. Halladay retired the next batter to complete the masterpiece. Eight strikeouts, no walks, and nary a hard hit ball. All in a tidy one hour and 45 minutes.
While the 1999 season began with great promise for the young right-hander, it ended with mixed results. 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 main issue was an inability to throw strikes consistently. The Blue Jays were not sure whether they had a starter or reliever on their hands.
The 2000 season was going to be make-or-break for Halladay. He wanted to prove that he belonged in the starting rotation. The Blue Jays wanted to see consistency along with significant improvement over the previous campaign. What they got was something that nobody expected. Statistically, it was the worst season ever by a pitcher.
The numbers were gruesome — the worst season ever for a pitcher with a minimum of 50 innings (10.64 ERA, 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. So, off to Triple-A Syracuse he went. Those results were not much better. What happened next may have broken lesser pitchers. Instead, it paved the way for brilliance.
In the spring of 2001, Halladay received a dose reality when he learned that he was being shipped back to the minors. But not just any minor league — the Florida State League. The bushes — Single-A. One day you’re flying first class and staying at the Four Seasons; the next, you’re riding buses through Alligator Alley and staying at a Comfort Inn.
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 the young prodigy through hell, both physically and mentally. He 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. When a young, stubborn pitcher tries to blow a straight fastball past major-league hitters, pitch after pitch, well, let us just say that it rarely ends well for the pitcher.
Queen’s first order of business was to break down the delivery. Halladay threw straight over the top, which caused his pitches to be straight and up in the strike zone. Queen taught him how to pitch from a three-quarter arm angle to go along with an assortment of grips. The results were immediate. The pitches were darting and breaking all over the strike 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 high fastball. Once Halladay successfully completed Queen’s “boot camp,” he was released back into the wild. In reality, what Queen did was mold a young man into a bilious, wild animal who was about to wreak havoc on major-league hitters.
Halladay’s 2002 season was a harbinger of things to come. The improvement was drastic (19 wins, 2.93 ERA, 157 ERA+, 7.4 WAR). Included was being named to his first All-Star team. That was followed by another All-Star selection, as well as winning the 2003 American League Cy Young Award. The following year was a pesky speed bump, as he endured two separate trips to the disabled list with right shoulder issues.
Halladay rebounded with an astounding first half in 2005 (2.41 ERA, 0.960 WHIP, 185 ERA+). He was a 12-game winner heading into the All-Star break. He looked like a sure bet to win his second Cy Young Award. Unfortunately, he broke his left leg in a game against the Texas Rangers on July 8 and missed the rest of the season.
The seasons that followed were nothing short of spectacular. Halladay was now officially in the upper echelon of pitchers in Major League Baseball. Sadly, he was toiling in relative obscurity north of the border. The Blue Jays were not a very good team at the time, so many of his games were not televised outside of Canada. Plus, it did not help the Blue Jays that they played in the rugged American League East.
Halladay was flying under the proverbial radar, and the only remedy would be a trip to the postseason. With each passing campaign, it became more and more evident that the Blue Jays could not compete with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays. A trip to the playoffs would have to come in a different uniform.
The bombshell came on December 16, 2009. In a stunning turn of events, the Phillies pulled off two improbable trades — 2009 playoff hero Cliff Lee was shipped to the Seattle Mariners for what amounted to a bag of baseballs and tub of sunflower seeds. Later that day, the Phillies announced that they had acquired Halladay for a package of prospects.
That day’s activity was met with widespread skepticism in Philadelphia. Lee had instantly become a fan favorite in Philadelphia after nearly singlehandedly pitching the Phillies to a second consecutive World Series title. To most casual baseball fans, Halladay was an unknown commodity.
Halladay finally had his chance — pitching in a baseball-crazy market, on a perennial contender, with a chance to win a World Series. It was time to shine on the big stage. What followed was two seasons of pure dominance.
Halladay’s intensity matched that of the fanbase — it was love at first sight. Those who were still skeptical were won over once and for all on a steamy spring night in a near empty stadium in South Florida. On May 29, 2010, Halladay pitched the 20th perfect game in major-league history, a 1-0 victory over the Florida Marlins.
The perfecto was followed by another masterpiece on a much grander stage. On October 6 of that season, he pitched 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 in Philadelphia was just as dominant as the first. The numbers tell part of the story.
- 2010: 2.44 ERA, 167 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP, 8.3 WAR
- 2011: 2.35 ERA, 163 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP, 8.9 WAR
Additionally, in an era of relief specialists, he combined for 17 complete games and five shutouts. Dominance.
Then came that fateful night against the St. Louis Cardinals. He never did allow further damage — just that lone, solitary run. Unfortunately, the Phillies’ offense picked the absolute worst night for a power outage. Halladay’s best friend and former Blue Jays teammate, Chris Carpenter, matched him pitch for pitch. Two grizzled gunslingers, one last duel. In the end, all Halladay could do was watch the Cardinals celebrate around his pal.
Ironically, it was the last hurrah for both pitchers. During that 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 a significant amount of the 2012 season on the disabled list. Within two years of the greatest pitcher’s duel in twenty years, both were retired from the game.
Now comes the talk about Cooperstown. Some argue that Halladay is not a “slam dunk” choice. Others say he goes in on the first ballot. True, he didn’t pitch 20-plus seasons like Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, and Greg Maddux — but he didn’t need to. He thrived in an offensive era — The Steroid Era — that placed a premium on pitching. Once again, the numbers never lie.
Halladay had a ten-year stretch of dominance that is equal to some of the all-time greats who are already enshrined in Cooperstown. His ten-year stretch consists of the 2002-2011 seasons. His stats: 170-75 W-L, 2.97 ERA, .694 winning percentage, 151 ERA+, 1.117 WHIP, 62.4 WAR, 63 CG, 18 shutouts. Let’s not gloss over the fact that both home ballparks (Rogers Centre and Citizens Bank Park) are extremely hitter-friendly.
That span also included two Cy Young Awards (one in each league), eight All-Star teams, a perfect game, and a postseason no-hitter. Over his 16-year career, he amassed 203 victories and a .659 winning percentage. Over the course of that period, he led all major league pitchers in winning percentage, shutouts, and complete games.
A pretty good barometer on a pitcher’s effectiveness (dominance) is ERA+, with 100 being average. Halladay’s career ERA+ is 131. Let’s compare to pitchers who are, or should be, in the Hall of Fame.
- Pedro Martinez, 154
- Randy Johnson, 135
- Greg Maddux, 132
- Sandy Koufax, 131
- Tom Seaver, 127
- Curt Schilling, 127
- Tom Glavine, 118
- Steve Carlton, 115
- Nolan Ryan, 112
Except for Martinez, who took dominance to an entirely different level during his heyday, Halladay is comparable to all of the other greats.
Sure, he never won that elusive World Series championship, but he is one player who can honestly say, “I gave it everything I had.” One might believe that a bronze plaque, in a brick building, in an idyllic village on Otsego Lake would not be a bad consolation prize.
Should “Doc” receive the call two years from now, there will be busloads of fans from Toronto, Philadelphia, and all points in between descending upon Cooperstown in July, 2019.