Roy Halladay is calling it a career, having been prematurely pushed out of the game by a shoulder that simply would no longer cooperate. According to Jon Heyman, the Blue Jays will officially sign Halladay to a one day contract and announce his retirement this afternoon, so that he can finish his career with the organization where he made his mark as one of the game’s best pitchers. And make no mistake; Halladay is one of the best hurlers of his generation, and he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Halladay doesn’t have the legacy numbers that usually go with Hall of Fame induction. He will finish with 203 career wins and just 2,749 innings, putting him at the very low end of acceptable totals for induction among starting pitchers in those two categories. But, thankfully for Halladay, baseball is moving away from evaluating pitchers by career win totals, and his run of dominance makes him deserving of a place in Cooperstown.
For reference, here is Halladay’s 10 year run of dominance (2002-2011) compared to that of Sandy Koufax (1957-1966):
Koufax, at his absolute peak, was definitely better than Halladay at his absolute peak — or anyone else, for that matter — but his peak only lasted four years before injuries cut short his career. Halladay’s run of excellence was a little less excellent, but also a lot longer. For reference, if you stack up Halladay and Koufax’s individual seasons next to each other, the four best belong to Koufax, but then the next eight best seasons belong to Halladay.
Hall of Fame candidacies are all about balancing a player’s peak performance with the value of a long productive career, with ideal candidates possessing both traits. But there is no question that the BBWAA has found room for short career players who simply were too dominant at top form to ignore, with Koufax being the prime example of inducting a guy with a short-but-amazing career. It is certainly possible to argue that Halladay isn’t Koufax, given the difference in value in their three best seasons, as Koufax racked up a ridiculous +34.8 RA9-WAR during his best three years compared to just +24.7 for Halladay in his three best seasons. But even if we accept that Peak Halladay was only 70% of Peak Koufax, Almost Peak Halladay was vastly superior to Almost Peak Koufax, and those years have to count too.
Maybe you put enough weight on the peak years that the +10 WAR gap in the best three seasons is a much bigger deal than the offsetting +10 WAR gap in the next seven years, but you have to vastly overweight those top few seasons to come out with a definitive conclusion that Koufax is a clear yes and Halladay a clear no. With any kind of emphasis being put on the value of sustained dominance beyond their three best years, Halladay closes the gap, and the two should be viewed in a fairly similar light. It is perfectly reasonable to prefer Koufax’s incredible peak and slightly less incredible non-peak over Halladay’s more consistent performance, but we shouldn’t act like the difference in distributions of value make Koufax one of the all-time greats while Halladay isn’t worth considering.
There are 18 pitchers in baseball history that have thrown 2,500 or more innings and posted an ERA- of 76 or better. Roy Halladay is one of those 18. We can knock Halladay for a lack of career value, but there are 69 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, and I don’t see a credible argument that the difference between 2,700 innings and 3,400 innings should be enough to knock Halladay down from top-20 pitcher to not-top-70 pitcher.
Yes, using rate stats like ERA- will overrate pitchers like Halladay who choose not to stick around for their decline years, which pull down a player’s overall averages as he finishes out his career as something less than he was at a his peak. But just for fun, let’s add in a mediocre decline phase for Halladay, and give him another 750 innings of below average pitching, which would bring him up to 3,500 career innings pitched, squarely in the realm of a normal length of career for a Hall of Fame pitcher. If we assign him a 110 ERA- — the equivalent of something like Jason Vargas‘ career, in other words — over those 750 innings, his new career ERA- would be 83.
There are 22 pitchers in baseball history who have managed to throw 3,500 innings and post a career ERA- of 83 or better. Juan Marichal, a deserving Hall of Famer, threw almost exactly 3,500 innings and had an ERA- of 81. Basically, we’re saying the difference between Roy Halladay and Juan Marichal was hanging around for another four years as a below average pitcher.
Is that really what we want the Hall of Fame to be? Hey, you were one of the best pitchers of your generation, but your shoulder gave out and cost you four years where you weren’t going to produce much value anyway, and we really needed to see you hang around for four years as a #5 starter in order to recognize your prior greatness. Sorry, bad luck about that shoulder costing you those non-valuable years that don’t really matter much, but without those, we just can’t let you in.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think it should be necessary for a great player to be a bad player for a few years at the end of his career for us to recognize his greatness. Halladay’s peak was both great enough and long enough for him to be Hall of Fame worthy in my eyes. Congratulations on a great career, Mr. Halladay, and I hope baseball chooses to remember you with its highest honor.