Former Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies ace pitcher Roy Halladay died in a plane crash earlier this week. He was 40. As great as he was, he never seemed appreciated enough for his accomplishments in life. Halladay last played in 2013, and is not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame, but I was already mentally preparing to write a reflection on his career for when he inevitably did make it into Cooperstown.
The Baseball Reference Twitter account pointed out that Halladay had three seasons of eight wins above replacement or more, and the only other pitchers to do that were Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, and Greg Maddux, which puts his peak in very elite company. Halladay’s Blue Jays tenure was in the midst of Toronto’s 22 year playoff drought, but in a time when the division was dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox year in and year out, no American League East pitcher–not Roger Clemens, not Mike Mussina, not Randy Johnson, not David Price, not James Shields, and not Mariano Rivera–ever scared me as a Red Sox fan than Halladay. He was the best pitcher to bridge the game between the greats of the 1990s–Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling, and Pedro Martinez–and the current crop of elite pitchers that has defined this decade–Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Cole Hamles, Madison Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez, and Chris Sale. Needless to say, I was relieved when he was traded to the Phillies in 2010, out of the division and out of the American League.
In Philadelphia, Halladay showed he was the big game pitcher he never had the opportunity to be on the perennially mediocre Blue Jays. In the 2010 regular season, he pitched just the 18th perfect game in the modern era, threw just the second no-hitter in MLB postseason history (the first being Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series), and inspired one of my favorite sports articles in the history of The Onion. He retired after the 2013 season at the age of 36, but his career was unforgettable.
Even before he died, I was thinking about Halladay last week and during the World Series. Postseason baseball is a strange thing. Every year, for over a century (except 1904 and 1994), we have determined the best team in Major League Baseball, not by who performed the best over a 150 or 162 game season, but over a small sample size of playoff series.
For six months, baseball is all about the macro trends, and then everything is put under a microscope when the calendar turns from September to October, and if you are not on a pennant winner, or a division winner, or a wild card team (and even with the relatively new expanded wild card format, a smaller percentage of MLB teams make the playoffs than in the NFL, NBA, or NHL), then you are out of luck and your season is over.
This year, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros went into the World Series as the two best pitchers of the 2010s, but neither had a World Series ring. One of them would walk away a champion, and one would not. One seven game series, as thrilling as it may have been, should not define Kershaw and Verlander. Verlander was great before he won the World Series, and Kershaw is still great in spite of the choker narrative that still follows him. The two best position players of my lifetime were Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. Bonds was regarded as a playoff choker his until 2002, when he played great and led the San Francisco Giants to the seventh game of the World Series, and then they lost. Griffey never even got to the World Series.
Like Bonds, Griffey, and Kershaw, I wondered how much more highly regarded Halladay would be if he had been on the Yankees or Cardinals, and had more shots at winning in October in his prime. Roy Halladay was in his thirties before he ever got a taste of postseason baseball, and even though he made history with his first postseason start, he never got to pitch in the World Series. For the first 12 years of his career, Halladay was not just out of the playoffs, he was out of the United States. Out of sight, out of mind. Were it not for the Blue Jays being in the same division as my Red Sox, I would not have been as aware of Halladay before he landed in Philly.
I had assumed Halladay would get into Cooperstown on the first ballot next year, but I also thought Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be in by now, and it would have taken fewer than 15 ballots to induct Tim Raines. The BBWAA is weird that way. To my knowledge, Halladay does not have the PED allagations working against him that Bonds and Clemens do, but the anti-Canadian bias that plagues Raines’ prime could be a factor. Hopefully, this new examination of his career works in his favor with the voters, but it is too bad he will not be around for his induction. He never quite got the right amount of credit for his greatness in life.