No matter where he went, Roy Halladay was revered by his teammates. They unwaveringly watched him, learning from his example. Speaking with reporters after games and in the offseason, men who had spent more time in weight rooms and batting cages than 99.9% of the US population would speak glowingly of Halladay’s work ethic – his gym sessions reportedly routinely starting before 5:30 in the morning. They praised his unfettered determination, his diligence, and his fastidious nature. He was famous for painstakingly chronicling every workout, bullpen session, start, and pitch of his career, not wanting to miss anything that could help him improve. “No one is more prepared,” AJ Burnett, who pitched along side Halladay in Toronto, once told Sports Illustrated. Former Blue Jay pitching coach Brad Arnsberg was even more enamored, “He’s got the stamina of a mountain climber, and he’s got the willpower of a 20-year-old kid trying to make a team. We used to call him TP: Total Package.”
But as we look back on the arc of one of the most storied, untainted careers of the past thirty years, there’s one lesson, long overlooked, that leaps out: as Halladay unequivocally proved, struggle is not the death knell of a young pitcher, but can quite possibly be the birth.
Having been drafted in the middle of the first round, Roy Halladay was looked upon as an elite talent from the moment he entered professional baseball in 1995. He was ranked by Baseball America as a top 40 prospect three times, reaching as high as #12 prior the 1999 season, and then promptly pitched well in both his rookie and sophomore campaigns. He was undoubtdly a starter on the rise. Then came the year 2000, a new millennium, and a new Roy Halladay.
A 23 year old Halladay broke camp with a rotation spot and after an encouraging first start, he was thrashed utterly torn apart by major league hitters. He didn’t struggle like recent young starters Tyler Skaggs or Trevor Bauer have. No, he was much much worse.
In 13 starts and six relief appearances, the man who would one day go on to win two Cy Young awards and be named to eight all star teams pitched to a 10.64 ERA – an all time major league worst among pitchers with at least 60 innings – giving up nearly two home runs per nine innings, and walking almost as many batters as he struck out. Despite throwing only 67 2/3 innings, approximately one third that of an average healthy starter, baseball reference rated him as having cost the Blue Jays just under three wins. The minor leagues didn’t provide solace either, as the beleaguered youngster posted a 5.50 ERA in 11 starts there after being demoted in May. If there was ever a former top prospect who looked done and burned out, it was the 23 year old Roy Halladay.
The Blue Jays, who had already signed Halladay to a 3.2 million dollar extension (no small fee in the year 2000), were determined to fix him. Then GM Gord Ash tasked former pitching coach Mel Queen with the sole job of fixing the troubled youth of Toronto. Ash assigned Halladay to A-ball to start 2001 and working slowly, Queen re-engineered Halladay’s mechanics, giving him better sink, greater lateral movement, and improved command of his pitches.
More importantly, Halladay credits his time spent on the brink of permanent baseball anonymity with imbuing him with his trademark mental grit and resolve. The struggles forced him to rethink his approach on the mound. It made him into a student of the game as it was then that he began to read books like the Mental ABC’s of Pitching and to chapter every moment of his professional life.
And there it is, the answer to why certain hailed prospects and “phenoms” have to fail before they succeed when they make the majors. Up to that point, most of them have been able to rely on natural gifts to dominate the minor and amateur leagues, but on the biggest stage, every player has been given these or similar gifts. As they struggle, their psyches toughen and they learn to adjust, to work, and to turn the game of baseball into the science of baseball. Pitchers learn to mix up location and velocity to keep hitters off balance, hitters to recognize the pitcher’s plan of attack. All Star Gio Gonzalez pitched to a 6.24 ERA in his first two seasons, Clay Buchholz to a 5.56, Johan Santana to a 5.90. Cliff Lee, for example, once fell apart, sporting a 6.29 ERA and being sent to Triple-A the year before his 2008 Cy Young campaign. The talent of young athletes is not latent, but the mind often is.
Of course the rest was history with Halladay as he returned from the minors strong in 2001 and won 19 games the following season, the Cy Young award the year after that. If nothing else, perhaps Halladay’s anecdote will let fans recognize the steep but climbable learning curve of the majors and give them pause before they demand a struggling pitcher be traded six months into his career.