Roy Halladay: Pitcher of the century

Gregory Shamus

Roy Halladay just might have been better than anyone else to this point in the century.

We've been deprived of him for the last two years*, so it's easy to forget in this fast-moving, ever forward-looking game just how good Roy Halladay was in his career with the Blue Jays and Phillies. With Halladay returning to the Jays, the organization that drafted and reared him in the first place, in order to retire on Monday, there is no better time to reflect on a career that likely represents the best that 2000s pitching has had to offer. Sure, there's a lot of century left, but those in the game now and those still yet to come will be measured against Halladay.

*No, 2012 and 2013 did not count as Watching Roy Halladay Pitch. That was the impostor that sped along his retirement decision.

A pitcher that spans an entire decade, dominating from start to finish, is a rarity. It's an arbitrary endpoint, too, as a starting pitcher doesn't necessarily have their peak years during such a calendar-friendly stretch: Pedro Martinez was arguably the pitcher of his era, but that stretch went from 1994 through 2005. If you broke it down into just the one decade, front to back, you're likely talking Greg Maddux, since he was dominant earlier in the 90s, and was still excellent well into the aughts. We're not always so lucky in terms of things lining up like they did for Maddux -- this is how discussions of Jack Morris as Pitcher of the 80s were born -- but in the aughts, Halladay presents a compelling case of decade-spanning dominance. The very start and end of his career in this century are knocks against him, but what comes in between is so good as to make that irrelevant.

Halladay's 2000 was bleak, as the 23-year-old made 13 starts and pitched in 19 games, compiling a 10.64 ERA. He ended up all the way back in the low minors to rebuild his game after this abysmal showing, but, to both the Blue Jays' and Halladay's credit, the plan worked: Halladay would throw 105 innings in the majors in 2001, striking out over eight batters per nine with a 145 ERA+. From that moment on, he would pitch like the Roy Halladay that we're all currently in awe of.

From 2001 through 2011, Halladay threw exactly 2,300 innings, an average of 209 per year. His ERA+ in that stretch was 148, and he struck out 4.5 times as many batters as he walked. He had more complete games (64) than he did hit batsmen (60), managed a sub-three ERA (2.98), and, on the aesthetically pleasing side, won games at nearly a .700 clip, racking up 175 victories against 78 losses. In 2010, he threw a perfect game against the then-Florida Marlins, and five months later, twirled the second-ever postseason no-hitter to open up the National League Division Series against the Reds. Those were the highlights from a season in which Halladay threw 250 regular season innings, struck out over seven times as many batters as he walked, and faced just under 1,000 batters in the regular season alone.

Only four pitchers threw more innings than Roy Halladay from 2001 through 2011: Mark Buehrle (2,425), CC Sabathia (2,364), and Livan Hernandez (2,348). None of these three came close to Halladay in ERA+, as 20 points separate the closest, Sabathia, from Halladay. Halladay is one of just 10 starters to amass at least 2,000 innings from 2001 through 2011, and the results are much the same: he's well ahead of his peers:

Rk Player ERA+ IP From To Age GS
1 Roy Halladay 148 2300.0 2001 2011 24-34 319
2 Roy Oswalt 133 2154.0 2001 2011 23-33 326
3 Tim Hudson 127 2164.2 2001 2011 25-35 324
4 CC Sabathia 125 2364.1 2001 2011 20-30 355
5 Mark Buehrle 120 2425.1 2001 2011 22-32 362
6 Barry Zito 109 2159.1 2001 2011 23-33 348
7 Javier Vazquez 109 2295.1 2001 2011 24-34 352
8 Derek Lowe 108 2123.0 2001 2011 28-38 337
9 Jon Garland 105 2013.2 2001 2011 21-31 317
10 Livan Hernandez 95 2348.1 2001 2011 26-36 361
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/9/2013.

If you scale back the innings a bit and shift the time frame ever so slightly, Johan Santana enters the conversation. Santana became a full-time starter during the 2002 season, making the switch from relief, and was as unstoppable as Halladay until 2011, when he missed the entire season recovering from shoulder surgery to repair his anterior capsule. He has never quite recovered, putting him in the same What Could Have Been? bin that Halladay's career now resides in, but if there is a challenger to Halladay's 2000s-themed throne, even hypothetically, it's Santana.

The thing is, though, that even though Santana's ERA+ from 2001 through 2011 is equal to Halladay's, and slightly better if you snip 2001 off in the same way Halladay's 2000 is absent from our analysis, he threw far fewer innings. There's a whole lot of value wrapped up in the 521 frames Halladay threw but Santana did not -- that's essentially two-and-a-half seasons of work. Or just a little over two, if you're counting in Halladays. Santana could always come back and have a successful end to his career, unlike Halladay, who is retiring in part because of the mess he was during the last two seasons.

If you go in the opposite direction, and shift things to start in 2000, Randy Johnson comes up, thanks to 1,885 innings from that year through his retirement in 2009. As with Santana, though, he's lacking the perfect balance, as he was still well behind Halladay on total workload. Unlike Santana, he's officially gone from the game, and can't mount a reasonable comeback to steal the title away from Halladay.

In short: Halladay was the pitcher in baseball from 2001 through 2011, and even if you compare him from 2000 through the present, rather than just his extended peak years, he's still the best example of quantity and quality that the game has had to offer this century. While Johnson and Santana both feature slightly higher ERA+ from 2000 onward -- 137 and 136 to Halladay's 131 -- Halladay threw 561 more innings than Santana has to this point, and 701 more than Johnson ever will.

Halladay's body betrayed him at the end, but that has no bearing on  the excellence he managed before that occurred. Halladay has a Hall of Fame case, a pair of Cy Young awards -- one in each league, a distinction he shares with four others -- and was the greatest pitcher of a decade that featured multiple seasons from both Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux. His 2012 and 2013 harm his overall numbers, as does his awful 2000, but what comes in between stands tops among all pitchers of this century in spite of that. You can't ask for much more than that, and it's why fans of the Jays, Phillies, and baseball in general will miss him on the mound.

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