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Roy Halladay Was The Greatest Pitcher Of His Generation

Yesterday’s news that the great pitcher Roy Halladay had died in a plane crash sent baseball’s fraternity of players and coaches into a state of deep mourning. Around the league, tributes to Halladay’s technical skill and work ethic poured in. As our former colleague Ben Lindbergh wrote at The Ringer, Halladay was the consummate pitcher’s pitcher — the guy other pitchers always wanted to be.

But on a personal level, the reports hit me especially hard — I grew up a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, the team for whom Halladay first made his name as an ace. I was too young to experience the back-to-back World Series titles of 1992 and 1993, so my earliest memories came of the Blue Jays teams that stunk it up in the first decade of this millennium. Halladay was the one bright spot on an otherwise mediocre Toronto squad, so it was fitting that late Blue Jays game-caller Tom Cheek gave him the nickname “Doc” — a reference, of course, to Doc Holliday. But Halladay truly was a doctor on the mound — he healed so many of his team’s ills whenever he got the nod as that day’s starter.1

In his 12 seasons with Toronto, Doc pitched more than 2,000 innings and won 148 games, plus received the AL Cy Young award in 2003. He pitched 10 innings in a single game not once, but twice. Alongside Dave Stieb, Halladay is widely considered the greatest pitcher in Blue Jays history. When he was traded to the Phillies in 2009, my fellow Blue Jays fans were understandably upset, but they also understood. In his four seasons in Philadelphia, Doc’s stature grew to a whole new level. In typical fashion, he wasted no time, throwing a no-hitter in his postseason debut (just months after he pitched just the second perfect game in Phillies history). On the way, Doc won an NL Cy Young award — he’s one of just six pitchers in MLB history to win the award in both leagues.

Because he spent years on a scuffling Toronto team, Doc’s greatness often gets overlooked. But it shouldn’t be. Based on total pitching wins above replacement since 2000, nobody this millennium has surpassed him yet, even though he hasn’t pitched in four years.

The Doc was the greatest pitcher of this millennium

Pitcher wins above replacement since 2000

RANK PLAYER WAR COMPLETE GAMES CY YOUNG AWARDS
1 Roy Halladay 61.7 65 2
2 CC Sabathia 61.5 38 1
3 Zack Greinke 60.7 16 1
4 Clayton Kershaw 59.4 25 3
5 Mark Buehrle 58.5 33 0
6 Justin Verlander 56.6 23 1
7 Tim Hudson 54.8 25 0
8 Cole Hamels 54.0 16 0
9 Felix Hernandez 52.4 25 1
10 Johan Santana 51.4 15 2

Sources: The Baseball Gauge, Baseball-Reference.com

After this period of mourning for Halladay, writers and analysts will inevitably turn their attention to his Hall of Fame chances. And according to the yardsticks that we statheads typically look at, Halladay might seem like a borderline case. Because he had fewer dominant years than Hall of Fame voters like to see — he had injury problems early in his career and then retired relatively young — Halladay’s résumé is slightly below the HOF average for starting pitchers.2 And although he meets the Hall’s criteria on other measures such as Bill James’s Black Ink Test (which tracks how often a player leads the league in important statistical categories), he falls short on some of the big statistical benchmarks that typically mark a HOF career.

However, Halladay’s accomplishments are being sold short by these kinds of evaluations. His career stretched across two major eras of pitching, from a time when starters were often asked to finish games (no matter how many pitches it took) to the modern game, where bullpens are taking over for starters earlier and earlier. Halladay helped build a bridge between those two styles of starting pitching — as mentioned above, he could (and often did) go the distance and then some, recording complete-game totals that would have been commonplace in the 1980s and ’90s, but that stood out compared with his peers in the 2000s and even the 2010s, a decade in which he only pitched three full seasons.

Halladay was a bridge between pitching eras

Most complete games by decade in MLB, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s

1990s 2000s 2010s
RK PITCHER CG PITCHER CG PITCHER CG
1 Greg Maddux 75 Roy Halladay 47 Clayton Kershaw 25
2 Randy Johnson 65 Livan Hernandez 36 Adam Wainwright 19
3 Jack McDowell 61 Randy Johnson 32 Felix Hernandez 18
4 Kevin Brown 58 CC Sabathia 28 Roy Halladay 18
5 Roger Clemens 57 Curt Schilling 26 James Shields 18
6 Curt Schilling 57 Mark Mulder 25 Johnny Cueto 17
7 Scott Erickson 47 Mark Buehrle 24 Justin Verlander 17
8 Chuck Finley 46 Javier Vazquez 23 Cliff Lee 16
9 John Smoltz 42 Bartolo Colon 23 David Price 16
10 Doug Drabek 41 Sidney Ponson 23 Ervin Santana 16

Source: FanGraphs

Yet he was also a thoroughly modern pitcher, dominating with strikeouts and pinpoint control, a technician in addition to a workhorse. Since 2000, his fielding-independent pitching (relative to the league) is right up there with today’s aces such as Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. Since many of the metrics most commonly used to judge Hall of Fame standards were built with pitchers of a different era in mind, the metrics might need to be adjusted to better reflect what’s valued in today’s best hurlers. And Halladay might serve as a great test case, since he (more than maybe anyone else) helped the game transition between those eras of pitching.

Whether Doc makes it to the Hall of Fame is irrelevant right now, though. What matters right now is that every time Halladay took to the mound, people were watching. Regardless of whether you were a pitcher or a hitter growing up, you wanted to be like Doc.

— Neil Paine contributed research.

CORRECTION (Nov. 8, 2017, 11:30 a.m.): A previous version of the first table in this article incorrectly showed Tim Hudson as having 26 complete games since 2000. He had 25.

Footnotes

  1. As Jayson Stark pointed out, in games that Halladay started between 2002 and 2011 (his prime), his team went 195-108. When someone else started, his teams went 646-670.

  2. Based on JAWS, a WAR-based measure that tries to evaluate a player relative to his peers at the same position by balancing career and peak value.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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