When baseball fans talk about Roy Halladay, it seems to be done in the past tense these days. "He was one of the most dominant pitchers of his era," or "his sinker was nasty." It is hard to fault them after the season Halladay had, finishing 2012 season with a 4.49 ERA, in part due to a right shoulder injury that sapped 2 mph off his fastball. Even manager Charlie Manuel seems to have lost faith, describing Halladay as merely "serviceable."
Just one year ago, he was described as the staff ace, the Cy Young runner-up in 2011.
Things aren't looking better as the 2013 regular season approaches. In 11 spring innings, Halladay has allowed nine runs (all earned) on 12 hits and six walks. His velocity has not improved either. MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki reported scouts clocking his velocity between 86 and 88 mph, while others came in with readings below that. Halladay's fastball averaged at least 92 mph from 2008-11, according to FanGraphs.
The truth is, Halladay is attempting to come back from one of the most historically severe declines in baseball history. Going by Baseball-Reference WAR, Halladay's decline from 8.5 in 2011 to 0.7 in 2012 is the seventh-steepest decline among starters in the post-integration era, minimum 150 innings thrown in both seasons.
Of the 20 biggest declines listed above, Halladay (35) was the second oldest behind only Jim Bunning (36) in 1968. Unlike Steve Carlton in 1973, Dwight Gooden in 1986 and Zack Greinke in 2010, none in the 30-plus age club set an impossibly high bar with a tremendous season; rather, all declined rather precipitously. If it is any consolation, Halladay was one of only two, along with Catfish Hunter, in the 30-plus club to at least post a positive WAR in his decline year.
Bunning and Hunter were the only ones to continue to decline, however. Johnny Sain bounced back with 2 WAR, Javier Vazquez 2.7, Esteban Loaiza 3.6, and Mike Moore 4.4 in the ensuing season. Hunter never recovered his modest ability to miss bats. Bunning not only couldn't miss bats as much, but he overall become more hittable. He enjoyed success throughout much of his career with a BABIP in the .250-.280 range, but it ranged from .297 to .309 in the final four years of his career.
Aside from Hunter, the other five had at least one average (2 WAR) season left in them, but only Sain (2.9, 1953) and Bunning (2.7, 1970) had theirs at least two years removed from their historically bad decline. In other words, even if there was a recovery, it wasn't long lasting.
For Halladay, however, his peripherals weren't that much worse than in 2011. His strikeout rate only declined by 3 percent, his walk rate only increased by 2 percent, and his BABIP only increased by three points. However, he induced 6 percent fewer groundballs and allowed twice as many home runs in a per-fly ball basis, while also allowing 4.5 percent more line drives.
Halladay rose to prominence on the back of an ability to generate groundball outs, miss bats with frequency and limit free passes. If those continue to vanish, then his decline will be more severe than we could have anticipated even two years ago. Still, Halladay is by no means done. Greg Maddux pitched well into his 40s even after the erosion of his bat-missing capabilities. Halladay, like Maddux, has shown pinpoint control of his pitches and can continue to use guile to prolong a Hall of Fame career.
(Special thanks to Crashburn Alley writer Ryan Sommers (@Phylan) for doing the research that inspired this article.)