Roy Halladay and the Ten Year Anniversary of Doctober

Halladay No-Hitter
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Ten years ago tomorrow, Roy Halladay took the mound for the Phillies in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds. After a career in which he had once stood at the precipice of his profession, and then established himself as the best pitcher in the business in the baseball purgatory of Toronto, Halladay would finally have a chance to taste the postseason in Philadelphia.

Earlier in the day, erstwhile Phillies ace Cliff Lee delivered seven innings of dominant pitching for the Texas Rangers en route to a 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Lee had been the hero of the Phillies’ 2009 run to the World Series, but had been dealt to Seattle in the offseason after the Phillies secured the services of Halladay. The Mariners would flip Lee to the Rangers before the trade deadline, and it seemed the Phillies were on a collision course to meet Lee and his new team in the 2010 World Series.

Doc had been dominant in 2010. He sported a 21-10 record with a 2.44 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. In an era in which starting pitchers were increasingly losing innings to specialized relievers, Halladay was a throwback. He tossed 9 complete games for the club. For good measure, he added a perfect game to his long list of regular season accomplishments. At the end of the year, he would collect the CY Young award for his efforts.

But this was the postseason. And, whereas Lee was a proven playoff commodity, Halladay was new to October baseball. Did he burn himself out in the regular season? Did the Phillies overextend him? Would the moment be too big for him? One could only imagine the performative fury of the sports radio universe if Halladay failed to deliver. If it’s really quiet, you might even hear Angelo Cataldi’s voice booming from an alternate universe, “Ruben Amaro chose the wrong ace!”

As fans, we may latch onto storylines to describe and digest a game, but these narratives need not dictate the course of a game. They live on the fringes, and all that matters is what happens between the lines.

And it didn’t matter because, on this day, Doc would not disappoint. In fact, he would make history. And the legend of “Doctober” was born.

***

Halladay had arrived in Philadelphia in the offseason after spending the first fifteen years of his career plying his trade in Toronto. A 1995 first round selection out of high school, Halladay rapidly ascended the minor league rungs, making it to The Show in 1998. Success came quickly for the Blue Jays pitching prospect. In just his second big league start, Halladay took a no-hit bid against the Detroit Tigers into the 9th inning. Local product Bobby Higginson got the Tigers on the board with a home run to left field with two outs in the 9th inning. However, Halladay was able to recover; he recorded the final out and secured the complete game win, the first of many in his career.

“This isn’t sour grapes,” Detroit Tigers interim manager Larry Parrish told the Detroit Free Press in a postgame interview, “but this isn’t the way you want to be no-hit. It’s the last day of the season; guys aren’t grinding the same way they normally do. He’s got a good arm and had good stuff, but he didn’t have no-hit stuff today.”

Baseball has a way of humbling even the best to toe the rubber, and Halladay was no exception. In his second full season with the Jays in the year 2000, Halladay’s professional trajectory didn’t just hit a speed bump- it fell off a cliff. Halladay’s ERA careened to a career worst 10.64. He was mercilessly hit around; in 67 2/3 innings, Halladay conceded 107 hits, 14 of which were home runs. His fastball had major league velocity, but lacked the movement required for sustained success. His looping, overhand curveball lost its mystery. Then-Blue Jays manager Buck Martinez explained Halladay’s early struggles to NBCSN’s Jim Salisbury in a 2011 feature:

“He stood tall and was easy to see. He was over the top. His fastball was 97 but straight as a string. He had a big curveball, but nobody swung at it.”

In 2001, Halladay was demoted to the minors with a mandate to overhaul his mechanics. While toiling away in Florida for Single A Dunedin, Halladay meticulously reconstructed his delivery. Gone was the over the top pitching posture; in its place was a three-quarters arm action that added deception to Halladay’s delivery. For his fastball, he sacrificed speed for sink.

In addition to the physical improvements, Halladay endeavored to refine his mental approach to the game. After his demotion, Halladay’s wife Brandy walked into a bookstore in search of answers to the questions hindering her husband’s professional advancement. While scouring the self-help section, she found an obscure title that would save Roy’s career: Harvey Dorfman’s The Mental ABC’s of Pitching. Dorfman enjoyed a lengthy career as a mental skills coach for various baseball organizations before taking a position with the Scott Boras Corporation, imparting his knowledge to individual clients. In a tidy 288 pages, Dorfman unlocks the mysteries of the mound in a glossary format. The reader will find chapters dispensing wisdom on “Shutdown Innings” and avoiding the “Big Inning,” as well as insights into intangible topics like “Character” and “Will.”

Dorfman’s teachings rest on the themes of agency and control. In a game defined by offensive failure, it is the pitcher who enjoys the advantage. It is a position that must not simply be enjoyed, but exploited. Attack the strike zone. Force contact. Be consistent in one’s behaviors in order to produce consistent results. Stay relentlessly locked into the moment, no matter the situation. The focus should always stay fixed on the next pitch. Own the tempo of the game. When making adjustments, divorce oneself from emotions and stick to a rational decision making process.

The broken Blue Jay prospect who limped to Dunedin would fly back to Toronto a burgeoning ace. In the 2002 campaign, Halladay dropped his walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) by more than a full point from his 2000 season (2.202 to 1.191). He boasted a 19-7 record and an impressive ERA of 2.93. He also claimed the third best WAR value for pitchers at 7.3, just below the twin aces for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

Halladay would absorb the book’s contents, emerging from his minor league exile as one of Dorfman’s most fervent disciples.

2003 would prove to be even better for Halladay. He took the top spot among pitchers for WAR at 8.1, won 22 games, and was awarded the AL Cy Young Award for his efforts.

Halladay would hone his reputation as an innings-eating dominant righthander and perennial Cy Young candidate in his final four seasons in Toronto. He had hit every individual benchmark one could attain in baseball, but it got him no further to attaining postseason success. His team was stuck in the same division as the frontrunning Yankees and Red Sox, and the most it seemed the Jays could hope for was a third place finish in the American League East and a winning record. With the sun setting on his prime and the competitive window sealed shut in Toronto, Halladay requested a trade to a contender. In the winter of 2009, his wish was granted.

***

It was a cold, overcast October day. First pitch was scheduled for a little after 5 PM, but Halladay’s routine would begin days earlier. There was video to study, plans for hitters to develop, bullpen sessions to hone his craft, workouts to keep his body in peak performance mode.

 

As he began his warmup tosses with an electric crowd cheering him on, it would have been perfectly human for Halladay to get lost in the moment, or feel overwhelmed by nervousness or pressure to match the pitcher he replaced. Yet, Halladay’s mind was more likely to dwell on the teachings of Dorfman. Worrying about chasing the ghost of Cliff Lee would not help the Phillies ace simultaneously manage the potent Reds lineup. He would be better served remembering to exhale. “Breathe or die,” Dorfman asserted in The Mental ABC’s of Pitching. A regular and practiced breathing regimen would prevent a pitcher’s mind from racing and would forestall the twin affects of anaerobic respiration: carbon dioxide in the blood and lactic acid buildup in the muscles. Peak physical performance was impossible without oxygen.

First up for the Reds was Brandon Phillips, a pesky hitter with some pop in his bat. Halladay started him with a fastball on the inside corner, which Phillips hit right to Jimmy Rollins. 1 pitch, 1 out.

It was a preview of things to come. Halladay would pound the strike zone with fastballs. Aside from his sinker, Halladay featured a cutter in his arsenal, which he added toward the end of his time with the Blue Jays. Halladay had famously received tips on throwing the pitch from Mariano Rivera during the 2008 All Star Game festivities, and had worked relentlessly to refine it.

The next batters in the Reds lineup, Orlando Cabrera and Joey Votto, were also fed a steady diet of fastballs. Doc worked the outside corner with Cabrera, eventually getting the Reds shortstop to fly out to Shane Victorino in centerfield. Votto was served a cut fastball in on his hands, which produced a sharp but routine grounder to Chase Utley. Inning over.

It was efficient. It was clinical. It was vintage Doc Halladay.

As Halladay began the second inning, the potent Phillies offense had already staked him to a 1-0 lead. Reds cleanup hitter Scott Rolen strode to the plate, and was promptly greeted with resounding boos. Rolen was once the jewel of the Phillies farm system, the next Mike Schmidt. He didn’t quite meet those lofty expectations, but Rolen was arguably the best defensive third baseman to man the hot corner in Philadelphia. Playing on the unforgiving Veterans Stadium turf, combined with the frustration of playing with a franchise that seemed perpetually stuck in neutral, eventually wore on Rolen. He refused to sign long term with the Phillies, and was eventually dealt to the Cardinals in 2001.

Halladay continued his relentless assault on the outside corner, as Rolen took and fouled off a number of fastballs. And then Halladay unleashed his changeup, a pitch he had rediscovered in Philadelphia. During spring training, pitching coach Rich Dubee had suggested to Halladay that he might want to switch to a split-finger grip when throwing the changeup. The adjustment worked wonders, and Halladay would employ the pitch selectively but effectively. The changeup dropped off the table, tumbling down and out of the strike zone. Rolen, swinging for a fastball, could only wave at the pitch as it eluded his bat. Strike 3.

The inning ended without incident, as Halladay induced two ground outs from the bats of Jonny Gomes and Jay Bruce.

In the bottom half of the inning, the bottom of the Phillies order would put the game out of reach with a two-out rally. After a Carlos Ruiz walk and a Wilson Valdez infield single, Halladay would serve a ball into leftfield that Gomes could not catch. Two batters later, Victorino delivered a 2-run single that chased Reds starter Edinson Volquez.

***

Top of the 3rd inning, 2 outs. Facing Roy Halladay was Reds pitcher Travis Wood, who had entered the game in relief of Volquez. Wood and Halladay had been locked in a thrilling pitchers’ duel earlier in the season. Wood had taken a perfect game to the 9th inning, while Halladay had matched him with nine shutout innings of his own. The Phillies eventually won that July contest in 10 innings.

Now, it was time for Wood to play the role of spoiler. The Reds southpaw batted righthanded, and he worked a 1-1 count. Halladay’s next offering was a fastball, which Wood hit sharply to rightfield. Jayson Werth was in perfect position to make a play, as he slid to catch the line drive and end the inning. It was the only bit of luck his starter seemed to need.

The fifth inning began with Scott Rolen. Halladay continued to work the outside corner with sinkers and, with two strikes, his offering broke back toward the plate, finding the mythical “black,” that nebulous area on the fringes of the strike zone whose contours differ depending on the man behind the plate calling balls and strikes. It’s the preferred color of master painters like Halladay. In this case, John Hirschbeck, who otherwise established a tight plate, expanded the zone and called Rolen out on strikes.

By this time, Halladay started to adjust. Beginning with Gomes, the Phillies ace started mixing in his offspeed pitches to start at-bats, figuring the desperate Reds would match Halladay’s aggressiveness by attacking early in the count. Gomes took a first-pitch curve ball for a called strike, and then swung wildly at two more curves. Jay Bruce was started with a changeup that he couldn’t hit, but he was eventually able to work one of the three-three ball counts Halladay would face during the 28 matchups he encountered that day. Doc was unable to find the zone with a 3-2 fastball, and Bruce worked a walk. The perfect game bid died in the fifth inning, but the no-hitter survived, as Drew Stubbs promptly grounded into a fielder’s choice.

With two outs in the sixth inning, Brandon Phillips began his at-bat by taking a curve ball that missed the zone. It was the first time all day that Halladay would start behind in the count. Only two Reds batters would see a first-pitch ball from Doc. The other was Joey Votto, who tried his best to disrupt Halladay’s rhythm by stepping out of the batter’s box twice just before Halladay began his wind-up. It wouldn’t matter, as the Reds’ best hitter was retired with a sinker on the fringes of the outside corner that he slapped to third baseman Wilson Valdez.

Rolen stepped to the plate in the seventh for the third and final time. After watching Halladay bombard him with sinkers on the outside corner, he was promptly challenged with two cutters that found the inside part of the plate. After two check swings on pitches out of the zone, Rolen swung through a curve ball. Inning over.

By the eighth inning, the only drama that remained was whether Halladay would make history. The Reds were completely overmatched. Facing the 5-6-7 hitters, Halladay worked a strikeout and a groundout. Facing Drew Stubbs, Halladay quickly got ahead with a cutter. After swinging and missing on a changeup, Stubbs watched a cutter go by for strike 3.

***

Ninth inning. The crowd is deafening. White towels are waving. The Dorfman disciple remained unflappable.

Breathe. Execute the next pitch. Stay in the moment.

Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez was first to the plate. He could only muster a pop-up, which Chase Utley secured. One away.

Next, Reds manager Dusty Baker called on pinch hitter Miguel Cairo, who sported a .364 career batting average against Halladay. He took a curveball on the outside corner for a strike and a fastball that missed inside. The count built to 2-2, and then Cairo popped up a Halladay offering into foul territory. There was plenty of room for Valdez, who ranged over to make the catch.

One out away.

One batter stood between Halladay and a place in history next to Don Larsen. Bradon Phillips strode to the plate, and quickly found himself down 0-2. Halladay’s 104th pitch of the outing was a curve ball, and Phillips tapped it weakly in front of the plate. The ball hit Phillips’s dropped bat, and it seemed for a second that catcher Carlos Ruiz would not be able to make a play on the ball. He dropped to his knees, picked up the baseball, and threw a dart to first baseman Ryan Howard.

“In time! Roy Halladay has thrown a no-hitter!” exclaimed BS play-by-play announcer Brian Anderson. “Unbelievable!” a shocked Scott Franzke offered for those fans following along on the radio.

In his postgame interview, Halladay immediately deflected credit for his outing to his battery mate. “Carlos has been great all year,” Doc stated to TBS reporter David Aldridge. “He helps me get in a rhythm, you know, throwing a lot of pitches for strikes.”

***

It’s difficult to reflect back on any event involving Roy Halladay and not think about the struggles with drug addiction he faced as his playing career ended, and the fatal plane crash that claimed his life three years ago. What made Halladay great is what ultimately doomed him. He was a seeker, a relentless improver, and his own worst critic. He was a creature of routine, and in hindsight one might conclude the habits he created to structure his life may have inoculated him a bit. Dorfman’s methods did not cure Halladay of the insecurities he took with him to the mound. They just offered him techniques to manage them, to bury them underneath a stoic facade. With baseball no longer a part of his life, Halladay seemed to lose the sense of purpose we all need.

There are other features that covered Halladay’s final days and his difficulties better than I ever could. And maybe today, as we approach ten years since the playoff no-hitter, our time would be better served thinking about Roy Halladay in life instead of death.

Sure, he was a great pitcher. A Hall of Famer. He had excellent stuff, and even better command. He could throw any pitch in his repertoire for a strike in any count, and in any situation. But it was the tireless work ethic, the endless preparation, the persistent focus on the present, the inability to get blinded by past glory, and the humility to want to continue to learn and improve that will be the hallmarks of Halladay’s career.

He was human, of course. But, for one night in October, he was special. He was clinical. He was Doc.

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