There are, I imagine, several questions one could ask about Roy Halladay. Does he eat breakfast? does he eat granola for breakfast? Which is his favorite breakfast granola? But, regarding Halladay as a baseball pitcher, there is one particularly pressing question: will he ever get back to being what he was? It would’ve been nearly impossible for Halladay to conclusively answer that question on Wednesday in Atlanta, and indeed, in the aftermath of Halladay’s start, the question remains unanswered, conclusively.
The good news, if you missed it: Halladay finished with nine strikeouts. The bad news, if you missed it: the rest. Halladay allowed five runs in 3.1 innings, and he became the first pitcher in recorded baseball history to record nine strikeouts in so brief an outing. Of course, we know better than to look at innings thrown — more meaningful is the number of batters faced, and in that regard Halladay’s start was not unprecedented. Four times before, pitchers have struck out nine of 15 batters, while Halladay faced 19 Braves. Dan Osinski once struck out ten of 16 batters. Just last April, Marco Estrada struck out nine of 17 batters. But anyway, this isn’t about establishing an historical context — this is about Halladay, and what he is, and what just happened.
Halladay issued three walks. He threw just 55 of 95 pitches for strikes, and this is a guy who’s long been among the game’s premier command starting pitchers. Only three times since 2002 has Halladay finished a game with a lower strike rate. Never, during the PITCHf/x era, has Halladay finished a start with a lower zone rate. Yet never, since 2002, has Halladay finished a game with a lower contact rate. Halladay was simultaneously exploitable and unhittable, so it’s unclear just how encouraged or discouraged a Phillies fan ought to be in the aftermath.
One of the explanations for Halladay’s outing is that he leaned heavily on his secondary stuff. Of Halladay’s 95 pitches, just 48 were fastballs or cutters, yielding a 50.5% rate. Again looking at the PITCHf/x era, that’s Halladay’s lowest rate of thrown heaters. Braves hitters whiffed three times against Halladay’s cutter, but they whiffed 11 times against his curve or split. Those were the putaway pitches, while it was mostly Halladay’s faster stuff that was getting him in trouble.
Not that it was all that fast. This has been another Halladay storyline, and of course we have to look at his pitch velocity. Here are Halladay’s average velocities from his first starts of the last few seasons:
1st Start In
As Halladay has gradually lost some steam off his fastballs, he’s gone more and more often to his slower weapons. Call it whatever you want — declining faith in his fastballs, intelligent pitching, both, or neither. Wednesday, if Halladay loved his fastballs, he didn’t show it, as half the time he threw something else. Those other pitches are more difficult for batters to hit, but they’re also more difficult to locate as precisely as Halladay is used to.
Now, before we proceed any more, we have to acknowledge that, on Wednesday in Atlanta, it was raining. We don’t know what effect this might have had, and it’s easy to see how wet conditions could reduce a pitcher’s effectiveness, but on the other hand, Paul Maholm walked one guy and didn’t allow any runs while striking out six. Better than two-thirds of his pitches were strikes. Not everyone will respond to rain in the same way, but it doesn’t look like the environment is much of an excuse for what happened to Halladay before he got yanked.
The big thing that stands out to me: Halladay dropped his arm down. Following are two screenshots that don’t look too dissimilar — one from a Halladay start in Atlanta a year ago, and one from Wednesday night. The top one is the older one.
It’s hard to spot a difference there. But thanks to Texas Leaguers, let’s look at a release-point .gif. The first group shown is Halladay’s last start in Atlanta in 2012. The second group shown is Halladay’s last start anywhere in 2012. The third group shown is Halladay’s start on Wednesday.
That’s noticeable. In fact, from Chip Caray and Joe Simpson even before Halladay started pitching in the first:
“You and I were just watching him warm up, Chip, and his arm slot’s very different, much lower than we’re accustomed to seeing.”
One reason for a lowered arm angle is some sort of injury. Another reason for a lowered arm angle is fatigue. A third reason for a lowered arm angle is a deliberate adjustment on the pitcher’s part, and we know Halladay has been working on his mechanics. We don’t know how much this means — we just know something was up, such that Halladay was releasing the ball lower than he used to.
That doesn’t automatically explain the subsequent events. It could just be a factor. So how does one pitch ineffectively while striking out nine batters in fewer than four innings, anyway? The answer is what you’d expect: some bad luck, some missed location. A few Halladay pitch .gifs:
This is a Juan Francisco RBI single. Halladay didn’t do anything wrong — he hit his spot on the inside edge with a 1-and-1 cutter. Sometimes hitters get hits on pitcher’s pitches. Even if you execute your gameplan perfectly, you can still get punished.
Here’s Halladay getting a swing and miss, and a strikeout, on a curveball that didn’t end up where it was supposed to. He missed by the entire width of the plate, and then some, but the result was still a really good pitch, because there were two strikes and Halladay kept the ball down.
Here’s a brilliant full-count changeup. You don’t strike out nine batters if you’re missing your spots with everything. This pitch is right on the corner, too close to take but too terrific to hit and hit well. Generally, after a bad outing, people will say a pitcher wasn’t hitting his spots, but that doesn’t mean the pitcher never hit his spots. This was classic Roy Halladay — except, I guess, for the full-count part. The first two pitches of this at-bat were balls well inside.
Here’s Halladay giving up his first home run, on a fastball. Halladay would say later he should’ve thrown a different pitch, but this pitch isn’t *bad* — though he missed over the middle of the plate, the ball was located at Justin Upton‘s knees. This is a case, I think, of both missed location and bad luck, since that isn’t an easy pitch to drive out to the opposite field. The ball squeaked over the fence, but they all count the same. Halladay’s explanation was that he should’ve thrown something high, to set Upton up for the next pitch.
And here we have an awful mistake, as Halladay coughs up a dinger to Evan Gattis. Instead of a cutter on the low-away corner, Halladay throws a cutter down the pipe to a guy whose whole game is his strength. Gattis, like Upton, didn’t clear the wall by a whole lot, but this isn’t a good pitch that got punished. This is a terrible pitch that got punished, and this doesn’t look like Roy Halladay at all, except for the part where it was Roy Halladay who threw the pitch.
As almost always, there’s nothing to conclude from one start. But there is plenty to watch, as we can monitor Halladay’s release point going forward, and we can look at his velocity, and we can look at his pitch selection. There’s not nearly enough evidence to suggest that Halladay is bad now — you usually don’t miss that many bats if you’re ineffective, even if you’re playing the 2013 Braves. That, more than anything else, is the reason to be somewhat encouraged by Halladay’s performance. But at lower velocities, Halladay needs to be better about locating, because reduced velocity means reduced margin of error. If Halladay’s going to be an 88-90 guy now, he needs to figure out how to make the best of it, and we need to figure out what the best of it is. Roy Halladay is changing. He’s been changing for a while. The question is whether he’ll change into something resembling what he was. Some of the elements, at least, are there, but everybody eventually gets worse. Everybody, from the best players to the worst. That’s the one thing we can be sure of.