Analysis

Extended Halladay–Don’t Worry About Doc’s Pitch Counts

(Note: This originally went up around 4:30 yesterday afternoon, but due to site troubles and in light of last night’s 132-pitch outing, I’ve decided to update the numbers to include last night’s start).

Roy Halladay arriving here in November December generated many of the same feelings among Phillies fans that the arrival of a new toy generates among preschoolers. Most were thrilled to hear about him, excited to see him arrive, and chomping at the bit to see him in action. Some cried that Grandpa Ruben got them the wrong toy and wouldn’t shut up until they were sent their rooms without dessert.

At any rate, whenever I got a new toy, I wanted to play with it all the time, but I was still worried about playing with it so much I’d break it. Halladay is no different. He’s the best starting pitcher on this or any planet, and while he ought to be used as often as possible over the next four years to maximize his value, the man turned 33 this week and elbows, like car tires, tend to wear out and lose effectiveness when you drive more and harder miles.

Going into tonight’s start, Halladay has thrown 71.1 innings, tops in the majors. He’s averaging just shy of 8 innings a start, an absurd number for a 21st-century pitcher. According to Baseball Prospectus’ pitcher abuse points, Halladay has taken the sixth-most abuse of any pitcher in the game.

With a bullpen that can be characterized as shaky at best, Uncle Cholly faces the same dilemma that I faced as a 3-year-old—how do you get the most out of your new toy without wearing him out?

I’ve always been a little puzzled by Uncle Cholly’s pitcher use. This is the guy who let the ghost of Pedro Martinez throw 119 and 130 pitches in back-to-back starts last September. Just last Sunday, Uncle Cholly let Cole Hamels come back out for the 7th inning with 106 pitches under his belt. After recording two outs in three pitches, the skipper decided it was time to go get his starting pitcher. Maybe he knows something we don’t. Last fall, I likened watching Uncle Cholly manage a pitching staff to watching Raymond Babbitt play blackjack—I have no idea how or why it works, but it seems to.

So should we worry about Roy Halladay wearing out his arm? I say no, for several reasons, some sabermetric, some not.

First, Halladay, for all his innings, doesn’t throw a lot of pitches. He leads the league in innings pitched, yes, but he’s thrown 1006 pitches, tops the major leagues, this season. I say “but” here because he only leads Jered Weaver by 19 pitches and has thrown 16 more innings.

Over the past three calendar years, he’s thrown the most innings (2/3 of an inning behind CC Sabathia), but only the fourth-most pitches. That Halladay gets more innings out of his pitches is due to two concerns: first, he doesn’t let anyone on base. Over those same 3 years, he’s in a three-way tie with Tim Lincecum and Sabathia for lowest WHIP among starting pitchers, at 1.13. Fewer baserunners means fewer pitches—you throw fewer pitches to three batters than you would for four or five.

Second, Halladay never walks anyone. Over the past three calendar years, no starting pitcher has walked fewer batters per nine innings than Halladay has. He’s been above average in both getting his pitches inside the strike zone and getting batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone in every single season of his career. He does not waste pitches.

Second, not all pitches thrown are created equal. The later in the game, the closer the game is, and the more runners on base, the higher-stress the situation is. On a certain intuitive level, this makes sense. Anyone’s going to be sweating a little harder when he’s reaching back for the heater with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth with your team up one run than if he was taking the mound in the bottom of the first already up five runs. This is captured in a statistic called leverage index. A leverage index, or pLI, of 1.00 is average. Anything above 1.00 is higher-leverage, and everything under 1.00 is low-average. The highest pLI in 2010 for a starter is the 1.26 of Clayton Richard of San Diego (Cole Hamels is at 1.18, third in baseball). Halladay is at 1.03, and 0.98 for his career. Despite pitching deep into games, he doesn’t let himself get in trouble a whole lot. Lower-leverage means lower-stress means lower wear-and-tear.

Third, it’s not in my nature to question advanced statistics, but pitcher abuse points, the harbinger of doom for Roy Halladay, seem sort of arbitrary to me. It’s calculated by taking the number of pitches thrown, subtracting 100, and cubing the difference. Any start under 100 pitches gets a score of 0. No attention is paid to leverage index, pitch type, or who the pitcher is (though we’ll get back to that later). For making broad-sweeping assumptions, PAP is useful. For instance, that Justin Verlander racked up more than twice as many abuse points as any other pitcher in the game in 2009 is a red flag going forward. But that Halladay picked up 81,968 points to Ubaldo Jimenez’s 81,916? Not so much.

Here’s another point about PAP. Roy Halladay’s made three trips to the disabled list since he became a dominant starter in 2002. In 2005, he had his leg broken by a line drive. That’s a freak injury and can be discounted as long as it healed correctly, which it clearly has. In 2004, he went on the DL twice with a tired arm. This is understandable. In 2002, he threw 239 innings, and in 2003 he threw 266, a career high to this day. But in those years he ranked 42nd and 48th in PAP. Since returning to form in 2005, he’s ranked 49th, 72nd, 4th, 3rd, 4th, and now 1st in PAP and never had any trouble.

This leads me to my fourth point. Different pitchers are, well, different. Some guys can throw 100 miles an hour with a 12-to-6 curve for 25 years and never have any trouble, like Nolan Ryan. Others throw 100 miles an hour with a 12-to-6 curve for 10 years and almost lose their pitching arm at the shoulder, like Sandy Koufax. Roy Halladay is not that kind of pitcher, throwing low-90s with better control and a good sinker, but the point stands.

Remember when Ryan Howard got that contract extension a couple weeks back and everyone said that because he was built like David Ortiz, and Mo Vaughn, he’d age like David Ortiz and Mo Vaughn? Let’s play that game with Halladay.

The most similar pitchers to Halladay, according to Baseball-Reference, are Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt, Don Newcombe, Dizzy Dean, and CC Sabathia. At first glance, that doesn’t look very encouraging. After all, time’s starting to catch up with Hudson and Oswalt at the ages of 34 and 32, respectively, and Dean was done as an effective pitcher at 30, while Newcombe only lasted to age 34. Sabathia is younger than Halladay, so I don’t know how useful he’ll be as a touchstone for aging.

Here’s why I don’t buy those comparisons. Halladay is a massive sinkerballer who derives tremendous power from his legs. Halladay stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 230 pounds. Hudson is 6-1, 175, Oswalt 6-0, 190. He’s so much bigger than Oswalt and Hudson are that he could slow-dance comfortably with either one. File that away. As for Dean, his early retirement was the result of breaking his toe, coming back too early, altering his mechanics to compensate, and ruining his arm. Newcombe, for his part, drank his way out of baseball before conquering his demons in his early 40s. Neither of these have anything to do with throwing too many pitches.

Halladay, in my mind, with his huge leg drive and easy mechanics, recalls a group of pitchers who threw quite a bit harder. Roger Clemens (6-4, 205, pitched effectively until age 44), Curt Schilling (6-5, 205 with a wink, pitched effectively until age 40), and Andy Pettitte (6-5, 225, still doing just fine at age 38) are all big guys who worked off the fastball to a sinker or slider with excellent control and a good change-up. Yes, Clemens and Pettitte had help getting there, but let’s say HGH added 5 years to Clemens’ career—that’s still age 39, and Pettitte’s not doing HGH anymore. So how do you pitch effectively for a long time? Throw multiple pitches, don’t walk anyone, get a lot of ground balls, and be tall with tree-trunk legs. If you can predict the future for Ryan Howard based on what he looks like, I see no reason why the same logic won’t hold for Halladay.

If Halladay stays in shape (and considering that as many glowing words have been written about his work ethic as David Eckstein’s scrappiness, I’d bet on it), there’s no reason he can’t pitch effectively at least to the end of his contract, if not longer. So unless Uncle Cholly starts leaving him out there for 150 pitches at a time, I don’t really think we need to worry.

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