If it wasn’t for a shoulder that betrayed him while his talents otherwise remained at their peak, it’s possible that Roy Halladay would’ve still be an active pitcher. Guys with his gifts and drive often last twenty seasons, after all, and 2017 would’ve been his 20th. If he had continued to pitch, he might have 270 or 280 wins and the only question about the remainder of his baseball career might’ve been whether he would wear a Phillies or a Blue Jays cap on his plaque in Cooperstown. His shoulder did betray him, however, ending his career at the age of 36. And, of course, he died today, tragically, at the age of 40.
While an abrupt end to a career after spending one’s whole life in baseball may cause some players to sulk or flail, Halladay took to his early retirement easily. Always an intense man on the field, in retirement, Halladay revealed to the public just how affable, easy going and downright goofy he could be.
He dressed up as Jamie Moyer to an 80s-themed Halloween party. He took a fan who wanted nothing more than to have Halladay take him to the zoo, to the zoo. He goofed on A-Rod. He got into fights with Roger Clemens over social media, and had the public on his side. He got multiple speeding tickets in one day but had the humility to laugh about it. And, of course, he took to his new hobby — aviation — with a passion and joy.
Those who knew him personally and those who loved him will no doubt be sharing their stories about Halladay the man in the coming days. I want to talk about Halladay the ballplayer for a moment, because at a time like this all that can make a person feel better is concentrating on the joy he created, and most of us experienced the joy of Roy Halladay through his pitching.
Halladay’s career started slowly, as he was famously demoted all the way back to single-A ball after his first couple of years in the majors with the Blue Jays. There he rebuilt his delivery and his approach. Back to the bigs for good in 2002, Halladay embarked on a ten-year peak that few if any pitchers have duplicated in recent memory.
From 2002-2011, Halladay went 170-75 with a 2.97 ERA and 1,699 strikeouts in 2,194 2/3 innings. He went to eight All-Star Games, won two Cy Young Awards, in 2003 and 2010, and finished second twice more. During that span, he led his league in wins twice, innings four times and complete games seven times. He never won an ERA crown, but he finished second three times, third twice and fifth twice. bWAR ranked him as his league’s top pitcher in four of those seasons, and he was in the top four eight times.
Halladay’s 62.4 bWAR from ages 25-34 ranks as the 10th best ever among pitchers. Everyone else in the top 16 on the list is a Hall of Famer.
87.7 – Walter Johnson
77.3 – Pete Alexander
70.6 – Pedro Martinez
70.2 – Roger Clemens
68.0 – Greg Maddux
67.2 – Tom Seaver
64.9 – Lefty Grove
63.8 – Bob Gibson
63.0 – Ed Walsh
62.4 – Roy Halladay
58.8 – Christy Mathewson
58.5 – Warren Spahn
58.1 – Fergie Jenkins
58.1 – Eddie Plank
57.0 – Gaylord Perry
55.6 – Carl Hubbard
Halladay’s slow start and early retirement prevented him from putting up the sorts of overall career numbers most of those guys did, but the greatness of his peak should overcome the length of his career. He still got 200 wins, finishing with 203, in an era when wins for starting pitchers became harder and harder to come by. While he only reached the postseason twice — in 2010 and 2011 — he tossed a no-hitter against the Reds in the NLDS in 2010. He also tossed the 20th perfect game in major league history, blanking the Florida Marlins in order on May 29, 2010. He tossed ten inning games twice, pitching a shutout in one in 2003 and winning a second one in 2007.
In recent years, elite starting pitchers have had a hard time getting Hall of Fame support, mostly due to the fact that win totals aren’t what they once were. Guys like Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling are notable oversights in this regard. I suspected, before today, that Halladay would have similar trouble gaining induction due to his relatively short career. I don’t know what his untimely death will do for his Hall of Fame candidacy. It’s a crass question to ask, honestly, and one I don’t want to dwell on at the moment.
I do, however, think it’s worth thinking about Halladay’s career and acknowledging its undeniable greatness today. Partially because it helps to think of the good times when we’ve lost someone. Partially because there’s nothing else we can do.