Roy Halladay's player page at Baseball-Reference pops with bold ink and staggering numbers: the innings totals, the 20-win seasons, the run of All-Star appearances and Cy Young finishes, the way he single-handedly dragged the complete game into the pitch-count era. But there's one out-of-place number that shouts loudest, a four-digit figure in a three-digits column: 10.64.
That was Halladay's ERA in 2000, when he was a 23-year-old pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays. It was, and remains, the highest single-season ERA in history by anyone with a minimum of 50 innings pitched. For a year, Roy Halladay was the worst major league pitcher there ever was.
Then he was one of the best. There are a lot of ways to appreciate what Halladay meant to his era, what he meant to the fans -- many of them his colleagues -- who watched him and, on Tuesday, mourned his death. The number 10.64 might be the best way.
Three months after Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game and three months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, Roger Clemens was born. We didn't know it yet, but a remarkable baby boom of pitching talent had just begun. Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez -- four of perhaps eight pitchers in history with a reasonable argument to be the Greatest Of All Time -- were born within nine years of each other from 1962 to 1971. Beyond them were Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, each of them Hall of Famers; Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina, the two best pitchers (by Baseball-Reference's WAR) left out of the Hall for non-PED reasons; Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman; and the criminally underrated Kevin Brown, David Cone and Bret Saberhagen, all of whom are a lot closer to HOF standards than you might think.
Fast-forward to 1983: Justin Verlander, who appears to be on track to make the Hall, and Zack Greinke, who is building a very strong case, are born. Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw follow, as do Felix Hernandez and Cole Hamels and Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner.
In between, though, was a pitching desert. For 12 years, the world simply quit making Hall of Fame pitchers. The 10 best pitchers (by WAR) born between Pedro and Verlander include a bunch of guys who either weren't that great (Brad Radke, Mark Buehrle, Bartolo Colon) or, for reasons of longevity, came up well short of Hall of Fame standards: Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, Johan Santana. This top 10, of course, sits atop a mountain of other promising young pitchers who turned out to either not be that good or lack longevity: Brandon Webb, Mark Mulder and Mark Prior but also Ryan Anderson, Matt White and Paul Wilson. Only two pitchers from the entire period have a reasonable chance of making the Hall of Fame: CC Sabathia, who arguably still has work to do, and Halladay, who arguably does not. He was the best pitcher of his era. In a 12-year drought for elite pitching, Roy Halladay was the exception.
It wasn't a coincidence, I don't think, that this pitching desert appeared.
From 1993 onward, the sport was absolutely brutal to pitchers, especially young, developing pitchers. PEDs took over the game, new ballparks tended to favor hitters, and the scoring environment exploded. Middle infielders grew thick forearms, and lineups got deep. For the pitcher, this meant spending a lot more time working with men on base, in high-stress situations. He had to throw every pitch with full effort and concentration, knowing that mistakes over the plate were far more likely to be hit over the fence, and he had to treat every batter, even the No. 8 hitter, as a threat to do damage. Offense begets more offense, such that for a pitcher there was no letting up.
A pitcher also had to throw more pitches per plate appearance (because batters were working deeper counts every year) and more pitches per inning (because more batters were reaching base). He did this in an era before careful pitch counting was broadly appreciated, and he might well have thrown 210 innings as a 19-year-old in low-A. For all of this, his reward would be a set of statistics that, while perfectly fine for their era, did not resemble those encouraging benchmarks of success that he was raised on.
Besides the relievers Rivera and Hoffman, every great pitcher we named from the baby boom debuted before 1993, before the game changed. Some struggled: Tom Glavine led the league in losses at 22, Greg Maddux went 6-14 as a rookie, and Randy Johnson was a famously late bloomer. But they struggled in an era that was more forgiving of bad pitching and more rewarding of good. Halladay and his contemporaries struggled in an era in which, if you weren't careful, you'd have an ERA of 10.64. Or you'd tear your labrum.
In the late 1990s, Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay coined the term TINSTAAPP: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. At the time, it was easy to see how fragile pitchers were. As I wrote a few years ago,
There were 19 pitchers in Baseball America's top 50 prospects before the 1993 season. Brien Taylor was considered the best of them. Then Todd Van Poppel. Jason Bere and Allen Watson (eighth and ninth overall) had relatively long, replacement-level careers. Tyrone Hill (10th) and Kurt Miller (11th) did not. Tavo Alvarez was 17th. Brad Pennington was 18th. If we look at the six years after this list came out, the most productive pitcher in the top 50 that year was Bobby Jones, who made one All-Star team. The next two best pitchers were relievers. David Nied, the guy who was selling cylinder heads for his dad within five years, produced the sixth-most WARP in the six years after these rankings came out.
It took more than a decade for baseball to stop systematically breaking its young pitchers. By the late 2000s, pitching prospects were having longer, more successful careers than they had since the pre-1993 era -- perhaps because of better training and medicine, perhaps because PEDs had largely been eradicated and it was safe to be a pitcher again. But for that decade, being a pitching prospect meant, most likely, breaking and trying to put it back together.
Halladay broke. He was 23, a first-round draft pick from five years earlier, a former top prospect and, for 67⅔ innings, the worst pitcher who ever got to pitch. After 10.64, the Blue Jays demoted him all the way to high-A Dunedin, humiliated him and rebuilt him: new grip, new motion, new attitude.
He became the pitcher other pitchers actually dared to emulate. "I could never be Justin Verlander because I can't throw 101," Brandon McCarthy told ESPN the Magazine a few years ago. "But there's nothing freakish about Halladay, nothing that wasn't within the realm of possibility for me."
"Every pitcher my age grew up wanting to be Roy Halladay," Cleveland farmhand David Speer wrote Tuesday. Charlie Morton famously reworked his mechanics and repertoire until he was a Halladay clone (if not Halladay's equal).
Halladay didn't throw harder than everybody else. He threw strikes, he kept the ball on the ground, and he built a simple motion that kept him healthy (until, eventually, it couldn't). During his nine-year peak, from 2003 to 2011, he threw more complete games than all but five teams. He had a 98th-percentile walk rate. He won more games than any other pitcher.
The thing about that 10.64 is that it's actually misleading. Halladay entered his final appearance of the season with a 10.75 ERA. He faced nine batters that day, and seven of them scored, but his ERA actually went down because one of the nine reached by an error. The rest, though, reached fair and square. Halladay was that bad.
But just a little more than a year later, after working his way back up from Dunedin, he ended his season with a complete-game shutout, striking out eight and walking none. For a decade, there was nobody better. Halladay wasn't just a great pitcher; he was a template for a sport's success.