Apologia, More on Halladay

Yesterday’s post on Roy Halladay as usual contained a few small typos and grammatical mistakes but also a factual error – I posted it in some haste because of the time-sensitve nature of his retirement. The typos I can live with, but factual errors bug me, I try not to make many of those. For some reason, I got it into my head that Halladay had an 18-year career, with 14 seasons in Toronto; it was actually 16 years, with 12 in Toronto. This mistake was compounded by being repeated several times through the piece, so I’m sorry. This and the other boo-boos have been corrected.

In arguing Roy’s HOF case I made comparisons between Halladay and three HOF pitchers with similar borderline-low win totals, but great supplementary stats – Koufax, Vance and Drysdale. After posting the piece, I thought of another famous pitcher I might have added – Whitey Ford – but it’s just as well I left him out in the interests of shortening the piece. The more I think about it though, the more relevant and apt the comparison between Whitey and Roy becomes.

This may seem laughable at first because of the obvious differences between them. Ford was a small left-hander and Halladay was a big, strapping righty. Whitey was a noted urbanite party animal, a running buddy of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, whereas Halladay was a country boy at heart, with ascetic personal habits that would make a Mormon look like a citizen of Sodom. And Ford pitched for the great Yankees and had a huge post-season resume, while Halladay pitched mostly for an also-ran team and had limited playoff experience, though he did very well when he finally got the chance.

But setting aside these differences, there are striking similarities in their career numbers. Conveniently, each pitched for exactly 16 seasons, and each missed about two full seasons early in their careers – Ford due to service in the Korean War, and Halladay due to injury and rehab-time in the minors. The defining characteristic of each was a very high Winning Percentage among some other things. With a career record of 236-106, Ford’s WP is an extremely good .690, the second-highest mark ever. At 203-105, Halladay’s WP is a very good .659. Because each pitched for 16 seasons, you can get a sense of a typical season for each by dividing their career records by 16. Rounded up to the nearest whole number, Ford’s average season works out to 15-7 and Halladay’s to 13-7, pretty close.

Even so, Ford won 2 more games per season and 33 more in his career and he pitched more innings and complete games than Halladay, plus his ERA of 2.75 is more than half-a-run-per game better than Roy’s 3.38,  so he was still quite a bit better as a pitcher, right? Well, maybe, but hold on a minute….Let’s consider the context here, the quite different conditions each pitched in, related to both their respective teams and periods.

As you know, Ford pitched his whole career with the Yankees during their greatest dynastic run from 1950-64, with an unprecedented 13 pennants in those 15 years. True, Ford missed out on 1951-52 and pitched for the Yanks in 1965-67, when they became suddenly awful. The Yankees were an offensive juggernaut and averaged between 95 and 100 wins a season during the great years, in mainly a 154-game schedule. Aside from some other good pitchers, Ford’s teammates were such great players as Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Gil McDougald, supported by a cast of very good players like Hank Bauer, Roger Maris, Moose Skowron, Phil Rizzuto (later Tony Kubek), Bobby Richardson and others. By contrast, Halladay pitched twelve years with a mostly mediocre Jays team that generally finished fourth or fifth in their division, mostly at or below .500. His teammates included a couple of pretty good players in Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells, but supported by the likes of Dick Schofield, Alex Gonzalez, Alex Rios, Darren Fletcher and other iffy players, and not many good pitchers. OK, he did get to play with a good Phillies team late in his career, for two years. They won in 2010-2011 and weren’t very good the last two years, when Halladay was struggling with injuries anyway. Somehow through all of this, Halladay managed one more 20-win season than Ford, while actually losing one less game in his career, amazing. Who do you think had it easier?

But there’s more. Not only were Ford’s Yankees great, but the rest of the teams in the AL back then were terrible, with the exception of the Indians from 1950-55 and the White Sox, 1955-62. The other teams – the Red Sox, Tigers, Browns, Senators and A’s were weak patsies – the Browns, Senators and A’s then were among the worst teams ever, year in and year out. But here’s the hidden kicker….Not only did Ford enjoy feasting on these turkeys while enjoying massive run support, but best of all, he never had to face the Yankees, not once. That had to help his numbers along a little, don’t you think? Halladay on the other hand, pitching mostly in the AL’s toughest division in an unbalanced schedule, had to face very powerful Yankee and Red Sox line-ups pretty regularly without the benefit of much help from his team, a much tougher undertaking indeed.

There were other differences in the contexts and conditions each faced during their time, which also favoured Ford. Ford pitched in an era of marked overall decline in offense – many more hitters striking out, lower batting averages and fewer home runs (except by the Yankees of course) – and this increased into the ’60s, culminating in 1968. For good measure, while this was happening, baseball expanded for the first time in 60 years, with two new teams in each league, each of them woefully awful for some years. This only made things easier on pitchers like Ford, who now had two more.weak teams to feast on in the Angels and the “new” Senators. No wonder Whitey had a record of 25-4 in 1961 – he had the M & M Boys hitting 115 homers between them and two new patsies to beat on.

But Halladay pitched most of his career during the biggest offensive explosion in baseball history beginning in the mid-’90s and continuing till a few years ago, bigger even than the one beginning with Babe Ruth and culminating in 1930. It was fueled not only by rampant steroid abuse, but also by a rash of new, smaller, hitter-friendly parks, lighter, thinner bats and a bunch of rule changes that discouraged things like pitching inside. It was not a fun time to be a pitcher, you had not only a ton of muscle-bound guys hitting 50 or 60 or 70 homers a year, you had 170-pound middle infielders suddenly hitting 20 or 30, plus stolen bases to worry about. Sure, some pitchers tried to counteract this by doping themselves, but Halladay wasn’t one of them. And yes, there was expansion during Roy’s time too, but none of the new teams were anywhere near as weak as the first ones, because the rules were fairer and didn’t allow them to be. Hell, the Marlins and D-Backs each won championships within a few years, the Marlins actually won two and the Rays and Rockies at least made it to the WS pretty fast. So Halladay didn’t face any of the advantages Ford did, quite the contrary, making Roy’s ERA of 3.38 very impressive in the context he pitched in.

Ford’s WP and ERA are flat-out terrific even given his advantages, nobody can take that away from him. I don’t have a magic formula to translate what Halladay’s ERA and WP might look like if he pitched for the Yankees in Ford’s time – Bill James probably does. But given how similar their records are, logic and reason tell me that a guy with Halladay’s guts, competitive drive, stamina and ability would have put up some pretty great numbers pitching in conditions similar to the ones Ford enjoyed. I would certainly think the gap that separates them in wins, WP and ERA would be narrowed, if not eliminated, wouldn’t you?

Both pitchers were also very durable. Ford’s numbers are very good in this regard, especially for a little guy. He regularly made 30 to 39 starts in most years, leading the league twice in this. Ten times he pitched over 200 innings a season and as many as 283, also leading the league twice. He also pitched his share of complete games, leading the league once with 18 and throwing 156 altogether. This dwarfs Halladay’s career total of 67, but again, look at it in context. In Ford’s time, teams used a four-man rotation instead of the five used in Roy’s years, so pitchers each made more starts, pitched more innings, even the lesser ones. And relief pitching wasn’t what it is today. The bullpens were smaller and less frequently used, the relievers not as good or specialized as in recent years, closers were just getting established. Pitchers were still generally expected to finish games as often as possible, so complete games were much more common. Roy Halladay led his league in complete games 7 times and his total of 67 is much more dominant in his time. Halladay also threw over 200 innings 8 times and led his league in innings 4 times. Obviously, in his time, Halladay was much more of a workhorse than Ford was in his. Roy was known for this and it’s maybe not surprising, Halladay was a much bigger, better-conditioned pitcher.

Even given all his advantages, Whitey Ford still had to go out there and pitch his ass off, which he surely did. I’m not trying to run him down at all, just trying to put his accomplishments in perspective. His WP, ERA, stamina and low total of losses are really impressive, but I’ve always felt he should have won more than 236 games pitching all those years for those great Yankee teams. He’s well-known for his World Series achievements, his 10 Series wins are staggering. But again, he appeared in 11 Series altogether and also lost 8 games, so his record here is about what you’d expect, the Yankees were 6-5 in the 11 Series Ford pitched in. Halladay didn’t get anywhere near those opportunities, but didn’t exactly disappoint in post-season play, pitching a no-hitter in one of his starts and a complete-game two-hitter in a 1-0 loss in another.

Given the optics and imagery involved, many will never buy this comparison between the just retired Halladay, who pitched for our humble Blue Jays and the legendary Whitey Ford, with all that Yankee iconography and World Series glory in play, not in a million years. But I don’t see that there’s all that much to choose between then really, not relative to context. In the end, here’s what I think : Whitey Ford was a very good pitcher who pitched for a great team and Roy Halladay was a great pitcher who mostly pitched for a mediocre team during a time when it was hard to be a pitcher, that’s the difference.

© 2013, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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