Roy “Doc” Halladay, the best pitcher the Toronto Bluejays ever had, is very probably going to be traded before the end of the week. I’d never seen him pitch except on TV, and, with a little bit of panic, realized that his Friday night start in Toronto might be my last chance. So I did what any die-hard Jays fan would do in my position: took the day off work and booked a flight. Shengrong said I was “feng feng dian dian de” for my impulsiveness, but gamely came along.
Halladay is incredible. Because he plays in Canada, and not say New York, he isn’t as widely known as he could be, and he seems to like it that way. Whenever he talks to the media he’s thoughtful and well-spoken, even a little shy. One the field, he’s incredibly intense. He rarely smiles or even looks up at the crowd. He glowers down at every batter like an ace pitcher should. Occasionally, steam comes out of his ears.
And what a pitcher he is: “dominant” is a word often used to describe him. He’s an incredible athlete: all of his pitches from the 94 mph fastball with deadly movement, to his pinpoint curveball, to his devastating 92 mph cut-fastball (Marino Rivera, the Yankee’s legendary closer, throws only cutters), to the sinker and the change-up, are “plus” pitches, meaning better than the average for the league. He has great command of all of them: he can throw any pitch for a strike on the corner of the plate when he wants to, and the hitters can never guess what might be coming next.
But there are many pitches with great “stuff”, as the pitch-arsenal is called. Great pitches alone don’t make a great pitcher, and his “stuff” is just the beginning of greatness of Roy Halladay. Some pitchers with wicked pitches try to strike everyone out. They spend five or six pitches per batter and are worn out after five or six innings. They’re happy when they manage to finish the seventh. Halladay can “pitch to contact”, he throws pitches that look appetizing enough for the batters to swing at, but they don’t connect solidly with the bat, and turn into easy outs. He saves the strikeout for when he really needs it, and thus saves his arm. He usually leads the league in innings pitched and throws more complete games in a season than most other teams. He once threw a 10-inning complete game and won it 1 to 0. Incredible.
And then there’s his work-ethic. Starting pitchers throw every 5th game, and Halladay is known to make the most of the time in between, both in terms of physical conditioning and in his analysis of the opposing hitters, learning their weaknesses, formulating a plan. I don’t know if Malcolm Gladwell mentioned Halladay in his book on how “genius” is often a product of a huge amount of work, but if he didn’t, he should have. When Halladay first arrived in the major leagues, he dazzled everyone by nearly throwing a no-hitter in his second big-league game. Then he ran intro difficulties and seemed to fizzle out. He was sent down all the way to A-ball and most people thought that was the last they’d hear of him; he’d be the baseball equivalent of a one-hit-wonder. But Doc worked is butt off in the minors, retooled the mechanics of how he throws the ball, and came back. He’s been to six all-star games, he’s thrown 44 complete games, he’s won the Cy Young award for best pitcher in the league.
But Roy Halladay, the arch-competitor, has never been to the post-season. He’s on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1993, and that’s not good enough for the Doc. He’s current contract ends after 2010, and he’s said that, while he’d prefer to win in Toronto, time is running out for him (he’s 32) and he might look to other teams where he’d have a better shot. Right now, his trade value is as high as it has ever been, and so the Jays, fearing that he’d leave in 2010 and they’d get nothing back, have put him on the market. It’s unclear whether the Jays will get the kind of deal they want for him, but there’s a very real chance he could be going.
Whether he’s traded or not, I’m glad I got to see him on Friday. If it was his last game in Toronto, it was in some ways a fitting conclusion to his Bluejays tenure. He was brilliant, throwing 9 innings, giving up only 2 runs (1 earned) (giving up fewer than 4 earned runs in 9 innings is considered “good”), allowing only 4 hits, walking only 3, and striking out 10. The crowd, although not as big as it ought to have been for Doc’s final game, was certainly aware of what they might be about to lose. They gave him a standing ovation when he walked off the field after his warmup, they gave him a standing ovation after almost every inning, they stood and cheered whenever he got two strikes on a batter.
But for all of Doc’s superman effort, his team couldn’t get him the win. His opposing starter, Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza, kept right up with him, allowing only two runs to the Jays and baffling their hitters over nine innings. In the tenth inning, the Jay’s bullpen coughed up two more runs, and then the Jay’s hitters went quietly. As much as he tries to carry the team, Halladay couldn’t carry them enough to win the game.