As a member of the Blue Jays, Roy Halladay has seemed as automatic as any pitcher in the majors. He has defied recent baseball trends as a Rock of Gibraltar who refuses to budge from the mound before the end of a game, contributing innings-eating dominance in start after start.
It is beyond dispute that Halladay has been one of the best pitchers of the last 10 years. It is easy, even natural, to imagine Halladay as a rotation pillar who could vault a team to a championship. He would seem the heir apparent to a line of difference-making pitchers that includes Curt Schilling (with the Red Sox in 2004) and CC Sabathia (with the Yankees in 2009).
But those grand visions are fraught with immense risk. While Halladay’s performance over the last 10 seasons has been little short of remarkable, that is no guarantee of what he might contribute over the next four or five years. Though Halladay has been a pitcher of incredible durability, he also is reaching a point in his career that suggests a decreased ability to handle such a workload.
And that, in turn, suggests that a team’s decision about whether to drain both its prospect pool and its financial resources to acquire Halladay from Toronto is an immensely complex one.
Halladay’s credentials are impeccable. He has spent his career pitching in the most challenging division in baseball, for a team that has spent most of the decade competing for third or fourth place. Yet despite a competitive disadvantage, he still has been a force.
During the last 10 seasons, Halladay ranked among the best pitchers in the majors (min. 1,000 innings) in wins (139, 4th), ERA (3.40, 9th), complete games (47, 1st), winning percentage (.668, 4th), innings (1,883.1, 11th), opponent OBP (.294, 7th) and OPS (.666, 8th) and OPS+ (73, 5th), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.74:1, 12th) and fewest walks per nine innings (1.79, 8th).
In this decade, the Blue Jays were an embodiment of a .500 team: Toronto went 805-814, good for a .497 win percentage, over the last 10 years. But that mark is inflated by the work of Halladay.
Since 2000, the Jays have a 163-104 record (.610) when Halladay starts, and a .475 mark in contests started by anyone else. Those numbers fail to account for the fact that the Jays constantly shuffle their rotation to maximize the number of starts that Halladay makes against their most formidable competitors.
“Not only does he pitch against the Red Sox and Yankees, but we’ve moved around our rotation [to have him face them more often],” Blue Jays infielder John McDonald said in an interview with the Mut & Bradford Show.
“They’re going to move it around so he can face the best teams because it gives us the best chance to win, and he still goes out and dominates. Having that guy on your team, it will switch the balance of power. I don’t see how it can’t.”
One can make a case that no pitcher has been better — or at least as consistently dominant — as Halladay this decade.
That notion provides the temptation for teams to deal multiple top prospects to the Jays — and, in all likelihood, sign Halladay to one of the richest contracts in baseball history — to acquire the ace.
Certainly, in any discussions of his next contract, Halladay will eye the six-year, $137.5 million (just under $23 million a year) deal that Johan Santana signed with the Mets after they acquired him in 2008 as a reference point. So, too, will his representatives have grounds to point to Sabathia’s seven-year, $161 million contract. Halladay may not go to quite those lengths in years or dollars, but even so, his career track record suggests a pitcher who deserves one of the biggest payouts in big league history.
Yet in all likelihood, the team that acquires Halladay will be paying — in prospects and dollars — for a pitcher whose best and healthiest seasons have passed.
That is not to suggest that Halladay will stop being an elite pitcher. Even so, he is at a point in his career when even the most durable of pitchers (a category defined by Halladay) start to break down.
Halladay turns 33 next May 14 (in a random quirk, his birthday falls one day before Josh Beckett’s). That means that he has just completed a four-year period of his career that typically represents near-peak durability, and that he is entering a phase in which fewer and fewer pitchers can sustain top workloads.
An examination of four-year patterns of pitchers over the last 30 seasons suggests as much. Since 1980, the pitchers who have managed to log 800 or more innings over a span of four years have typically been drawn from a pool of players aged 24 to 31. The numbers of pitchers who have averaged 200 innings a season over a four-year span starts to decline from ages 29-32 and then continues a steep slide. (See chart.)
So, assuming that a team that trades for Halladay would have to sign him to an extension through at least 2013, it would have to hope that the right-hander can defy the odds of history. Whereas 46 pitchers in the last 30 years have managed to tally 800 or more innings between ages 29-32 (the four-year period that Halladay just completed), only 25 accomplished the feat from ages 33-36 (the period that Halladay is entering).
Of course, Halladay would seem to merit special consideration. His frame, mechanics, pitch efficiency and track record all suggest a pitcher who is freakishly durable.
That belief gains further currency from his total of 930-1/3 innings over the last four years, easily the best in the majors. Halladay has topped 220 innings every year since 2006.
Because there is no better predictor of a pitcher’s ability to remain healthy than his track record, that would seem a significant point in Halladay’s favor. That said, a pitcher who has been healthy throughout his career will not necessarily stay healthy forever. Even pitchers who deliver innings on a year-in, year-out basis tend to suffer a marked drop in durability starting at age 33.
Halladay (along with Braves starter Javier Vazquez and Reds hurler Bronson Arroyo) joined a short list of pitchers this year who have recorded four straight years of 200-plus innings between the ages of 29 and 32 since 1980. In the past 30 seasons, there had been just 16 other examples of pitchers to achieve such a streak.
Typically, the mileage has caught up to those pitchers over the following seasons. As a group, the first 15 pitchers (Livan Hernandez is excluded because he is still pitching at age 34) to record 200-plus innings every year from ages 29-32 experienced the following performance breakdowns:
Ages 29-32 Four-Year Averages: 932 innings, 3.43 ERA (Note: Halladay threw 931 innings with a 3.11 ERA over the last four years.)
Ages 33-36 Four-Year Averages: 545 innings, 3.97 ERA
Every one of the 15 pitchers threw fewer innings from ages 33-36 than they did from 29-32. Only knuckleballer Tom Candiotti (2 percent) and soft-tosser Greg Maddux (4 percent) endured declines of less than 10 percent in workload between the two four-year periods; 10 of the 15 saw their workloads drop by 40 percent or more.
This group of 15 pitchers produced a total of just 17 seasons of at least 200 innings after turning 33: three of them had three years of 200-plus innings, three had two years of 200-plus innings, two had one more year of 200-plus innings and seven (again, not counting Hernandez) never again pitched 200 or more innings in a season.
Almost all of the pitchers also suffered notable declines in their performances when on the mound. Only Candiotti — who, as a knuckleballer, represents something of a unique case — and John Tudor had a lower ERA from ages 33-36 than they did from ages 29-32.
As Gary Marbry explains in Nuggetpalooza, the class of pitchers who have logged 2,000 innings by the time they’ve turned 32 offers no further grounds for optimism about Halladay’s future in coming seasons.
IS HALLADAY AN EXCEPTION?
Though history suggests that most pitchers who have reached Halladay’s age and innings totals are poised for declines, not every hurler turns into a pumpkin at age 33. Randy Johnson won four straight Cy Youngs between the ages of 35-38. Schilling was a Cy runner-up at ages 34, 35 and 37.
Johnson, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Maddux, Schilling, Bert Blyleven and Nolan Ryan — all among the best pitchers in history — all proved both durable and dominant from ages 33-36. All changed teams at the later stages of their careers, and all rewarded their new clubs with exceptional performances.
Perhaps, then, Halladay will prove a pitcher who has the Hall of Fame talent and the rare physical attributes to buck the prevailing trends of his demographic. But even a pitcher who has been as consistent as any in baseball comes with question marks.
That being the case, it is interesting to look back on a couple of trades that the Red Sox did not make to afford context to the possibility of a Halladay deal.
Two winters ago, the Sox were in the mix when the Twins made Santana available in a trade. Yet ultimately, Boston was relieved that it did not acquire the two-time Cy Young winner, as Jon Lester emerged as a comparably dominant talent whose age suggests the likelihood of greater durability, and the other players who might have been dealt — including Justin Masterson and Jed Lowrie — played pivotal roles over the next two years.
Then, this summer, the Sox made a heavy play for Halladay in a five-player package that centered around Clay Buchholz and reportedly included four other top prospects, among them Masterson and Nick Hagadone.
By the playoffs, some voices in the organization expressed immense relief that the team had not dealt for Halladay, given the emergence of Buchholz down the stretch and the fact that the team might not have been able to acquire Victor Martinez had it dealt for Halladay.
Will the Sox proceed in a different fashion this offseason? Only time will tell.
The decision is a challenging one. The opportunity to acquire a pitcher of Halladay’s stature arrives just a few times a decade. That said, there are no guarantees with any pitcher, regardless of his cost in both prospects and dollars.