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  • A deeper appreciation of Roy Halladay through his statistical legacy and Hall of Fame case
By Jay Jaffe
November 08, 2017

In January 1973, just days after Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash while delivering humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, the Baseball Hall of Fame's board of directors voted to waive the customary five-year waiting period for the Pirates' superstar, whose 3,000 hits and standard-setting defense made his future election a foregone conclusion. Two months later, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced that Clemente had received 93% of the 423 ballots cast in a special stand-alone election, with most of the objections owed to the precedent set by the procedure. In the wake of that, the BBWAA and the Hall established a rule allowing for the acceleration of a deceased candidate's eligibility "in the next regular election held at least six (6) months after the date of death." Unfortunately, the clause has been invoked a few times, including for two players active at the times of their deaths, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson (who died in August 1979 and debuted on the 1981 ballot) and Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile (died in June 2002, debuted on the 2003 ballot), and for retired reliever Rod Beck (died in June 2007, debuted on 2008 ballot).

With those precedents in mind, the Hall of Fame eligibility of two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, who himself died in a tragic plane crash on Tuesday, will likely remain unchanged despite some calls for his immediate enshrinement. Halladay, who retired after the 2013 season, is on track to appear on the 2019 ballot, released next November.

As Halladay's family, friends and admirers come to terms with his shocking, premature loss, pondering his Hall of Fame case obviously isn't the most pressing issue. By all accounts, the baseball world lost not only a star and a great competitor but also an even greater man, one who had earned virtually universal respect within the industry and among fans. His immense talent may have been matched only by his tireless work ethic and his humility. "Roy Halladay was your favorite player's favorite player," wrote Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy in one of the numerous tributes paid to the fallen star.

Nonetheless, thinking about Halladay's tremendous career in the context of the Hall can deepen our appreciation for him and underscore those tributes. The extent to which he was viewed as a throwback to an earlier era is backed by statistics that testify to his unique position at the crossroads of changing patterns of pitcher usage. Quite simply, we won't see his like again—SI contributor Joe Sheehan, in his newsletter tribute on Tuesday, called Halladay "The Last Horse"—which is one reason why he may be the next starting pitcher elected to Cooperstown. Since the start of his major league career in 1998, Halladay's total of 67 complete games is 13 more than any other pitcher, with Hall of Famer Randy Johnson second in that time span (Johnson completed an even 100 games from 1988-2009). Halladay's 65 complete games in this millennium are 27 more than still-active runner-up CC Sabathia. In 14 of those complete games, Halladay needed fewer than 100 pitches; five of them were completed in less than two hours. His eight seasons since 2000 with at least 220 innings is three more than any other pitcher; Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez each have five, but together have combined for two in the past five seasons.  

At the root of Halladay's extraordinarily economical style was an evolution brought about by an exceptionally humiliating season. In 2000, the 23-year-old righty was pummeled for a 10.64 ERA in 67 2/3 major league innings, the worst mark for any pitcher with at least 60 innings in a season. He was demoted all the way to A-ball the next season, where, as Tom Verducci documented, minor league pitching coach Mel Queen overhauled his delivery, going from an over-the-top style so methodical that Queen nicknamed him "Iron Mike" (in reference to the popular pitching machine) to a three-quarters delivery. With that, Halladay's repertoire shifted from a four-seam fastball/curve combination to a sinker/cutter combo, "two pitches that appeared the same to the hitter, except one would break late to the left and one to the right," explained Verducci. The result was fewer deep counts and strikeouts, and one of the game's highest groundball rates. Halladay’s late-career addition of a split-fingered fastball pushed his strikeout totals higher; four of his five seasons with at least 200 K came from 2008 onward, in seasons where he averaged 242 innings.

It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that the 1,007 1/3 innings Halladay threw between the regular season and postseason from 2008-11 led to his subsequent shoulder injuries and early retirement. On May 29, 2012, he was sidelined by a shoulder strain, and the next year he underwent midseason surgery to remove a bone spur and repair a partially torn rotator cuff and a frayed labrum, which turned him into an 83-mph-throwing tomato can.

Even with those workhorse years, Halladay's early ineffectiveness and retirement at age 36 led to a short career by Hall of Fame standards. Among enshrined starters whose careers took place after World War II, only Sandy Koufax pitched fewer innings than Halladay's 2,749 1/3. Likewise, Halladay's 203 wins (and, secondarily, his 2,117 strikeouts) appears light by Hall standards, too. After all, even with the 2015 elections of Pedro Martinez (219 wins) and John Smoltz (213 wins), the writers have tabbed just three starters with fewer than 300 wins since 1991. Bert Byleven, with 287 wins, needed 14 years on the ballot, not to mention a grassroots effort to promote his candidacy and a small-scale cultural war involving the introduction of advanced statistics into Hall of Fame debates. Meanwhile, Mike Mussina (280 wins) and Curt Schilling (216 wins) are on the outside looking in, though both have received at least 50% of the vote in one election, a strong indicator of future enshrinement.

Though Mussina has been on the ballot for four years and Schilling for five, Halladay could leapfrog both into Cooperstown due to his combination of traditional and advanced statistics, as well as the rest of his portfolio. He’s the only one of the trio to win a Cy Young award—two, in fact, in the AL in 2003 and the NL in 2010. His eight All-Star selections are more than either Schilling (six) or Mussina (five); both he and Schilling started for their respective leagues twice. The only one of the trio to throw a no-hitter, Halladay actually threw both a regular season perfect game (May 29, 2010 for the Phillies versus the Marlins, the 20th perfecto in MLB history) and a postseason no-hitter (October 6, 2010 against the Reds, just the second in MLB history). None of that makes his election automatic, but the collection is special; the only other pitchers with a perfect game, a separate no-hitter and at least two Cy Youngs are Koufax and Johnson. That's a pretty cool club.

Halladay never won a season ERA title, but his career 3.38 mark—even with his brutal 2000 and a 5.73 mark after that 2012 shoulder strain—is 10th among pitchers with at least 2,500 innings since 1980. Five of the nine ahead of him are in Cooperstown, led by Martinez at 2.93. Adjusting for park and league scoring levels, because he pitched in a high-offense era, his 131 ERA+ at those same cutoffs is fifth, behind Pedro (154), Roger Clemens (143), Johnson (135) and Greg Maddux (132), and ahead of Schilling (127), Smoltz (125) and Mussina (123), not to mention active leaders Hernandez (125) and Verlander (124). Clayton Kershaw, who is 565 innings short of that cutoff, owns the highest ERA+ (161) among pitchers with at least 1,500 innings. 

Halladay also had lots of what Bill James called "Black Ink"—league leads in key categories, traditionally represented by boldface type. He led in wins twice, walk rate three times, innings and shutouts four times apiece, strikeout-to-walk ratio five times, and complete games seven times. His "Black Ink score"—a weighted measure of those categories led—is 48, the 28th-highest score of all time, and about eight points above the average Hall of Fame pitcher. That's saying something, because 21st century leagues are nearly twice the size as the eight-team leagues that prevailed from 1901-1960. Among his contemporaries, only Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, Kershaw, Martinez and Verlander are ahead.

From an advanced statistical standpoint, Halladay had ample black ink as well. He led his league in WAR (Baseball-Reference version) four times, and ranked among the top four in four other seasons. Even four years removed from his final pitch, his 65.4 WAR from 2001 onward is the highest of the millennium, 4.7 ahead of Sabathia. His 62.4 WAR during his brilliant 2002-2011 stretch is 12.3 more than second-ranked Johan Santana. Via the seven-year peak score in my JAWS system, his 50.6 WAR is right around that of the average Hall of Fame starter (50.3), the 40th-best mark of all time, and ahead of 32 of the 62 enshrined pitchers.

Impressive enough, but chew on this: just four pitchers above Halladay, Hall of Famers Johnson, Maddux and Martinez plus the still-outside Clemens, made their major league debuts within 25 years of Halladay. Of those who debuted after, only Kershaw (48.7), Zack Greinke (46.1), Santana (44.8) and Verlander (43.5) are with seven wins—one per year—of that peak score.

Because of his early retirement, Halladay's 64.7 career WAR is about nine wins shy of the Hall standard for starters (73.9), but he still outranks 28 of the 62, including 300-game winner Early Wynn, 1960s star Juan Marichal, Yankees dynasty staple Whitey Ford, and strikeout whizzes Dazzy Vance and Jim Bunning. Again, more tellingly, his total is ninth among pitchers who debuted since 1973 behind Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Martinez, Mussina, Schilling, Smoltz and Kevin Brown, all of whom beat him to the majors by at least six years and, with the exception of Martinez, threw at least 500 more innings.

Halladay's 57.6 JAWS isn't as high as Schilling (64.5, good for 27th all-time) or Mussina (63.8, 28th), but it's still eighth among that post-1973 set. He's 42nd all-time, 4.5 points below the Hall standard for starters but ahead of 31 of the enshrined.

While JAWS is an attempt to quantify the lion's share of a player's career in an easily digestible form, it's best used not as a stand-alone binary tool but when accompanied with context. Given the backdrop of Halladay's numbers, the extent to which he stands out relative to his era is clear, and what's more, a look at the landscape that Hall of Fame voters will face in the coming years further underscores his prominence. Consider the pitchers that are still active or awaiting their ballot debuts:

Name

Career

Peak

JAWS

Yrs

W

ERA+

Roy Halladay

64.7

50.6

57.6

1998-2013

203

131

Clayton Kershaw

59.4

48.7

54.1

2008-2017*

144

161

Zack Greinke

60.7

46.1

53.4

2004-2017*

172

123

CC Sabathia

61.5

40.4

51.0

2001-2017*

237

117

Justin Verlander

56.6

43.5

50.0

2005-2017*

188

124

Tim Hudson

58.7

38.4

48.5

1999-2015

222

120

Johan Santana

51.4

44.8

48.1

2000-2012

139

136

Andy Pettitte

60.8

34.1

47.5

1995-2013

256

117

Mark Buehrle

58.5

35.8

47.1

2000-2015

214

117

Cole Hamels

54.0

38.4

46.2

2006-2017*

147

124

Felix Hernandez

52.4

38.4

45.4

2005-2017*

160

125

Roy Oswalt

50.2

40.1

45.1

2001-2013

163

127

Of the active pitchers, only Kershaw will be younger than 32 next season; he's heading into his age-30 season, while Hernandez (32), Greinke and Hamels (both 34), Verlander (35) and Sabathia (38) are more advanced. It's entirely possible that from this group only Kershaw, Greinke and perhaps Verlander will surpass Halladay in JAWS, and there are no givens considering the fragility of shoulders, elbows and backs.

All of which is to say that Mussina and Schilling aside, Hall of Fame voters won’t see the likes of Roy Halladay for a long time. In the wake of Tuesday's tragedy, we can hope that he gets his due next winter.

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