Here’s a prediction that, for once, doesn’t require any sabermetric prowess: Roy Halladay and his weapon of choice, the cut fastball, are about to destroy the National League.
Projected win total? We say the meter drops at 20. There were no 20-game winners in the major leagues last year, but most talent evaluators figure Halladay is a lock to end that drought. In fact, there are a number of factors that could turn the Phillies’ new ace into a 22-23 game winner.
Call it a perfect storm for a pitcher who doesn’t even need the help. For starters, Halladay is joining a team that has a deep reservoir of self-confidence. The Phillies, who’ve made back-to-back appearances in the World Series, will make Halladay feel like every pitch he throws, counts.
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“It’s going to be a totally different experience for Roy and that’s putting it mildly,” said one executive. It’s called attitude, which the Phillies traffic in throughout the league, but notably in the East.
When Halladay comes to New York this year, it won’t be on the wrong end of a Blue Jays-Yankees mismatch. It’s to rub the Mets’ faces in the fact they haven’t been to the postseason since 2006.
But this war extends beyond the Jersey Turnpike. Halladay will quickly learn that the Phillies have had issues with the Marlins, too. He’ll find that out-of-towners generally don’t like Jimmy Rollins. And that the Citizens Bank Park crowd, loud and aggressive, devours the timid.
Halladay will deal with all of it. He is, after all, coming off a 17-win season, having dominated in baseball’s toughest division. After a decade of dealing with the Yankees and Red Sox, what NL team could possibly threaten Halladay?
It’s like Johan Santana, who promptly won the National League’s ERA title after joining the Mets in 2008. Many pitchers have made successful cross-overs between the two leagues, but few have done better work in the AL.
Kevin Brown didn’t, nor did Randy Johnson. Even Curt Schilling would admit his finest years were in Arizona, not Boston.
Point is, American League success is a near-guarantee of prosperity in the NL. Weaker lineups are part of what will make Halladay so fearsome, but he’ll also find himself in notoriously pitcher-friendly stadiums. Of the 10 venues with the lowest park factors in 2009, seven were in the NL. Just wait until Halladay goes to work at Petco Park, or Miller Field or Dodger Field, all of which favor sinkerball specialists. Halladay was fifth among AL starters last year with a 1.05 ground-ball/fly ball ratio, which should only improve against hitters who are unfamiliar with his arsenal.
It’s true, the Phillies’ bullpen could sabotage that, but there are two mitigating factors. The first is how little Halladay relies on his relievers. Of his 32 starts last year, 27 were seven innings or longer. He’s thrown 29 complete games in the last four years, giving new meaning to the term “beast.”
Halladay will also get a boost from the Phillies’ defense, which committed just 76 errors in 2009, second-lowest in the NL. But the most important metric is the one that can’t be measured with anything other than intuition. Halladay has been dying for this opportunity for more than a decade – his motivation quotient is off the charts.
The right-hander never got to the postseason in 11 years with the Jays; suddenly he’s part of a roster that, barring injuries, is an odds-on favorite to win its third straight pennant.
No wonder the Phillies wanted Halladay so bad. They’re paying him $20 million a year though 2013 with an option for 2014. By then Halladay will be 37, reason enough to wonder if he’ll still be dominant.
Halladay figures to survive over time because his arsenal is deep enough to absorb an age-related decline in velocity. In fact, Halladay is already throwing far fewer fastballs than in 2004 and 2005.
Back then, some 70 percent of his pitches were two- or four-seam fastballs. That ratio has dropped to 31.7 percent in 2009 as his reliance on the cutter has increased to 41.5 percent
With a distinct, looping curveball (clocked at 78 mph, some 13-14 mph slower than his other pitches) Halladay has the unique ability to control opponents’ bat speed with both power and finesse. One scout says, “he comes at you with different speeds, different angles and everything he throws moves.”
Hitting is all about timing and comfort, and nothing upsets a hitter more than a ball that moves late and unpredictably. That’s been Halladay’s American League recipe for a decade. Now it’s the National League’s turn, which is another way of saying: good luck.
PECOTA picks the Red Sox
While we’re on the topic of projections, it’s worth noting that PECOTA – a sabermetric system devised by Nate Silver – has picked the Red Sox to win the AL East in 2010 with 95 victories.
The Yankees will finish a close second with 93 wins.
That will come as a shock to Yankee officials, who think that by adding Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez they’ve created the perfect machine to defend their title. But Silver earned his street cred by correctly calling 49 of the 50 states in the last presidential election, and further nailing every Senate contest.
In baseball endeavors, PECOTA predicted last year that the Yankees, Angels and Dodgers would all be division winners – although picking the Mets to capture the NL East couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Yankees’ projected decline this summer is undoubtedly based on their age. With Mariano Rivera pitching at 40, Andy Pettitte reaching 38 before the All-Star break and Derek Jeter halfway to his 36th birthday, long-term durability will be a question mark in the Bronx. At least one seer says so.