Halladay’s Future

Roy Halladay pitched relatively well on Sunday, scattering five hits and a single run over eight innings of work. He worked quickly, needing just 87 pitches over those eight frames, and threw twice as many strikes as balls. Doc also kept the ball on the ground, generating nearly 50 percent grounders on a day when he managed just two strikeouts.

Two schools of thought were formed after he exited the game. Some fans instantly wrote his performance off as being a byproduct of facing the punchless Marlins. Other fans took this as a big step in getting back on track.

As per usual, we’re looking at a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

Halladay no doubt threw better on Sunday but he still made several mistakes that an actual major league offense — you know, one that doesn’t include Placido Polanco and Greg Dobbs as the bread in a Giancarlo Stanton sandwich — would have exploited. Though the results didn’t bear this out, he struggled with both command and control during the first few frames, and if he makes some of those same mistakes against the Cardinals this coming weekend, we’re again looking at a potential 4 IP, 9 H, 6 ER outing.

Perhaps that is part of his current growing pains in adjusting to his lesser ‘stuff’ but it’s something he will need to figure out quickly. He adjusted on the fly, incorporated his curveball far more, and by the latter stages of the game had seemingly settled into a nice rhythm. He pitched well, but if you remove the end results and focus on the process this game wasn’t really that far off of his last start against the Mets.

However, maybe all he needed was a solid results-based outing to get some of his mojo back.

As fans in Column B were quick to point out, Halladay has repeatedly said that he feels fine, physically, and that he’s struggling with the mental side of things right now. I’m no psychologist but perhaps throwing eight effective innings of one-run ball was enough to prove to himself that he could still get batters out and go deep into games. With that reinforced knowledge perhaps his confidence grows.

We can’t simply discount this start because of who he faced but we also can’t assume he is anywhere near back yet. This may have been a step in the right direction but we’re dealing with a pretty big staircase. Getting Halladay right is a Chrysler Key to the Season and Sunday’s outing moved the needle in the positive direction.

However, during each of his three starts this season I have ruminated on his future. I’m trying to focus on his present and what he can do to get back on track but what happens to Halladay after this season has the potential to represent one of the most compelling free agent situations in recent history. Simply put, he is a big unknown this season and that carries material financial implications heading into next season.

Halladay is a Hall-of-Fame pitcher and the best of this era. He easily outpitched his $20 million contract in 2010 and 2011 and even last season his peripheral statistics and 2.4 WAR in ~150 innings belied a better pitcher than his 4.49 ERA. He wasn’t worth $20 million but he pitched at a 3 WAR pace which is worth $14-$15 million.

On the other hand, I used the term ‘3 WAR pace’ because he missed time with an injury last season, and at age 36 his likelihood for injuries will only increase.

On top of that, nobody has any idea what to expect when he pitches, and it isn’t as if the range of possibilities is 8 IP-1 R to 6 IP-3 R. As we saw in spurts last season and against the Braves and Mets, Halladay has very little room for error right now, and when he makes mistakes the games can get out of hand quickly.

Other pitchers have lost their best stuff and made adjustments late in their careers but Halladay’s situation feels different. It doesn’t seem like a physical ailment that requires more time for him to properly recover. It isn’t a dead arm phase where his velocity will return in a couple of weeks. It’s as if, almost overnight, Halladay went from the elite of the elite to a decent #3 starter, without any real explanation whatsoever.

During spring training and in his first two starts it seemed like he tried to pitch like his old self without the same ‘stuff’ that made the old self so effective. He wasn’t hitting spots, the pitches felt flat, and he did un-Halladay-like things like elevating changeups. He looked like the Halladay that initially struggled in his first couple of years in Toronto and not the guy baseball fans fell in love with.

Sunday’s start against the Marlins saw him make proper adjustments later in the game, and ironically, I thought his best inning in terms of hitting spots and putting the ball where he wanted was the inning in which he surrendered the tying run. From that point on, he looked confident and threw purposeful pitches in effective spots with accuracy. The overall results aren’t what should produce confidence — his last couple of innings should have signaled a change for the better. He can get by with lesser stuff if he pitches that way.

But with all these question marks, one major question is what happens to him from here.

Halladay has repeatedly said that he wants to finish his career in Philadelphia, but his value isn’t as cut-and-dried if he has the same name on the back of his jersey without the same abilities. Would he take a significant paycut to stay in Philadelphia? Would he sign a multi-year deal with low base salaries that are loaded with incentives? Would a team like the Rays prove attractive with, say, a 1 yr/$12 million deal?

It’s obviously still early to appropriately answer these questions, but I can’t help but think about them each time he toes the rubber.

It once seemed inconceivable that his 2014 option wouldn’t automatically vest. Now we’re dealing with the issue of whether the Phillies would even want him back next season. As I see it there are three different scenarios that could play out. He could rebound and remain effective, throwing something like 190 innings with a 3.40 ERA and 3/1 K/BB ratio. He could re-injure himself, thus lending some more credence to the idea that there are physical maladies at work. Or he could continue to pitch in a boom and bust fashion, with fans and teammates never really knowing which version is going to show up on a start-to-start basis.

That first scenario Halladay is still worth guaranteed money over multiple years. That second scenario Halladay is worth a flier on a deal loaded with incentives. That third scenario Halladay is puzzling, because his age should dictate a decline but many teams may feel they have identified a singular flaw and can fix him and return him to his Cy Young Award form.

For the Phillies, the ideal situation is that Halladay identifies his own flaws and incorporates fixes this season in order to help them get back to the playoffs. Sunday’s start against the Marlins had more positives than negatives but the true test will come in his next start, when he opens the game with the approach he took in the latter innings against the Fish. It’s still far too early to speculate on how he’ll pitch and what he’ll make next year, but this weekend’s start against St. Louis could go a long way towards shaping his 2013 campaign.

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