Commentary

The start of something big

Roy Halladay is about to make the NL's best team even better.

Updated: April 21, 2010, 12:37 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

Getty ImagesThe National League is finding out just how good Roy Halladay is.

This story appears in the May 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Shortly after Roy Halladay's second National League at-bat resulted in a 35-foot RBI single, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel got the idea to take a stroll to the other end of the dugout to have a brief chat with his newest power hitter. Partway there, Manuel took a look at Halladay -- eyes fixed on the field like a hawk on a lizard --- and realized something important: He's had better ideas over the course of his 66 years.

But Ol' Charlie didn't get where he is in life by avoiding risk. Turning back would be an admission of defeat, perhaps even a slight embarrassment for a leader of men. So he kept going. When he got to Halladay, Manuel said something folksy and good-humored, because he knows no other way. Whatever was said, it didn't take long, and Halladay honored Manuel's remarks with a slight nod and a slighter smile. He did not say a word. He did not turn his head.

Two days later, as Manuel told the story from the visiting dugout at Nationals Park, just steps from the scene of the incident, he said, "Well, you learn your players as you go along. I learned Roy isn't much on small talk." Manuel laughed, but in truth, he probably got what he expected from Halladay. As third baseman Placido Polanco says of the 6-foot-6, 230-pound righthander, "You don't want to go to the mound to talk to Roy. You just look at him and say to yourself, I'll just stay here."

In mid-December, when the Phillies completed a trade with the Blue Jays to bring Halladay to Philadelphia, Manuel was understandably excited. The Phillies, seeing Halladay as the difference between being league champion and world champion, had tried to pry him from Toronto before last July's trade deadline, but the teams couldn't agree on a deal. Halladay's desire to play for a contender was so strong that he had to turn off the TV during the World Series between the Phillies and Yankees. He'd come so close, and it was just too painful to watch.

On the day the trade finally happened, Manuel placed a call to Halladay. It went to voice mail. Manuel welcomed Halladay to the Phillies, congratulated him on his career to that point and told him how thrilled he was to have him as part of the National League champs. As an aside, Manuel said, "You don't have to worry about calling me back."

And so Halladay did as instructed: He didn't worry. He didn't call back. Not that day. Not that week. Not that month. But in mid-January, Manuel answered his phone and heard, "Charlie, this is Roy Halladay. Sorry it took me so long."

"Don't worry about it, Roy," Manuel responded. "I've got you penciled in."

It's not a bad deal for pitcher or manager: Roy doesn't worry about Charlie, and Charlie doesn't worry about Roy. Manuel's main concern is tamping down expectations, including his own. There are endless opportunities for reverie during a baseball season, and this is prime fodder: In the NL, facing lineups with 11 percent fewer big league hitters, freed from the brutal American League East and supported by the best offense outside the Bronx, just how good can Roy Halladay be?

The possibilities seem boundless, like some wild bank error in the Phillies' favor. Since 2002 with Toronto, Halladay averaged 16 wins for a team that struggled to finish in the top three of its division. Despite his age -- Halladay turns 33 on May 14 -- he is actually getting better. In each of the past two seasons, he led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.28 in 2008, 5.94 in 2009) and the AL in complete games (nine each year). In fact, he threw more complete games over the past two years than any of the 29 other teams. Now, instead of facing 8-9 hitters like Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner, Halladay will face 8-9 hitters like the ones he saw on Opening Day: Nationals light-hitting shortstop Ian Desmond and pitcher John Lannan. In 2009, the last two hitters in AL lineups batted .248 with a .311 OBP and a .374 slugging percentage. Those numbers certainly aren't great, but compare them with the NL bottom-feeders: .217/.285/.314.

In the second inning on Opening Day, Halladay faced Desmond and Lannan with a runner at second and nobody out; he whiffed both rather effortlessly. Overall, he went seven innings, allowed one run and struck out nine -- typical. In his second start, he threw a complete game and beat the Astros, 2-1. The bottom third of Houston's lineup, including pinch-hitters, went 1-for-8. "The difference between the big pitcher and the average pitcher is that the big pitcher gets the outs he should get," Manuel says. "The big guy doesn't have problems with the bottom of the order. Without having to face a DH, if Roy gets through the bottom of the orders, he'll finish more games."

Halladay's first two National League outings set the mind racing. This is a pitcher who made 14 of his final 18 starts last year against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in nine of those 14 and threw four complete games. What happens when you set him loose on the Nationals, Astros and Pirates?

There's an old baseball bromide that a pitcher, any pitcher, owns the advantage his first time through a new league. According to the theory, hitters need time to ascertain tendencies and patterns, allowing pitchers to get outs until the hitters complete their dossiers and adjust. Statistics show this to be patently false (see chart), but baseball is starting only now to value statistics over bromides. There is significant statistical evidence, however, to demonstrate that pitchers moving from the AL to the NL improve their ERAs by more than half a run. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the difference in offensive output between the leagues; after all, AL lineups contain nine big league hitters rather than eight.

If Halladay continues to dominate in his first time through the league, he won't be bucking a trend or tweaking an average; he'll just be pitching like himself. Averages, after all, don't apply to him. If the average league-switchers -- your everyday Edwin Jacksons or Nate Robertsons -- are half a run better pitching in the National League, how much better will baseball's best pitcher be, especially when he's backed by an offense featuring Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth? No one knows for sure, but almost everyone has something to say about how good Halladay already is.

"Here's how good he is," says Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who's now an Orioles broadcaster. "Last year, Mike Maddux, the Rangers pitching coach, ran up to me and said, 'I just saw Halladay for the first time! He's unbelievable!' " Mike Maddux, remember, is the older brother of Greg Maddux, who won four straight Cy Youngs in the mid-'90s. Halladay has become Greg Maddux, with a 92-94 mph fastball that always looks the same coming out of his hand but sometimes darts right, sometimes left. Nationals infielder Adam Kennedy, who faced Halladay for years in the AL, says this of his heater: "It looks hittable, and it is hittable. You just can't do anything with it. It hits the bat like a shot put. Putting him in this league with that lineup? It's almost unfair."

Phillies backup catcher Brian Schneider says Halladay not only throws five pitches -- fastball, slider, cutter, curve, changeup -- but, in scouting terms, he also throws five plus pitches. That's three or four more than most pitchers have. "If a batter takes away something, Roy goes to another plus pitch," says Schneider. "He's even better when you catch him than when you try to hit him."

So, Charlie Manuel, just how good can Halladay be? "I don't let my mind go there," says the manager. "I just think it's best to let Roy go out and pitch." Manuel wants to let it go at that, you can tell, but he can't help himself. The temptation is too great. Standing in the dugout, he shifts his legs and nods his head a few times, as if rolling the words around inside before speaking. "I will say this: I know he can win 20." Manuel pauses. His eyes drift out onto the field with a faraway look. In a low rumble, he adds, "And maybe more."

Reports of Halladay's intensity are in danger of reaching satire. It's hard to say where truth stops and apocrypha begins. Put it this way: Wars have been launched with less preparation than Halladay puts in before every start. He treats distractions, or perceived distractions, as threats. He is the first one to the ballpark, even when teammates or coaches strive to get there before him, even when he gets hit in the head the day before. One time in Pittsburgh, Halladay was beaned by a line drive, yet when Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston arrived the following day, more than six hours before game time, Halladay was running in the outfield.

Getty ImagesHalladay is all business on the mound, but even he can't hide his joy to finally be pitching for a contender.

Baseball players, in general, have turned looking busy into performance art. And starting pitchers are usually the least busy players in the clubhouse. They have their between-start routines -- throwing, running, shagging flies during batting practice -- and you best not go near most of them on the day they pitch. But in reality, the job isn't as labor intensive as most. Pitchers are reliably around their lockers, checking their phones or listening to music or trying to figure out what to do next. "There's one place you almost never find Roy: at his locker," Manuel says. "He's either running or throwing or looking at video or doing something to help himself get better. He's just almost never around."

Not surprisingly, Halladay won't be the basis for the clubhouse cutup character in Major League IV. "He'll engage in small chatter," says pitching coach Rich Dubee, looking as if he's trying to recall such an instance. "It just doesn't happen very much." Teammates have tried to loosen Halladay up, but they've found it's a rough road. His idea of socializing is to discuss opposing hitters while watching video. Some of the pitchers have coaxed a few laughs by joking about the attempts of young righthander Kyle Kendrick to stay close enough to Halladay to learn his secrets. "He's pretty extreme with everything he does," says young lefty J.A. Happ. "But he'll laugh -- sometimes."

To call Halladay's routine structured is an insult. There is comfort in rote, of course. It originates as formulaic repetition -- five fastballs, five sliders, five cutters, five curveballs, five changeups -- before morphing into an unthinking progression of nearly subconscious habits. For many athletes, repetition serves as the gateway to the elusive and amorphous "zone," where the world seems to slow and excellence becomes effortless. Halladay strives not only to visit the zone but also to take up permanent residence.

When Class-A pitcher Jarred Cosart, one of the Phils' better prospects, showed up a few weeks early to spring training in Clearwater, Fla., he found himself working out with Halladay, who lives nearby. "I tried to do all the reps, but I realized I couldn't finish a Roy Halladay workout," Cosart says. So the 19-year-old righthander asked the veteran for advice on getting in shape. One of the first things Halladay told him to do was develop a routine.

Cosart thought he understood the concept: work hard, develop the proper mechanics, do the right things often enough that they become second nature. But he quickly learned his idea of routine was nothing more than a vague outline. A Halladay routine differs from a normal routine the way a housefly differs from a space shuttle. Here are some of the details Cosart learned about the Halladay routine: He catches the throw from the catcher in the same spot in front of the mound every time; he takes the same number of steps back up the mound after every pitch; he even has an idea of how many breaths he wants to take between pitches.

Outside the insular world of sports, tics such as these might denote a level of quirkiness that warrants concern -- "That's Bob, our janitor. He always sweeps the floor in a series of concentric three-foot hexagons" -- but in the baseball world, it's considered dedication to the craft. The devotion to repetition and routine is often the difference between the average athlete and the Roy Halladays. "I was blown away," Cosart says. "When you're around him, you start to realize why he's so good. Everything he does has a purpose."

It's nearly comical to watch Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz between innings when Halladay pitches. After the Phillies make their third out, Halladay -- providing he is not on deck or on the bases -- practically launches his lanky frame, which is roughly 78 pecent legs, out of the dugout and toward the mound. Ruiz, whose 5-foot-10 frame is roughly 22 percent legs, bounds out in desperate hope of reaching the catcher's box before Halladay reaches the pitching rubber. "I don't want to be late," Ruiz says. "Roy likes to get out there and get to work. He's ready, so I have to be ready."

What, exactly, are the Phillies getting ready for? Setting a franchise record for wins? A second World Series title in three years? "We can't get ahead of ourselves," Dubee says. "Roy just has to pitch every fifth day, and we'll add it up at the end."

But just because they say it doesn't mean you have to believe it. Manuel openly says his team can win 100 games (the team record is 101), and there's no question the Phillies believe Halladay is the piece they were missing last year. And after one trip through the league, or maybe before, the rest of baseball may have no choice but to agree. It would have been instructive to hear from Halladay on some of these topics, but a one-on-one interview didn't fit into his opening-week regimen. Asked if he could spare a few minutes to answer questions for this story, Halladay said, "I'm going to pass. I did a lot during spring training, and now I'm just going to shut it down."

He did turn his head, though.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com