Is Roy Halladay A Hall-of-Famer?

At 36, pitcher Roy Halladay announced his retirement the other day, signing a one-day contract with the Blue Jays which will allow him to retire as one, a classy move by all concerned. It’s gratifying to local baseball fans that this was clearly important to Halladay, and for one glorious moment there, I thought he’d actually signed a real pitching contract for next year, Lord knows we could use him if he were healthy. Roy cited a chronic back condition which led to ongoing shoulder injuries as the reason for his early retirement. I was a bit surprised given his not too advanced age and fanatical devotion to fitness that he couldn’t have pitched longer, but I’m glad he’s made his peace with retirement, this way he isn’t risking permanent physical impairment.

So the question on many baseball fans’ minds now becomes : Did Roy Halladay have a Hall of Fame-calibre career? And if so, will he be elected? (The two are not quite the same question. The first one could be argued either way, but given the often inexplicable decisions of HOF voters over the years, the only honest and smart answer to the second question is : Who the hell knows?)

Most commentators have described Halladay as a borderline HOF candidate, which is about right on the face of things, given his raw numbers alone. This means he is at least in the running and worthy of consideration, it could go either way. I heard TV baseball analyst Steve Phillips interviewed on a local sportscast and he said that in his mind Roy Halladay is certainly a Hall-of-Famer, briefly making a good case for him.

For better or worse, here is my two cents’ worth on the subject, with the qualification that I don’t actually have a big emotional stake in this, though I am an admirer of Halladay and have been for some time. I’ll divide this into pros and cons, starting with the cons, but first, here’s what Halladay’s career record looks like in shorthand :

203 Wins, 105 Losses.  Winning Percentage of .659.  3.38 E.R.A.  67 Complete Games, 20 Shutouts.  Three 20-Win seasons, two others with 19 Wins.  2,749.1 Innings Pitched.  2,117 Strikeouts, 592 Walks.. WHIP: 1.18

The Cons. As far as I can see, there are only two things that would keep Roy Halladay out of the Hall of Fame : 1) That his numbers, while really good, may fall a little short of HOF standards, particularly his win total, and 2) That he didn’t win any championships in a 16-year career. The only aspect of his career stats that could hurt him is that he won “only” 203 games, the rest of his stats are flat-out impressive, as we will examine in the “Pros” section. As for his lack of championships, there are a number of arguments to nullify this.

For one thing, he spent most of his career pitching for the non-contending Blue Jays in an era beginning after their greatest success, when the team’s cupboard and coffers were quite bare. In fact, Halladay was often the main reason the Jays were as decent as they were in those lean years.

Secondly, after moving to the contending Phillies, Halladay could certainly not be blamed for any lack of post-season success there. In 2010, his first year with the Phillies, they won the National League East partly on the strength of Halladay’s Cy Young-winning, 21-win season. In the first round of the playoffs Roy certainly chipped in, throwing only the second post-season no-hitter in history (against the Reds); he missed a perfect game by walking one batter on a very, very close pitch. The Phillies came up short against the Giants in the next round – the Giants had more pitching and eventually won it all that year.  The following year, The Phillies again won the NL East with Halladay going 19-6, but lost the NLDS to the eventual champion Cardinals in a final-game matchup nobody will soon forget – Halladay vs. his close friend Chris Carpenter, who hooked up in one of the great playoff pitching duels in recent memory. Halladay gave up a run on two hits in the first inning and pitched great the rest of the way, Carpenter gave up nothing in winning 1-0. Nobody in their right mind really thinks Halladay was to blame for this, how could he have pitched any better? Halladay was certainly not the first to pitch extremely well in a crucial game and simply come up short, it’s happened to a lot of great pitchers throughout history; sometimes the other guy pitches better, that’s baseball.

And thirdly, there are plenty of pitchers in the Hall of Fame who never got a whiff of World Series experience, never mind any wins. Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, Jim Bunning, Ferguson Jenkins for example, nobody suggests these guys don’t belong. Or how about Bob Feller, overwhelmingly qualified for the Hall, but with a record of 0-2 and an ERA of 5.02 in the one Series he pitched in – does anyone want to yank him out of Cooperstown? Or Robin Roberts (one Series, 0-1), or Gaylord Perry (1-1, 6.14) or any number of guys. What about guys like Cy Young, John Clarkson or Tim Keefe, who pitched most, if not all, of their primes before there was a World Series? What do their records amount to then, nothing? And on the other side of the coin, there are lots of pitchers with gaudy World Series records who are not in the Hall, many of them Yankees as you might guess. Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, Eddie Lopat, Spud Chandler, to name a few. A good post-season record can add a sheen to a pitcher’s HOF resume, but only if he’s qualified in the first place. Not having much of a World Series record is not generally held against pitchers who were otherwise excellent, nor should it be. Think Walter Johnson – the greatest pitcher who ever lived but who had the misfortune of pitching for the Washington Senators. You know, first in war, first in peace, last in the American League. Over 400 career wins and a record of 2-2 in two Series.

So having dispatched Roy’s lack of a championship pedigree as a reason for exclusion, we’re left with his 203 career wins as a sticking point – as HOF standards go, this total is borderline, unless there are some other numbers to bolster it. First of all, 203 victories are nothing to sneeze at in any era, only very good pitchers win as many as 200, those that win 250-300 are both great and blessed with the longevity of being injury-free. Also, there’s a school of thought that the very notion of assigning decisions – “wins” and “losses” – to a pitcher is artificial and specious and I tend to agree. Wins look nice, but with pitchers I tend to look at how much they pitched, and what they gave up. Halladay’s record says he pitched an awful lot and gave up very little. To put this another way, if one is going to debit him for winning “only” 203 games, then he must also be credited for losing so very few – the 105 “losses” work out to just 7 per season, the same number of losses averaged seasonally by Whitey Ford.

Because there are so many 300-game winners in the Hall, there are quite a few people out there who think you have to win 300 games to get in, which is absurd and patently untrue. 300 wins is nowhere near the minimum qualification, it’s more of a maximum – there’s nobody who has won 300 games who’s not in the HOF – 300 wins is at the high-end of being a guarantee of almost automatic selection. In fact, the standard for automatic selection is far lower, probably somewhere around 240 or 250 wins – if you win that many games, you’ll get in eventually, unless you murdered a President or habitually ate children or your other numbers really stink. There are pitchers in the HOF with less than 200 wins, or right around 200 wins, but generally they had some extra, pretty obvious “kickers” in their numbers which helped to put them over the top. (For obvious reasons, I’m excluding relief closers.) Here are three worth considering :

1. Sandy Koufax. Sandy Koufax is a no-brainer member of the HOF, despite a career record of just 165 wins and 87 losses. The reasons are obvious, his other numbers were so outstanding that he established a peak level of pitching performance for a five-year period that’s never been matched, much as Mickey Mantle did as a position player in the mid-’50s. Koufax’s won-lost record is irrelevant, his other numbers tell the tale of his utter dominance, especially in the two most important categories of ERA and Winning Percentage. He led the NL in ERA for five straight years from 1962-66, with totals of 2.54, 1.88, 1.74, 2.04, and 1.73, his career ERA is 2.76.  During two of those same years, he also led his league in winning percentage, his career figure in this is an excellent .655. The only pitcher in history to outshine Koufax in these categories was Lefty Grove, who led his league in ERA nine times, and Winning Percentage five times, both records. Oh, and Koufax also led the league in strikeouts four times, with a career-high of 382 in 1965, a record until Nolan Ryan struck out 383 in 1973. The reason Koufax didn’t win more games is simple and well-known – after a career filled with arm pain and injuries, he decided to retire after 1966 at age 31, rather than risk being permanently crippled. Here’s the thing though……it’s not as extreme an example, but Halladay retired early for much the same reasons, he’s only 36 and many expected him to pitch longer and win more games, given his consistency and great fitness. Surely the amount Roy pitched, all the complete games and innings logged, took a toll on his back and foreshortened his career and I think he deserves – and will get – consideration for this, as did Koufax. Halladay won 38 more games than Koufax, while losing only 18 more games. While Koufax’s Winning Percentage is an outstanding .655, Roy’s is an even better .659, while mostly pitching for worse teams, some far worse than Koufax’s Dodgers. True, Halladay wasn’t the strikeout machine that Sandy was, but he was no slouch, he struck out more than his share – over 200 in five seasons. Roy’s ERAs don’t look as gaudy either, but then again, he pitched in an era of far greater offense, much of it fuelled by the peak of PED abuse. An ERA of 3.38 during his time is outstanding. I actually think Halladay’s overall record, while not quite as stunning, stands up quite nicely to Koufax’s, especially given that Koufax pitched under more favourable conditions – Dodger Stadium was a great pitcher’s park – and for a shorter time. But don’t take my word for it, I heard Tim McCarver make similar arguments a couple of season ago, before Roy’s physical decline set in. McCarver generally drove people nuts with his endless babbling, but the man does know his baseball.

2. Dazzy Vance. Vance is in the Hall with a record of 197-140, but his case is quite similar to Koufax, his other numbers show that he was utterly dominant in his time. Though the actual totals are lower because he pitched in an earlier era when hitters struck out far less, Vance was an even more dominant strikeout-pitcher than Koufax, leading the NL for seven straight seasons. Like Koufax, he won a rare MVP as a pitcher, in fact he was the first NL pitcher to do this. He also led the league in ERA three times and in wins twice – he won 20 three times, as did Koufax and Halladay. The reason he didn’t win more with such outstanding stuff is similar to Koufax, but in reverse. Whereas Sandy retired with a sore arm at 31, Vance didn’t reach the majors till he was 31 – also because of a chronically sore arm which was almost miraculously cured – he then went on to pitch till he was 44. Vance was an overpowering pitcher for about eight years and although Halladay’s other numbers are less obviously dazzling, I think the case can easily be made that Roy was similarly dominant in his time, as I will later in the “Pros” section. In the meantime though, there’s that matter of Winning Percentage. Roy won 6 more games, while losing 35 fewer in a career of similar length – his WP of .659 blows Vance’s career mark of .585 out of the water. True, Vance pitched for some not very good Brooklyn teams, but Roy pitched 12 of his 16 seasons with a not very good Toronto team. As to ERA, Vance’s career mark is a very good 3.24 and he pitched in a period when offense and the home run started to wake up. Roy’s is 3.38 – this is basically a wash, because Halladay pitched during the all-time peak of run scoring in baseball history, steroid-bashing central.

So, Halladay matches up fairly well with these two greats with relatively modest win totals, but I’m generally not in favour of these lowest-common-denominator HOF comparisons: that if A is in the Hall and B is just as good, then why not B? First of all, maybe A shouldn’t be in, plus these arguments tend to lower the standards and muddy the waters, which are already murky enough. But in the next case, I’m not suggesting that Roy Halladay is merely as good as the following pitcher, I’m saying he’s clearly better, which brings us to :

3. Don Drysdale.  Drysdale is in the HOF with a so-so record of 209-166 and his induction was controversial, many still think he doesn’t belong. His career winning percentage of .557 is not great, just marginally better than the overall winning percentage of the Dodgers during his career. In order to justify his inclusion, there must have been some statistical kickers that impressed a lot of voters beyond the wins and losses, and there were. He was very durable, pitched a ton of innings with a lot of complete games. He struck out a lot of hitters – about the same rate as Halladay, with a similar rate of walks. He pitched on five pennant-winners, going 3-3 with a 2.95 ERA in six WS starts. He had the huge year in 1962, going 25-9 and winning the Cy Young Award; then again, Roy won it twice. Then there was his string of 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, which got some attention. But, this came during 1968, the “Year Of the Pitcher”, when other guys did crazy things like winning 31 games, or finishing with an ERA of 1.12 – Drysdale’s string is no small accomplishment, but has to be taken with a small grain of salt. His ERA is a very good 2.95, but again this was accomplished during an era dominated by pitchers and characterized by mostly anemic offense. Drysdale is basically in the HOF because he was a good pitcher and because, well …..he was famous, and I don’t really have a problem with that. He was part of the celebrated one-two pitching punch with Koufax, and they were a large part of the reason the Dodgers won so much in the first half of the ’60s. Beyond that he was a big, handsome guy with a head-hunting attitude on the mound and people just ate that up, plus he mingled well with the celebrity-driven world of Dodger-land and was later a noted broadcaster. I’m not here to pooh-pooh Drysdale as a pitcher, but here’s what I keep tripping up against : He was a good pitcher, but wouldn’t you think the strong No. 2 pitcher on a team as good as the Dodgers were from 1956-66 – and those were very good teams, it wasn’t just pitching – could have managed to win more than 209 games? Or, more to the point, lose fewer than 166? I hate to keep harping on Winning Percentage, but Halladay’s is over 100 points higher than Big D’s, and compiled with mostly far worse teams. And Roy was durable and tough too, he was far more dominant in the context of his time in terms of complete games and innings pitched, and he was also more consistent. Drysdale may or may not rightfully belong in the Hall, but I think it’s clear Halladay is considerably better-qualified.

I’m not arguing that Roy Halladay belongs in the Hall simply because these others are, just that these three show that inclusion is feasible with about 200 or fewer wins, provided the other stats show excellence and dominance in other areas, as I think Halladay’s do, which brings us to :

The Pros. Apart from not winning a championship and having a relatively borderline total of wins, everything else about Roy Halladay’s pitching is on the pro side. We’ve already exhausted his Winning Percentage, which is excellent, higher than that of almost every pitcher in the Hall. This is because what he did the least of is lose.

Then there’s his stamina and durability. Except for some injuries early in his career and the physical decline which set in during the last half of 2012, Halladay has been a workhorse. During a time when bullpens became bigger, more specialized and frequently used, when complete games became rarer and rarer, Halladay stood out. He led baseball in complete games seven times and his career total of 67 is far and away the highest of his time, nobody else is even close. This is not just a hollow number, but something that helped his teams win in a very concrete way. Think of how many innings he ate, how many times he saved a tired or overused bullpen, how many losing streaks he stopped all on his own. This translated to a lot of innings pitched, something he led his league in four times, going over 200 in eight seasons. Good pitchers don’t just pitch well, they pitch a lot and Halladay pitched more than most in his time, he was a horse. As mentioned, this heavy workload definitely wore even him down physically over time and certainly contributed to his early retirement. Otherwise, he was expected to pitch another three or four years and likely would have wound up with 240 or 250 wins, and I think most people recognize this and will give him credit for it, as they did with Koufax.

Then there’s consistency. Roy won 20 or more games in three seasons and 19 in two others. Except for an injury-plagued year in 2004, caused by too much off-season working out, Halladay won in double digits every season between 2002 and 2012, with totals of 19, 22, 8, 12, 16, 16, 20, 17, 21, 19 and 11, when his back issues first began in late-2012. He did this pitching for a team consistently under .500 and while pitching in baseball’s toughest division, the American League East. This meant going up often against some very strong Yankee and Red Sox teams. If he’d pitched for a better team with more run support, or even in a weaker division, he’d have undoubtedly won more games. He never led his league in ERA, but finished second in this category three times, and led in shutouts four times. His WHIP numbers best show his consistency though, they’re consistently right around 1.00 or lower every season except his last two, when the injuries started piling up.

As for recognition in his time, despite pitching in the relative baseball backwater of Toronto for most of his career, Roy’s achievements were recognized both by the press and by awards too. He won the Cy Young Award twice, finishing second in the voting twice and third once. He was an eight-time All-Star and started that game several times. This all adds up to him being universally regarded as one of the very best pitchers of his time. Other than Roger Clemens and maybe Mike Mussina, I can’t think of anyone who was better overall than Roy during his prime in the AL, and Clemens clearly used a little help. During his two great years with the Phillies, he was regarded as the best pitcher in the NL – he won the Cy Young the first year at 21-10 and was arguably better the next, at 19-6. He never won an MVP, which has become rare for pitchers, but in 2010 won the Baseball America Major League Player Of the Year award, which is voted on by MLB players and managers. This doesn’t quite have the prestige of an MVP, but still has to carry some weight.

In terms of power and control, he was very good. He was a big, strong guy, but wasn’t quite a power-pitcher. He was a bit like Robin Roberts, a guy who threw very hard, but to spots, though he gave up far fewer homers than Roberts. He wasn’t exactly a strikeout pitcher, but he fanned his share, about 7 per 9 innings. His control was excellent, he walked just over 2 per 9 innings, basically a strikeout-to-walk ratio of about 3.5: 1, which is terrific. 

Hall of Fame voters also consider a player’s character, his morals, behaviour and contribution to the good of the game, and this has only increased since the Pete Rose affair and the whole PED horror show. Halladay is a straight-A student across the board on this score. He was one of the most widely admired men in the game by players, fans and writers alike, universally known for being a good teammate, for his dedication to the game and his craft, both on and off the field. He was a strong family guy and did a lot of community and charity work, he was always good to the fans and vice versa. He achieved all this without being exactly cuddly with the media, he was serious-minded and could be brusque and aloof, but this had a gentle, almost apologetic air to it. He was never rude or surly, he just liked to focus on his job and sometimes the media were standing in his way at the workplace, i.e. the ballpark. His focus and dedication to training and game-day preparation were legendary, this all speaks to his work ethic and caring about baseball. I can’t think of anyone who was more universally admired as a person during his time in baseball than Halladay, and this will definitely help his HOF chances. Another aspect to this is the PED issue; since this spectre arose, HOF voters are looking less and less at the numbers and more and more at what the numbers represent and how they were achieved. There was never a hint that Halladay was ever using anything, nor did he need to with his fanatical fitness training. There were a lot of guys on the juice and a lot of surly egos during his time though and they’re going to be overlooked or made to wait for election, if it comes at all. This means the chances of induction for a good guy like Halladay go way up, this could tip the scale in his favour.

So I’m left with the conclusion that in my opinion, Roy Halladay is absolutely deserving of being in the Hall of Fame. His excellent numbers, consistency, award-recognition, performance and character all point to this and I think many would agree.

I also think he’ll actually get there, that enough voters were impressed enough with him that they’ll eventually elect him. As mentioned, because of the steroid hornet’s nest, HOF voters are looking less and less at the raw numbers and more at what they actually indicate about a player’s true quality. More and more, I think the voters are essentially trying to answer these two questions : Was the candidate clearly dominant, consistently one of the very best in baseball at his position for a period of ten or more years? And was he good for the game or harmful to it? Roy’s record in his prime from 2002-2011 clearly answers yes to the first question and his integrity says he was very good for the game, so I think he’ll go in. You never know though, I’ve been surprised before.

Whether he makes it or not, it was a great pleasure to watch him work so close at hand for so many years. I have my own personal Hall of Fame and Roy Halladay is already on his way in there, simply for the way he went about his business – he was everything a ballplayer should be.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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