It wasn’t always bubblegum and lollipops for the American League’s best pitcher. Roy Halladay notched his major league-leading 10th win of the season on Sunday with a complete game shutout of the Kansas City Royals. The complete game was his third of the season and second of the week as he continues to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the junior circuit’s best pitcher. In fact he is right on the heels of Johan Santana for baseball’s best overall. It was an up-&-down path to stardom for Halladay, though.
He came to the majors for a cup of coffee in 1998 getting just two starts totaling 14 innings. He made the club the following season as a 22 year old and went 8-7 in 149 innings with an incredibly lucky 3.92 ERA. He had essentially a 1.0 K:BB rate with 82 strikeouts against 79 walks and allowed better than a hit per inning for a 1.57 WHIP. You can understand why I declared his ERA so fortunate. Things came to a head the following season as he maintained his 1.0 K:BB ratio and was decimated to the tune of a 10.64 ERA and 2.20 WHIP in 68 innings of work. He stayed down for the rest of the year save three relief appearances in September.
Then he had to work his way up from High-A at the beginning of the 2001 season. Toronto’s 1999 #1 prospect according to Baseball America was essentially in remedial classes as a 24-year old working his way back to the bigs from High-A, where he was a reliever. He made seven starts between AA and AAA before coming back up in July. In his first appearance (a 1st inning bailout of Esteban Loaiza, who had given up 5 runs in just 1/3 of an inning), he was destroyed, allowing six runs in 2+ innings of work and it looked like all of his hard work was for naught. But the Blue Jays stuck with him. He had come a long way having displayed the best control of his career during the minor league stints of 2000 and 2001. And though just 71 innings of work, his strikeouts were way up, too.
The rest, as they say, is history. He started 16 times the rest of 2001 and put together a 5-3 record with a 2.71 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.3 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 103 very strong innings. The next season he made the All-Star team and he followed that up with a Cy Young Award winning performance. His only hiccups in the run up to becoming one of baseball’s elite were a bum right shoulder in 2004 that limited him to 133 innings and a freak accident broken leg the year after that again held him under 150 innings (141.7). Since 2002, he has been the gold standard for complete games with his 40 (including Sunday’s) standing as a major league best in that timeframe (Livan Hernandez and CC Sabathia, 28).
Outside of just being fascinating on its own accord, I wanted to write about Halladay on the heels on my piece of patience that I wrote yesterday. I’m not suggesting you should’ve held over Halladay yearly since 1999 if you owned him, but rather that you can’t just write off young players at the first sign of distress. Halladay was a highly thought of prospect, but it took 336 innings spanning parts of four years for him to really break through. Today’s fantasy owner would’ve discarded him after the 2000 meltdown and then been baffled by his emergence two years later. In fact, it’s unfair to limit it to just fantasy owners. The baseball watching public and media would’ve behaved similarly on both fronts. This is speaking generally of course, as there are pockets of people and certain outlets that don’t hastily judge prospects on minuscule samples.
Brandon Phillips is another example. He was a highly touted prospect for several years ranking 9th, 2nd, 1st and 1st in his organization from 2000-2003. He was in the top 20 for all baseball in 2002 (20th) and 2003 (7th). After a 31 AB stint in 2002, he came up for over 100 games in 2003, but struggled mightily in 370 at-bats. In fact, he put up a .206/.246/.310 line in his first 432 at-bats spanning parts of four seasons, but 86% of those at-bats came in one season as a 22 year old. Alas, the Indians gave up on him and let him go in a trade at the beginning of the 2006 season. He finally got a full season’s worth of work at the age of 25 and performed quite well with 17 HR, 25 SB and a .276/.324/.427 line. He got even better in his age 26 season, going 30-30 and garnering a shred of MVP consideration. He had paid dividends on the prospects from the early 2000s and it’s not like he was a late bloomer at 25, just that the Indians were wildly impatient.
The latest iteration could be happening before our eyes in the form of Edwin Jackson. Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers at age 17 back in 2001, it feels like Jackson has been around forever. The Dodgers afforded him a whopping 75 innings in the big leagues before discarding him at the age of 22 to the Rays for Danyz Baez and Lance Carter. The Rays gave him a sample even larger than Halladay’s 336 innings as they saw him through 381 innings spanning three seasons with varying degrees of success. The only thing is, they didn’t stick around for the payoff. Instead they dealt him to Detroit for Matt Joyce. Jackson is enjoying a career year at age 25 (just like Halladay) thanks in large part to massively improved control (just like Halladay). In fact, Jackson has improved his walk rate four straight seasons going from 6.2 BB/9 in 2006 to 2.1 BB/9 through 83 innings in 2009. I’m not saying Jackson is going to be the next Roy Halladay based on 83 excellent innings of work, but there are some nice similarities.
In fact, when I started this piece, it was for the sole purpose of showing Halladay’s path and how it had bumps in the road to stardom. As many of you may know, I’m a diehard Detroit Tigers fan so I don’t want this coming off as a spin job to say my favorite team’s new shiny toy is headed towards the top 3 starting pitchers in all of baseball in the coming years. Jackson is just one of many examples that shows that major league teams are sometimes hasty in their judgment of youngsters and expect too much of kids that haven’t fully matured. That effect trickles down to the fantasy baseball community and creates these seasons deemed as “out of nowhere” that shock everyone even if the player was highly thought of coming up through the minors and is still very young. They are actually just breakouts due to the maturation of mid-20s players. Not everyone will come up and be Ryan Braun, Tim Lincecum or Evan Longoria.
Ervin Santana went through this last year. His breakout was seen as a “rising from the dead” because he had been solid if unspectacular in his first two seasons and then hit a major road bump in season three with a 5.76 ERA in 2007. That season included a trip back to AAA to try and “fix” him. The thing is, his skills hadn’t just fallen off of a cliff that year. He was actually striking out more than ever (7.6 K/9) leading to his career-best K:BB ratio of 2.2. The walks were up a tick at 3.5 BB/9, but he wasn’t nearly as broken as was perceived. Then last year, his control improved dramatically and he had a breakout season at age 25. So far this year he has stumbled out of the gate after starting the season on the disabled list. Two flameout starts have inflated his numbers, but he took a huge step forward on Friday with 8 and 2/3rds of 1-run ball against the Detroit Tigers. It was the first start I had seen of his all year and he looked so 2008 as he brought the boom, boom pow on the Tigers. (I really won’t blame if you stop reading and never come here again after that…)
Who will be the next player written off at far too young an age only to meet or exceed his prospect promise?