In a sense, Sunday’s Phillies game shouldn’t have been too important. It’s long been apparent the Phillies aren’t going anywhere, or at least, they’re not going where they’d like. The Nationals, too, probably aren’t going anywhere, and while their playoff hopes aren’t quite so dashed, they’re hardly in the picture. And on the mound, the Phillies had a 36-year-old free agent to be, a guy coming off shoulder surgery, a guy who posted an 8.65 ERA before going on the disabled list after seven starts. The Phillies, thus, weren’t even throwing a prospect.
But they were throwing an unknown, by the name of Roy Halladay. Halladay was making his first start since going under the knife, and given who he is and who he’s been, the game captured the interest not just of Phillies fans, but of baseball fans, fans who grew accustomed to thinking of Halladay as unbreakable and automatic. Healthy Halladay was the very picture of the shutdown workhorse. Unhealthy Halladay was a grim reminder that rooting for pitchers sucks. Many were eager to find out what Halladay might have left in the tank, and Sunday he and the Phillies knocked off Patrick Corbin. Following is something of a Halladay start in review.
I’ve decided to split this up into non-negatives and non-positives, because something about regular positives and regular negatives didn’t feel right to me. We’ll begin with maybe the most important non-negative.
Halladay wasn’t supposed to be starting for the Phillies on Sunday. Halladay was supposed to be making another minor-league rehab start on Sunday, but Saturday’s extended Phillies game basically forced the organization into a hasty move. If the Phillies had their druthers, Halladay would’ve spent Sunday with Double-A Reading, and while you’re free to question the wisdom of advancing the Halladay timetable because of short-term roster necessity, the fact of the matter is that the Phillies didn’t want this start to happen. Not as of a few days ago. They just wound up without other options, so for Halladay this was another tune-up against big-league competition, and so it shouldn’t be held to the ordinary standard.
That would’ve made it 4-4 in the third. Halladay’s outing ended with two walks and two strikeouts, and he threw just 55 of his 94 pitches for strikes. Batters swung and missed just six times, and not once at a fastball. Halladay has something of a history of inducing weak contact, but he also has a history of throwing more strikes and still being difficult to hit, and those traits weren’t apparent Sunday afternoon. Sunday, Halladay fought his command, continuing what’s been for him a trend on both sides of his surgery.
Halladay’s problems somewhat correlated with a dropped arm slot. Said Halladay in the MLB.com game recap:
“I feel like each time out I’m progressing back to where I was. There are going to be changes, and you always change over your career. But I think my arm slot is back to where it used to be. The movement is back to where it used to be. I can be more consistent with the location.”
Halladay felt better about his arm angle, and PITCHf/x helps to back him up. From Brooks Baseball, here are Halladay’s release points from the start before he went on the DL:
Here are his release points from Sunday:
Here is an awkwardly combined image:
The difference isn’t dramatic, but a difference is there. Sunday, Halladay got his arm a little more elevated, suggesting reduced shoulder discomfort. It actually suggests the absence of shoulder discomfort, as Halladay was able to throw more free and easy without any physical restrictions. The priority for Halladay right now isn’t immediately getting back to what he was. It’s getting his mechanics straightened out and familiar, and a consistent arm slot is arguably the most important part of that.
According to PITCHf/x, Halladay’s fastest pitch on Sunday was 90.2 miles per hour. His fastball averaged just over 88, his cutter averaged just under 87, his splitter averaged just over 80, and his curveball averaged just over 74. All of these are reduced velocities from where Halladay used to be, even right before his operation. A couple years ago, Halladay’s fastball averaged 92. Earlier this season, his cutter was almost 89. Reduced velocity is a sign of a shoulder issue, and Halladay wasn’t in his normal range.
“Just from talking to the doctors, the velocity is the last thing to come.”
Remember, this was a rehab start that happened to take place in the majors. Halladay’s still just a few months removed from surgery, and there’s no sense in his airing it out as hard as possible when the goal right now is to find and maintain consistent mechanics. His shoulder, probably, is still getting stronger, and it’s not like the doctors would’ve lied to him. Around the time of his procedure, Halladay was told by the doctors they could turn the clock back by two or three years. Maybe that was optimistic, but it was always going to be a process, and no one would’ve or should’ve expected classic Halladay is his first big-league start back.
Halladay was missing spots, even when getting good results:
At other times, though, he was dead on, and nobody’s perfect.
Diamondbacks hitters put 19 balls in play against Halladay, excluding a bunt, and only seven or eight of them stayed on the ground, depending on your info source. When he’s going right, Halladay generates a ton of groundballs, and those weren’t there so much in 2012 or earlier in 2013. Nor were they there on Sunday, even if it was just one game.
Halladay threw 94 pitches, and I count something like 15 or 16 of them ending up in the lower third of the strike zone. From the recap:
“I think the results speak for themselves,” catcher Erik Kratz said. “A lot of pitches were down in the zone.”
I’d like to share with you some history. Below, Halladay as a Phillie, and his frequency of pitches ending up in the lower third of the zone.
- 2010: 17.7%
- 2011: 17.1%
- 2012: 15.3%
- 2013: 14.1%
His MLB ranks in the same category:
- 2010: 4th among pitchers with at least 1000 pitches
- 2011: 8th
- 2012: 54th
- 2013: Not in top-100 among pitchers with at least 500 pitches
Halladay’s whole game plan isn’t just throwing lower-third strikes, but it’s a pretty good indicator of when he’s pitching like he’d like to, and Sunday he did a decent job of staying down, even if the Diamondbacks managed to put a few more balls in play in the air. Better for Halladay to miss down than to miss up. Especially for as long as he’s pitching with reduced velocity. He’s still gaining strength, and he’s still re-familiarizing himself with his own pitch movements.
There is, of course, no grand, sweeping conclusion following Halladay’s return to the majors. He didn’t pitch exactly like his old self, but no one would’ve expected him to. He didn’t pitch like his earlier 2013 self, and that’s reassuring. We don’t know where he’s going to go from here, because we don’t know how much strength Halladay is going to continue to gain as he puts more distance between himself and his surgery. What we can say, however, is that there are reasons for optimism, tucked among the reasons to be a little bit skeptical. Generally, 36-year-old pitchers don’t return too well from shoulder operations, even if they weren’t total reconstructions. Halladay’s future remains unknown, even after getting back. But, he’s back. He’s back with the Phillies, sooner than even the Phillies intended. Roy Halladay, once more, is a starting pitcher in major-league baseball, and every pitch he throws from here on out will be a chance to forget about the pitches he threw before. Halladay didn’t want to go out like he might’ve had to, and now he has a chance to write a new conclusion. Or even a whole new set of chapters.
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