Saturday, December 27, 2014

For Roy Halladay, learning the hard way

When at the pinnacle of his game, Roy Halladay could throw what he wanted where he wanted. Breaking up with the cutter, the pitch that made him this generation's dominant arm, is hard to do.

For Roy Halladay, learning the hard way

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Roy Halladay wipes his head in the dugout in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians, Tuesday, April 30, 2013, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Roy Halladay wipes his head in the dugout in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians, Tuesday, April 30, 2013, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

CLEVELAND — As his teammates dressed and ate around him, Roy Halladay sat in the middle of the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field and watched his failures. Only Halladay utilized one of the four laptops placed on a table. He studied for some 20 minutes.

When he stood to verbalize what happened, Halladay pointed to an Indians offense that entered Tuesday with the third-highest OPS in baseball. The scouting report said they could hit the softer stuff.

"So we did throw a lot more fastballs today than normal, and that was the approach," Halladay said. "We were going to pitch inside as much as possible and go hard as much as possible. I think we threw very few curveballs and very few changeups. We were really trying to pound them and get off the barrel as much as we could, but you really had to be spot-on."

Maybe that is the lesson Halladay learns from this, his sixth start of a reboot. Halladay could once tailor his game to the weaknesses of his opponents. In the days leading up to a start, he obsesses over hot-cold strike-zone charts and hitters' tendencies. When at the pinnacle of his game, Halladay could throw what he wanted where he wanted. And usually, it was where the opposition did not want it.

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Breaking up with the cutter, the pitch that made him this generation's dominant arm, is hard to do.

Maybe the lesson Phillies fans learned is to temper expectations. There will be good nights for Halladay and bad nights. The line between success and failure is finer for this version of Halladay because of his inability to command the ball like he once could. No longer can he spot his sinkers and cutters to the exact target on a consistent basis.

Here is a start-by-start breakdown, using PITCHf/x data parsed by Pitch Info, of Halladay's cutter usage:

DATE TEAM CUT PIT %USED
April 3 @ATL 27 94 29%
April 8 NYM 16 99 16%
April 14 @MIA 19 86 22%
April 19 STL 37 109 34%
April 24 PIT 15 95 16%
April 30 @CLE 30 76 39%

Remember, Halladay throws two types of fastballs — a sinker and a cutter. In previous seasons, the cutter is the pitch he used most often.

So why did a higher frequency of cutters succeed against St. Louis but fail vs. Cleveland? Well, for one, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said after his team's 8-2 loss, "He made a lot of mistakes. He worked deeper counts than I know he likes to do. We weren't able to capitalize it."

The Indians did not miss Halladay's mistakes. Two of the three homers they bashed on Halladay pitches were cutters. The other was a curveball that hung high. All three homers were hit with Halladay behind in the count. He is throwing a first-pitch strike just 51 percent of the time in 2013. (His career rate before this season was 63 percent.)

Not including Tuesday's results, this is roughly how hitters fared against Halladay's four pitches:

PITCH AB BA SLG
Sinker 28 .250 .500
Cutter 25 .360 .800
Curve 25 .080 .080
Change 17 .118 .118

Again, it is a rough estimation because some at-bats are missing from the PITCHf/x data and some could be misidentified. While it provides an incomplete picture, it is a telling one.

After his first start in Atlanta, a start in which Halladay threw his lowest percentage of total fastballs, Halladay criticized he lack of aggressiveness. "I was just trying to be too picky, too fine," he said April 3. "Last year, feeling the way you do, you think 'I can't through an 86 m.p.h. fastball to a general zone, it's going to get hit.' So you get to the point where you start to get picky."

He threw more sinkers than cutters in his second start, but the results were the same. "I felt like I was trying to be aggressive but I was trying to force it," Halladay said April 8. "There is a line in there. There is a line between picking and trying to make the ball where you want it to go."

His third start lasted eight innings in Miami and he dialed back the fastball just slightly. "I felt like, 'OK, anytime I feel confident in throwing any pitch,'" he said April 14. "And there’s not necessarily a right pitch in a right count or things like that, but to have the confidence in all of your pitches makes a big difference."

Halladay craved that confidence. His teammates saw a more relaxed pitcher in the weeks following that Miami start. He pitched around trouble. He competed in three starts that yielded three Phillies wins.

He came to Cleveland with a plan, a plan that could have worked for the old Roy Halladay.

"If we would have caught them a week ago," Halladay said, "I think we would have been in really good shape."

Maybe so. But that statement says more about Halladay's arsenal than it does the opposition.


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Matt Gelb Inquirer Staff Writer
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