By Jay Jaffe
It's generally a mistake to put too much stock in spring training performances as a whole, let alone one abbreviated performance in the midst of a five-week exhibition season. Nonetheless, Roy Halladay's drubbing by the Tigers on Tuesday has sounded the alarm bells. Over the course of 69 pitches, the 35-year-old Phillies righty yielded 11 baserunners and was touched for seven runs, six of them coming via a two-run homer by Don Kelly and a grand slam by Ramon Santiago, neither of whom will be confused with Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder in the Detroit lineup. In fact, neither of the two big boppers made the trip to Clearwater for the game.
Halladay's pitching line was bad enough, but far more disconcerting — and perhaps indicative of a problem, rather than a garden-variety spring performance blip — was his velocity, which was in the 84-85 mph range and topped out at 87. Afterward, Halladay described himself as "lethargic" due to a changed training regimen and the additional throwing he's done on the side. He's been doing more sprints than distance running this spring, and with Tuesday's start pushed back a day, he threw an additional bullpen session that may have contributed to his rough showing. More notable to Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee was the lack of consistent tempo of Halladay's delivery and his inability to locate his cutter.
All of that sounds rather ominous for a 35-year-old righty who missed seven weeks last year due to a strained latissimus dorsi and finished with a 4.49 ERA, nearly double the previous year's 2.35 and easily his highest mark since his record-setting 10.64 ERA back in 2000. Given that he had averaged 236 innings over the previous six years and had tacked on another 38 innings in the 2010 and 2011 postseasons, it's fair to wonder if the miles simply caught up to him. Questions about his health arose before he hit the disabled list last year, and as I noted once he did, he had altered his release point and hadn’t been getting his typical movement on pitches.
At the very least, the average velocities of Halladay's sinker and cutter, his two most commonly used pitches — at least until the curve overtook the sinker last year — have been decreasing over the past few years. From the park-corrected PITCHf/x data at Baseball Prospectus:
|Year||SI GB%||SI HR%||CT GB%||CT HR%|
Halladay's groundball rates on those two pitches have both plummeted, and his home run rate on the sinker has skyrocketed, to the point where his overall home run rate, which was a microscopic 0.67 per nine from 2001-2011, to 1.04 per nine last year, a jump of 54 percent. His walk rate, which hadn't been above 2.0 per nine since 2004, rose to a still-respectable 2.1 but provided additional fuel for the fire given those balls leaving the yard. His batting average on balls in play actually dropped by one point from the year before (to .304) but a dip in his strikeout rate, from 8.5 per nine to 7.6 per nine, nonetheless meant more balls in play and even more trouble.
Even given the ominous trend and the depressed mid-March radar readings, it's a bit early to declare the two-time Cy Young winner washed up, particularly as he says he's free of the soreness and pain that characterized last spring. I considered including him among my starting pitcher "Busts" but held off given his long track record — though admittedly, part of that reason was because I wanted to look more closely at the data. Now, I'm a bit less sure about letting him off the hook. There's a lot riding on the Phillies' big three of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Halladay stepping up to offset the age and decline of the team's offense, and until the Doc shows signs of moving in the right direction, there's reason to worry.