Commentary

New division, same old ace

Look out, NL East! Here comes longtime AL East-killer Roy Halladay

Updated: February 19, 2010, 7:58 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- He hasn't just gotten traded. He's escaped.

What Roy Halladay just left in the rearview mirror this spring, when he showed up in Phillies camp, was more than merely 12 seasons of heartwarming memories of his life in Toronto.

It was A-Rod . And Derek Jeter. And Big Papi. And Kevin Youkilis. And Evan Longoria. And Brian Roberts. And all their AL East buddies.

It was 22 starts a year against bottomless lineups, in throbbing ballparks where every game was a crusade, in a division where pitchers get tied to the tracks and squashed by the local offensive locomotive just about every night of the week.

But not Roy Halladay.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Roy Halladay's first NL East victim could be the Nationals on April 5 -- Opening Day.

He won a Cy Young, and nearly won two others, in the AL East. He led the league in shutouts three times while pitching in the AL East. He started three All-Star Games while toiling in the AL East.

"What he did, pitching in that division," his new teammate, Chad Durbin, said Friday, "it blows my mind."

So here's the question, as Halladay moves his Cy Young act to Philadelphia and the NL East: What might he do in this division?

"The first thing that comes to mind," quipped Phillies reliever (and fellow AL East escapee) J.C. Romero, "is, he should be in cruise control."

OK, so it won't exactly be that easy. Brad Lidge had a 7.21 ERA last year in the NL East. Oliver Perez put up a 6.82 ERA. Derek Lowe had a 4.67 ERA. So it isn't quite the Lower Perkiomen Little League.

But when you stack it up to where Roy Halladay is coming from, hoo boy. Let's just say he ought to be able to tell the difference.

Here are the numbers averaged by the four other AL East teams last year, and how they compared with the four NL East teams he'll be facing this year:

AL East: .271 BA, .447 SLG., 204 HR
NL East: .265 BA, .405 SLG., 140 HR

That 42-point difference in slugging percentage -- per team -- kind of catches your eye, right? But 64 fewer home runs -- again, per team -- in his new division versus the one he just left? No wonder this man was so happy about this trade.

It's a funny thing, though. When Halladay sat down to visit with the media Friday, for the first time this spring, he sounded like a guy who would miss that madness in the AL East. Really. And you can't chalk it up to a mild case of heatstroke, because the temperature hasn't approached 70 in weeks.

Nope. This man actually appeared to mean it. Just listen to him:

"More than being relieved," he said, "I think I'll miss a little bit of going into Yankee Stadium and Boston, where you're expected to lose every time you go in there, and being able to walk out with wins."

Wait. He'll miss what? Going into Yankee Stadium and Boston, and facing not only the best, but the deepest lineups in baseball? Did we just hear that correctly?

If he's being honest about that, and he sure sounded earnest, then what does that tell us about this guy, the way he thinks and the way he ticks and the way he -- to throw his own favorite verb out there -- competes?

It tells us that while he may own more wins (148) than any active pitcher who has never pitched a postseason game, there's a good chance his kneecaps won't be rattling if his new team ever surgically removes him from the wrong end of that trivia question.

We don't know that for certain, of course, because there's no way to know that. But again, think of where this man is coming from.

• In the last two seasons, Halladay has made 31 starts just against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays -- three teams that combined for 563 wins -- and beaten them 16 times.

• Over the course of his career, more than 25 percent of his starts -- 73 of 287 -- have come against only the Yankees and Red Sox. Hey, lucky him.

• His 18-6 lifetime record against the Yankees represents the best winning percentage (.750) against the Bombers by any active pitcher with more than eight decisions -- and represents the best by any pitcher who has faced them more than 22 times in the last 55 years.

• And an even better way to measure how Halladay has spent his big league life is this: He's faced David Ortiz 109 times. And Jeter 100 times. And Johnny Damon 108 times. And Manny Ramirez 86 times. And Alex Rodriguez 83 times. Some fun, huh?

So now let's consider what might happen when this fellow gets to pitch in his new league. Again, there's no way we can ever predict this with any real certainty. But let's look back at the three former AL Cy Youngs who have left the AL for the NL in the last two seasons: Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Johan Santana.

Their combined NL numbers in 2008-09: 34-13, with a 2.43 ERA -- or 38-14, 2.43 if you count the postseason. Insane.

All right, now let's keep going.

Over the last 12 years, eight former AL Cy Young winners have exited the AL for the NL: Lee, Sabathia, Santana, Barry Zito, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Pat Hentgen and Randy Johnson.

Their combined record in the National League after departing: 103-47, with a 3.14 ERA. Subtract Zito, the one bust in the group, and the other seven went 92-34 -- that's a ridiculous .730 winning percentage -- with a 2.91 ERA.

Unfortunately for Halladay and the Phillies, all those pretty numbers -- staggering as they may be -- assure them absolutely zilch in the years ahead. It's very possible that it will be all the innings (2,046 2/3), starts (287) and complete games (49) Halladay has piled up that turn out to be the most important numbers in his universe -- and he won't be able to hold it together physically.

But tell it to the men who have been watching this guy show up at the ballpark every morning at (gulp) 5:30 a.m. to begin his daily workout madness. They'd be more likely to believe there's a better chance of the Washington Monument breaking down than there is of Roy Halladay breaking down.

"Hardest-working guy I've seen, by far," said Phillies pitcher Kyle Kendrick.

Kendrick said that when he started working out at Bright House Field a couple of weeks ago, he made the mistake of asking Halladay what time he started his own workouts.

"He said, 'Oh, about 5:30 or so,'" Kendrick laughed. "I said, 'Uh, OK. How long you been doing that?' He said, 'About seven years.' … I said, 'All, right, well, that's when I'll be starting, too.' And he said, 'You know A.J. Burnett did that, too. He only lasted about a week.'"

Well, so far, Kendrick has kept up, even beaten Halladay to the park twice. But all that's accomplished, of course, is inspire Halladay to arrive even earlier.

"It's getting tough," the ace chuckled. "I'm trying to get to bed before the kids now. And that helps a little bit."

Halladay launched this regimen, he said, after the Blue Jays sent him all the way back to A-ball in 2001 to get his act together, and he made a commitment to "doing things the right way" for the rest of his career.

Now, he said, that routine is "part of who I am -- and an important part of who I am."

And who he is, is a major attraction here, you understand.

We can all look at a man's numbers and get a sense for what he's done and what he might do. But who he is -- that's the part a team can't truly measure until it sees him close up. And already, it's that part -- who Roy Halladay is -- that's beginning to ripple through his new clubhouse.

"If you were going to meet the ace of every staff in baseball," Durbin said, "and you kind of look at him when he walks in, I mean, there's no other word for Roy Halladay. … He's an ace. And he sets the tone."

But the ace says he isn't thinking about all that. He's just trying to keep it simple, exactly the way he simplified life in his old division.

"It all comes down to one pitch at a time," said Halladay, "whether you're facing the Yankees or whoever."

Well, fortunately for him, there's a whole lot of whoever ahead. And history tells us that looks like an ominous development for the rest of the National League East.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com