Phillies' Roy Halladay faces his biggest challenge

Roy Halladay will lean again on the words of psychologist and author H.A. Dorfman as he tries to regain his form.
Roy Halladay will lean again on the words of psychologist and author H.A. Dorfman as he tries to regain his form. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 01, 2013

One man with a belief is worth 99 with an opinion. Though everyone in the game of baseball has an opinion, the opinions of others should be of no concern to the pitcher. What should matter to him is what he thinks of himself and what he knows about pitching: his belief system. If he doesn't have one, he'd better develop it.

- H.A. Dorfman, The Mental ABC's of Pitching

The first chapter in Roy Halladay's bible, fittingly, is titled "Adjustments." This is the book that once saved his career, the book Brandy Halladay bought for her husband 13 years ago, when Roy first confronted his baseball mortality.

This time, Halladay cannot rebuild himself behind a shroud of obscurity while banished to single A. The three mentors, including the psychologist and author Dorfman, who helped a bewildered 23-year-old achieve greatness, are all dead. Halladay must accomplish this before an entire sport's eyes with his unfulfilled goal of pitching in the World Series.

Pitchers of Halladay's caliber have attempted to defy the body's limits only to fail. A mysterious spring accentuated doubt. On Wednesday, Halladay will start the 378th game of his acclaimed career.

It is impossible to speak definitively about Halladay, long considered unassailable.

"This guy's got plenty of ability still, believe me, and he's got the utmost character on the mound," pitching coach Rich Dubee said. "He's a winner. What's he, 199-100? He may not have the same bullets, but he is still going to be able to pitch us quality games and win ball games for us."

Dorfman, Halladay said, made him accountable. To him, his words are sacrosanct and they are apparent in the pitcher's actions on and off the field. Halladay will lean on them as the season commences.

In writing about emotions, Dorfman said, "Remember that behavior, rather than feelings, is what matters in competition." But when Dubee watched Halladay at the end of spring training, he saw someone motivated by his skeptics.

"I'm sure," Dubee said. "And that's not a bad thing. This guy was doubted once before, years back, when he had to go back to A ball. I don't think there is anything wrong with having a little fire in your boiler. This is a competitive son of a gun, and I think over the last two outings he's starting to gain on it."

Confucius suggested that "he who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior." One issue comes to mind, based on my experience with warrior-like pitchers. They want the ball, and they take the ball as established. But sometimes they should not have the ball.

- The Mental ABC's of Pitching

Roy Halladay would not be the first to lose it. Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Randy Johnson, and so many others sustained greatness only to reach an abrupt and bottomless end.

Workload is a natural starting point. Six pitchers have thrown more pitches since 2003 than Halladay. He posted 61 complete games in that span, 28 more than the next closest pitcher, CC Sabathia. Injury is another agent; many great pitchers with quick falls were hurt. Halladay suffered back and shoulder problems in 2012. He steadfastly claims health.

When Toronto minor-league hitters bashed Halladay two weeks ago, he cited a new requirement of "evolving with his body" and turning games into "a chess match."

At his best, Halladay created what is called "a scissor effect." Greg Maddux, another Dorfman disciple, first mastered it. He could throw his sinker and cutter to both sides of the plate against righties and lefties. It made hitters unsure because the pitches have the same movement until the very last moment. A cutter went one way, a sinker the other.

Halladay adopted this plan in 2001. No one threw a higher percentage of cutters from 2010 to 2012 than Halladay (40 percent) according to Pitch F/X data. When Halladay admitted difficulty gripping his cutter and tinkered with it this spring, concern mounted.

Justin Verlander, now the richest pitcher in baseball history with his new $180 million contract, has long been an admirer of Halladay. He studied Halladay during his Grapefruit League debut Feb. 24 against Detroit and saw normalcy.

"Whenever you look at a drastic turnaround, it doesn't disappear just like that," Verlander said. "It might gradually start to decline. That wasn't the case with him. That's why I say something was off last year. He said it was his back. You have to believe him."

Halladay's decline from 2011 to 2012 ranks among the worst, using Baseball-Reference.com's wins above replacement metric. In 2011, Halladay was an 8.5 WAR player. He was worth 0.7 WAR in 2012. Only six players since 1947, according to research by ESPN.com, have experienced a worse drop.

"It isn't a question of being perfect," Dorfman said in 2010 about Halladay's first renaissance. "It's a question of knowing your imperfections and correcting them."

The battle to express all thoughts in a positive way must be fought - if it needs fighting. The first campaign is to employ general language such as: "I will. I'll find a way. I'll adjust." Rather than "I can't. I'd better not . . . I hope." A pitcher who tries to "find a way" looks for a positive strategy, rather than saying "It can't be done."

- The Mental ABC's 

of Pitching

With a victory Wednesday, Halladay would become the 112th pitcher in history to win 200 times. There is a good chance Halladay, as he often does, will read his bible sometime before ascending the Turner Field mound in Atlanta. He once said he owns 10 personal copies of Dorfman's book and has distributed "a hundred or so" to other pitchers over the years.

Positivity is a central tenant to Dorfman's teachings. Halladay embodied that during six weeks of spring training.

After his first spring start Feb. 24, Halladay said, "My arm is in a better position."

"Nothing hurts," Halladay said March 12, "and I'll take that any day of the week, feeling lethargic over being sore like last spring training."

"I'm happy with where I'm at," Halladay said when his spring was complete. "There are a few things I feel I can improve on going forward, but I'm happy with how I feel physically and with my delivery. It's an easy fix for me."

The first test is telling. Last season, Halladay started three games at Turner Field and allowed 15 runs on 25 hits (five of them home runs) in 16 innings. The building made him look human.

When asked what sort of example Halladay has established, Verlander said, "The bar."

"He was - is a great pitcher," Verlander said. "He has been for a long time. When the bell rings, things will be different."

In his last chapter, Dorfman cites Anton Chekhov: "If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that illness has no cure."

"The 'remedy' advocated in these pages is a singular one: stay on task by focusing on the 'now' - the execution of the next pitch," Dorfman wrote. "The zeros will come."


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com.

Follow on Twitter @magelb.

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