Halladay was everybody’s hero

Roy Halladay simplified pitching. This was at the heart of his baseball greatness. He took this big, sprawling, complicated thing, this intricate art form weighed down by so many details by pitches, counts, batting styles, scouting reports and arm slots and fluctuating strike zones and high-leverage situations and low-leverage situations — and he boiled it down to its essence.

Halladay knew who he was on the mound.

Statistics fail to capture that sort of thing, the aura Halladay had, the towering character that made pitchers want to be him and hitters want to learn from him. But there is a statistic I think of now. In 2003, when he first seemed to grasp his powers as a pitcher, Halladay struck out more than 200 batters (204, to be exact), and he walked fewer than one batter per start (32 walks in 36 starts). Only nine men in baseball history have done that over a full season.

Seven years later, in 2010, when Halladay was 33 and an established legend, he did it again. He struck out 219, and he walked 30 in 33 starts. Only one other pitcher in history has pulled that feat twice, and that was the man whose award Halladay won in each of those two seasons, Cy Young.

Halladay refused to complicate things, and so he made it all look so easy. It wasn’t easy. He worked harder than anyone. He prepared better than anyone. And Halladay threw strikes even on those rare occasions when hitters seemed to be on to him.

Halladay came upon such wisdom slowly. He was a breathtaking prospect out of Arvada West High School in suburban Denver. Halladay was 6-foot-6 with a textbook motion and a mid- to high-90s fastball. He blitzed through the Minor Leagues. At 21, he made it to the Toronto Blue Jays. Halladay’s first start was fine. In his second start, he took a no-walk, no-hit game into the ninth. With one out to go, Bobby Higginson broke up the no-no with a long home run to left, but the destiny was set. Halladay did not even get to a three-ball count for the entire game.

“He did everything you can do on the mound,” an awed Toronto manager Tim Johnson said after the game.

Yes, it looked like it would happen quickly for Halladay, with no obstacles, but greatness doesn’t work like that. In his second season, Halladay (if you can imagine this) could not find the plate. He walked 79 batters in 149 innings. In Halladay’s third season, hitters beat him up so thoroughly (his 10.64 ERA remains the highest ever for a pitcher with more than 50 innings pitched), that the Blue Jays busted him all the way back to Class A.

Then two things happened. First, Halladay — who would admit to being all but defeated — began to seek out the secrets of pitching. He started to keep detailed charts of his games. Halladay began to look for patterns, rhythms, eternal pitching truths. He began his journey to pitching simplicity.

Second, Halladay started to work with a crass and hard-as-nails pitching coach named Mel Queen, who called him “a stupid idiot with no guts” the very first time they met.

“A lot of guys,” Queen once told reporter Geoff Baker, “would have punched me.”

Instead, Halladay embraced the idea of starting over. Together they changed Halladay’s arm angle so that his pitches would have more movement. As he developed his new motion, Halladay found that he could bend pitches either way, depending on whether there was a righty or a lefty at the plate. Queen told him with that kind of bend, he should just aim for the middle.

And that’s what Halladay did for the rest of his career. He aimed for the middle and let the baseball do the work.

In 2002, Halladay led the league in innings pitched and allowed just 10 home runs. The next year, he won the American League Cy Young Award, going 22-7 with a 3.25 ERA and an incredible 1.1 walks per nine innings. It would be like that, more or less, until his arm began to give out late in his career.

Sure, they started to call him “Doc” around that time, after the gunfighter and dentist Doc Holliday. The nickname suited Halladay. He had a gunslinger’s calm on the mound, as if he already knew how things were going to turn out. I have never seen a pitcher in control the way Doc was on May 29, 2010, against the then Florida Marlins. Halladay threw a perfect game, but it was more than that. There was never even the slightest doubt that he would. He had the batters, the umpires and the fans under his spell.

Normally, when you watch a perfect game in progress, there’s a certain nervousness, because at any moment, there can be a hit or a walk and the perfection ends, the balloon popping.

But there was no nervousness in that game, because the Marlins had no chance. Halladay had reached such great heights that you knew he wasn’t going to walk anyone — he worked the corners like a boxer — and you knew the Marlins weren’t going to get a hit.

Halladay had similar control over the Cincinnati hitters in the playoffs that same year; the biggest surprise of that no-hitter was that he actually walked someone.

In the horrible aftermath of Halladay’s death, the Hall of Fame seems a pointless thing. But he will be elected, certainly he will, because he was an all-time great pitcher. There are those who insist on clinging to outdated statistics, such as pitcher wins (Halladay won 203 games). And in doing so, they might miss the obvious. And so, let us consider three other statistics.

First: From 2003-11, Halladay completed 61 games. That might not sound astonishing historically; if you go back a couple of decades, pitchers threw complete games all the time. But Halladay didn’t pitch in their era. Those 61 complete games in nine seasons are more than Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta and Gio Gonzalez combined have for their careers. Halladay’s 67 total complete games are more than any team — an entire team — has this decade.

Second: Halladay is 14th all-time in Win Probability Added (WPA), a statistic that essentially measures, well, a pitcher’s contribution to each victory. With WPA, each out adds to win probability, each hit or walk allowed takes some away, and getting the biggest outs in the biggest moments is what really counts. On the all-time WPA list, Halladay and Kershaw are squeezed between a pair of Bobs, Gibson and Feller.

The third stat isn’t exactly a stat. It’s an estimate of the percentage of the players who idolized, admired and liked Halladay. The estimate is 100 percent. Charlie Morton patterned his pitching style after Halladay, frame for frame. Brandon McCarthy did much of the same. Hitter after hitter would talk about the honor of matching up against Halladay, as though it was a visit with the Pope. I can remember one pitcher talking to me for a half-hour about what a freak Halladay was, how no human being could throw so many heavy sliders in a row without (A) losing velocity and gravity or (B) having his arm fall off. He was like a folk hero.

No, more than that, Halladay was the most admired pitcher of his day. Everyone knew how hard he worked. Everyone respected the way he went about his business. Everyone watched in wonder how Halladay made pitching simple. And most of all, everyone longed to have just a little bit of his poise, just a little bit of his class, just a little bit of his sense of self.

Roy Halladay achieved the hardest thing a great athlete can achieve. He was everybody’s hero.

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