Roy Halladay has been steadfast in his insistence that he is a healthier pitcher than he was last season. His arm feels stronger. His arm slot is higher. His pitches feel better coming out of his hand. But in his first outing of the season, his results were poor. Halladay needed 95 pitches to make it through 3 1/3 innings. Of the 19 batters he faced, nine reached base, and two hit home runs. He struck out nine, but did so while relying heavily on his offspeed stuff, a marked change from a pitcher who made his name pounding the zone with his sinker or cutter and mixing in his offspeed stuff at a ratio of about 65/35.
Halladay looked like a completely different pitcher in his season opener against the Braves. And the numbers suggested the same.
So what will constitute progress? What should we be looking for when Halladay takes the mound against budding star Matt Harvey tonight against the Mets?
1) How often does he throw his cutter and sinker compared with his changeup and curveball?
Against the Braves, only 55 percent of his pitches were hard stuff. Over the course of his career, Halladay has thrown his sinker or cutter at about a 70 percent clip. Halladay appeared unwilling or unable to challenge hitters whether he was ahead in the count or behind in the count. His offspeed stuff produced plenty of swings and misses, but it also resulted in plenty of deep counts. After the game, Halladay suggested the problem was more with pitch/location selection than a lack of confidence in his stuff. Tonight, progress will mean getting back to relying on his sinker and cutter, and less on his changeup and curve.
2) What is his velocity?
One of the more interesting things to come out of Halladay's post-game chat last Wednesday was his admission that a lack of velocity on his pitches affected the way he approached hitters last season. Halladay had regularly pooh-poohed the suggestion that the lower radar gun readings were a factor in his rough 2012 campaign. He also said that he "felt" like he had more oomph on his pitches against the Braves. But the numbers suggested otherwise. His sinker averaged 90.33 MPH, while his cutter averaged 88.98. Last season, his sinker averaged 91.15 MPH and his cutter averaged 89.41. As Halladay and pitching coach Rich Dubee have long insisted, velocity isn't everything. But it is a way to measure change. And if Halladay's velocity increases tonight without any sacrifice in location, it will represent progress.
3) Are batters swinging and missing at his cutter and sinker?
Against the Braves, Halladay threw 15 sinkers, none of which prompted a swing-and-miss. He threw 32 cutters, three of which prompted a swing-and-miss. He has never relied on either pitch to whiff batters. But over the course of his career, hitters swing and miss at his sinker about five percent of the time and do so against his cutter about nine percent of the time. Again, we're just looking for ways to measure change, and this is one of them. If batters are not swinging and missing, it stands to reason taht the balls they put into play are getting there as a result of better swings, and thus have a better chance at creating bases.
4) Groundball rate
Over his career, Halladay has averaged 1.15 groundballs per fly ball. Against the Braves, he prompted just three groundballs, compared with four fly balls and two line drives. If the Mets hit more balls on the ground, it will be a sign of progress.
Against the Braves, Halladay threw 68 percent of his cutters for strikes, 53 percent of his sinkers, 60 percent of his splitters and 44 percent of his curveballs. This goes back to pounding the zone with his hard stuff.
"I'd rather pitch eight innings and get beat 20-0 than pitch three-and-a-third," Halladay said after the Braves game.
Whether a matter of approach of execution, we'll have plenty of ways to judge progress. One note: tonight, Humberto Quintero will catch Halladay. Erik Kratz caught him in Atlanta.