There goes one of the greats of his time.
Roy Halladay retired on Monday as a Toronto Blue Jay, signing a one-day contract with the team that drafted and developed him, stuck with him at the age of 23 after he recorded what was (at the time) the worst season by any pitcher allowed to start 12 or more games at the major league level and then saw him develop into one of the most dominant pitchers of what might one day be known as the Hangover Era -- the 10- to 15-year period that came after the sun set on baseball's explosion of talent in the 1990s.
Halladay, 36, belongs to a bit of that period as well -- he made his major league debut at age 21 for Toronto in 1998, while the Big Unit, the Professor, the Rocket and the man just called Pedro were all titans on the mound. He wouldn't win his first Cy Young award until 2003, as those four legends started to cede the spotlight to the younger generation. They wouldn't disappear entirely, of course; Clemens in particular would come roaring back as a Houston Astro, with all the good and bad things that meant for the game. But by the time Halladay truly established himself as a household name with the Philadelphia Phillies, winning his second Cy Young in 2010, throwing a postseason no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds and carrying the Phillies into the National League Championship Series where they were bested by the San Francisco Giants, all of those other pitchers were fading into memory -- the titans of the mound became CC, JV, King Felix and, yes, Doc Halladay.
We live in the twilight of the 300-win pitcher. When Randy Johnson is inducted into the Hall of Fame next year -- something that should be treated as a given -- the most recent pitcher to reach that high-water mark, antiquated though it may be, will retreat into Cooperstown as the last of his kind for a very long while. This is mostly a function of how pitcher use has changed in recent years; aces simply aren't given the opportunities to rack up the innings and the starts they once were. Using specialized relievers is so engrained as the norm that it's pretty big news when a team deviates from it in any sustained fashion.
So Roy Halladay rides off into the sunset with 2,749.1 IP over 16 years, a 203-105 record and 2117 strikeouts -- not a particularly impressive set of counting stats compared to the guys who came before him. However, he also has a 3.38 career ERA (131 ERA+) and his seven-year peak, from 2005 to 2011, saw him throw about 230 innings of 2.82 (152 ERA+) ball a season. That's not an all-time great peak; the standards for that remain Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez. Halladay was dominant, but in their prime Koufax and Pedro were otherworldly, and had the stats and the hardware to show for it.
It's never too early to start thinking about a great player's legacy and where he stands not only compared to his peers, but to those who came before him; it'll be five years before Halladay is eligible for the Hall of Fame and it's hard to say how the voters will change between now and then. But I think there's a very good chance that even with his lack of longevity or an insane peak -- I've heard Halladay's case likened to Curt Schilling's but with about 500 fewer innings, and I think that's a pretty fair assessment -- Doc Halladay will breeze into the Hall on his second or third ballot.
This gets back to the idea of the "Hangover Era" that I was talking about before: the pitchers that follow Maddux, Clemens, Martinez and Johnson onto the ballot are guaranteed to pale in comparison even before teams started putting their starters on pitch counts and innings limits. Counting numbers and milestones have been losing ground amongst the voters for years now for a number of reasons -- concerns about PED tainted records; a rise in the number of voters who favor rate stats like OPS over raw HR totals, or K% over raw strikeouts -- but I don't think they'll be replaced by advanced-value metrics such as WAR. I think voters instead will move away from the numbers like they've already done for Jack Morris and Jim Rice, and that when a great player's stats don't stand up to Bonds or Clemens or four or five other players from the roaring nineties, storylines will fill the void. There's nothing wrong with that, per se; the rules for voting make it clear that numbers are not the be-all end-all of a Hall of Fame case, and it's far better to make a case on narrative honestly and up-front than it is to twist numbers around to say things that reality doesn't support.
Halladay has a fantastic narrative case; he'll be one of the most fondly remembered players of the past decade, and not just in Toronto and Philadelphia. Those who know him around the game unanimously praise his character and dedication, and on the mound he was not only great, but he was great in such a way that pleased new-school and old-school writers and fans alike. He was richly paid but never tested free agency and will never be thought of as a mercenary, and when he left the Blue Jays he did so not only blamelessly, but in a way intended to make the Jays a better team. He won a Cy Young Award in both leagues, threw a perfect game, threw a playoff no-hitter, finished top five in his league in ERA no less than seven times, went to eight All-Star games, and his last name lent itself easily to a nickname taken from a legend of the American West. It's unfortunate that Halladay never got a World Series ring, but his narrative case hardly needs one -- he already has the postseason mojo he needs.
While, by the numbers, Halladay's a borderline Hall of Fame case who probably would otherwise be left on the outside looking in, looking at what he did over his career and how people -- writers, fans, executives, other players -- talk about him, it's hard to see the current voters keeping him out. It's not just Halladay, either; pay attention to how people around the game talk about Omar Vizquel as if he's already in the Hall, or breathlessly talk about David Ortiz's case for enshrinement following this year's World Series. Like it or not, more and more we're shaping our perceptions of baseball greatness not on numbers, but narratives.
And Roy Halladay? He was a hell of a good story.