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Roy Halladay Was the Pitcher Other Pitchers Wanted to Be

The surefire Hall of Famer, who died in a plane crash on Tuesday at the age of 40, was a model ace who was often imitated but never surpassed

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week’s World Series ended with an unspoken tribute to Roy Halladay. Before Astros reliever Charlie Morton threw the 97 mph first-pitch fastball that got Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager to ground to second for the final out of the season, he stepped back with his left leg, raised his arms and glove over his head, brought them back down to his chest, and followed through in almost perfect parallel to a pitcher who last threw a pitch professionally more than four years ago.

In early 2011, Morton, then a 27-year-old coming off a disastrous season, remodeled himself in Halladay’s image on the advice of then–Pirates pitching instructor Jim Benedict. Halladay, at the time, was the best pitcher in baseball, a reigning Cy Young winner who’d just led the majors in innings, shutouts, complete games, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and, yes, even wins. For a pitcher like Morton, who was flailing and in need of a career reset, there was no base to build on. And so Morton reappeared that spring looking like (as one scout said) “an absolute clone” of Halladay.

Of course, you could copy him, but you couldn’t be him. For all the similarities in their motions, Morton stood straighter, his ramrod back lacking the distinctive Halladay hunch that made each pitch a sinister plot. When the two faced each other on June 29 of that year, Morton—perhaps feeling the pressure of pitching on the same mound as his model—had his worst start of the year, allowing eight runs on nine hits and four walks over four innings. Halladay, naturally, threw seven scoreless, one-hit innings.

Morton didn’t win a Cy Young Award with his Halladay look, but he did step back from a professional precipice and become a better version of himself in 2011, upping his ground ball rate, leading the majors in home run rate, and nearly halving his ERA. Every pitch he’s thrown since has drawn on Halladay’s DNA. Because of the physical resemblance in their deliveries, Morton has been the most visible reminder of Halladay’s legacy, but more subtle Halladay devotees and mimics dot dugouts, bullpens, and offices all over the sport. Halladay, who died Tuesday at age 40 when the plane he was flying crashed off the coast of Florida, was the pitcher other pitchers wanted to be.

When Morton won the World Series, the losing dugout contained a Halladay acolyte, too. Dodgers starter Brandon McCarthy decided that he “wanted to become Roy Halladay” even earlier than Morton did, after an ineffective and injury-plagued 2009. The next year, he delivered his best season to date.

Shortly after Halladay died, Dan Haren tweeted that he’d also aspired to make himself Halladayesque.

“I would see him working out in between starts, like an absolute maniac,” Haren told me via text. “I would think to myself if I wanted to get to his level I need to be busting my ass like him. He never walked guys, [he] challenged hitters and trusted his stuff and I tried to be like that too. I admired how deep he could go in games, I wanted his arsenal, I wanted my cutter to be like his because I knew it was impossible for me to have his curve, changeup, or sinker. He could make his fastball go both ways, sink and cut. Just a beast, I never wanted to match up with him cause I knew how it was gonna end.”

There was nothing about Halladay that a fellow pitcher wouldn’t want to emulate. At 6-foot-6, he had an imposing pitcher’s frame. But even though no starter threw a cutter harder than Halladay in his second Cy Young season in 2010, control, command, and movement were his calling cards more so than speed. Between his cerebral approach and the career-threatening setback he overcame early on—in 2000, Halladay posted the highest ERA ever in a season of 60-plus innings and, in 2001, was busted back to A ball, where he worked with sports psychologists and overhauled his own mechanics to harness his control—any pitcher, no matter how pedestrian the stuff or discouraging the recent results, could see something in Halladay that pertained to his story. His process seemed attainable, but his results were without equal.

A first-round pick by the Blue Jays in 1995 and top prospect who made the majors at 21, Halladay blossomed in his mid-20s and routinely racked up workloads that no pitcher comes close to now. He got grounders, limited homers and walks, recorded strong strikeout rates, and went deep into games. He worked quickly, not just by mowing down batters with as few pitches as possible, but by maintaining a fast pace between them (only 19.9 seconds, on average, in the years for which we have data). When he was healthy, he had no holes. An eight-time All-Star in his 16-year career with the Blue Jays and Phillies, he won two Cy Young awards, was runner-up twice, and finished in the top five three other times; in 2010, he threw a perfect game and a no-hitter, the latter of which was one of five career postseason starts that produced a combined 2.37 ERA. From his first full season through his last, no pitcher had a higher WAR.

Halladay’s traditional nickname, Doc, coupled with his anachronistic determination to finish his starts, made him a throwback who appealed to fans forged during earlier eras; from 2003 to 2011, he threw 61 complete games, 30 more than any other pitcher. As much as modern analysts might talk about times through the order and the familiarity effect, Halladay’s determination and endurance routinely made memories in innings that most modern starters rarely see. Even in a diminished state, he was often the best option available; over the course of his career, hitters managed sub-.700 OPS marks when facing him for the third or fourth time in a game.

Off the field, there were no public blemishes on Halladay’s personal record. Plenty of professional athletes are admired for their dedication and intensity; fewer of those are also well-liked. Halladay was one of them, despite being so focused on his craft that he wouldn’t talk to anyone on his start days. Retirement gave us a window into the fun-loving person Halladay could be when he wasn’t in uniform, most notably in 2014, when he went to the zoo with the blogger behind Zoo With Roy, a site started years earlier with the express purpose of arranging that outing. Halladay, who was married with two sons, was a regular nominee for (and recipient of) awards for sportsmanship and community work, much of which benefited underprivileged youths. In recent weeks, he’d been tweeting with gusto about both his coaching of kids and his enthusiasm for flying, the hobby that took his life when he went down 10 miles from land in a plane that looked barely large enough to contain him. Whenever he appeared in a picture, it was with a smile.

If not for the torn rotator cuff that ended his career at age 36, Halladay might still be pitching. Based on his post-career comments, it seemed likely that a full-time return to the game was inevitable; Halladay, who—as Morton, McCarthy, and Haren can testify—taught by example without even trying to, loved working with young players, and had served as a part-time instructor for the Phillies. In a more permanent role, he might have molded many more arms that owed something to him.

Halladay, who’ll appear for the first (and almost certainly last) time on the Hall of Fame ballot next winter, was a deserving inductee the second he retired, but the BBWAA hasn’t adjusted its standards to reflect the fact that pitchers of the past few decades don’t throw as many innings or record as many wins as pitchers of previous generations. Halladay finished with 203 wins, which would be the lowest total of any inductee since Sandy Koufax who didn’t spend time as a closer, and his JAWS score falls slightly below the historical Cooperstown standard. Had he lived, he might have had to wait a while to break down the writers’ resistance.

As it is, sorrow and sentiment will likely expedite his induction and enshrinement in what will be a bittersweet ceremony, not that any sympathy points should be required to honor a pitcher who accumulated more value than even Randy Johnson or Pedro Martínez during his years in the majors. But by earning a plaque as an exemplar of his era, Halladay could become a posthumous pioneer, opening the floodgates for a wave of past and present pitchers who might otherwise be unfairly excluded in light of their stats: Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, and many more in years to come. Even while we mourn him, Halladay will still be helping his peers.