Halladay’s Shoulder Injury

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Yesterday Roy Halladay looked like Orel Hershiser at the very end of his career in 2000 with the Dodgers: a one-time unstoppable force who had no idea where the ball was going once it left his hand. In Hershiser’s case, he’d run out of bullets. With Halladay, he was hurt and finally admitted as much to the Phillies after the game when he said that his shoulder was bothering him since his start against the Pirates on April 24—ESPN story

He was hammered in his next two starts by the Indians and Marlins and it was in a manner that couldn’t have been much worse if I’d gone out there and pitched. It was either admit something was the matter or continue to look helpless on the mound. Not even the greats like Halladay can bluff their way through when their stuff is diminished to this degree where he has no pop, no movement, and no control.

As much as Halladay is celebrated for being an old-school, “gimme the ball and let me finish the game” throwback, this is a reminder of what also happened to pitchers of 30-40 years ago due to the damage accumulated from gobbled innings. While the Marlins and Indians hitters brutalized the once great Halladay, there had to be some semblance of sadness and wonderment in their dugouts while it was going on. Big league hitters want to win, but they also want the challenge of facing and succeeding against the greats. Beating on Halladay like Larry Holmes assaulted Muhammad Ali in 1980, with Holmes screaming at the referee to stop the fight before he severely injured Ali, could provide no sense of fulfillment as it would have had Halladay been at full strength.

Why was Halladay pitching hurt? Maybe it was due to his reputation as a cold, steely-eyed gunslinger that comes along with the nickname Doc Halladay. Maybe it was because the true greats (in any endeavor) are generally the most insecure, spurring them to work harder and constantly prove themselves in fear of losing their jobs or not being the best. Or maybe he felt that the Phillies were paying him a lot of money to pitch, needed him, and that anyone else they put out there wasn’t going to do much better at 100% than he would at 75% or less.

We may hear the best case scenario that it’s tendinitis or a strain and he’ll be back sometime this season.

We may hear that it’s a torn labrum or a rotator cuff.

We may hear that by altering his delivery to accommodate the pain in the back of his shoulder that sidelined him last season, he managed to create a deficit and injured the front of his shoulder or the whole shoulder. If a great pitcher who’s as regimented as Halladay alters one thing, everything else might come undone all at once and that’s what appears to have happened. It takes years to learn to pitch differently and Halladay was trying to use the same strategies with different weapons in a very short timeframe. For a few games, he managed it, but then the shoulder would no longer cooperate. Now we’ll wait to see the amount of damage and whether he’ll pitch at some point in 2013 or beyond and what he’s going to be when he does get back.

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Good News and Bad News: Halladay’s Not Hurt

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The Phillies would be better off if Roy Halladay was hurt. At least that would be a viable explanation for this sudden and cliff-diving decline from what he was to what he is. What makes the lost velocity and increased confidence of the hitters even more frightening is that there’s no physical malady or mechanical hiccup to fix and get the soon-to-be 36-year-old back to the greatness he’s exhibited for the past decade. His mechanics are fine and if he was ailing, the Phillies wouldn’t continue to put him on the mound. That was true in spring training as the “experts” speculated on what was wrong with Halladay and implied that there was an injury that the Phillies were hiding. What possible reason would they have to do that in spring training?

No. He’s not hurt. His arm slot is around where it was when he was at the top of his game with a slight deviation that has nothing to do with pain or compensation and isn’t going to revert him back to what he was if it’s “fixed.” He’s not finished and not in the last days of a great career. He can continue to pitch this way once he learns how to get hitters out more effectively with diminished stuff, but he’s not going to be the unstoppable, grinding, durable force he was. This is evidence of the ravages of time and work. In the past two decades, we’ve grown accustomed to pitchers continuing to perform in their 40s as they did in their 20s and for the most part in cases like Roger Clemens it was due to the evident use of PEDs, but with the new testing the one thing that can’t be quantified is when the body says enough’s enough. Halladay’s seems to be informing him that he has to figure something else out to be effective.

The sheer number of pitchers and players who weren’t simply maintaining their level of work in their supposed primes, but were surpassing it due to the use of certain substances made it seem normal when they should’ve been seen as a rarity. Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton were anomalies not just because they lasted into their 40s, but for the most part they maintained their effectiveness late into their careers pitching the same way they always did. There was no transition from what they were into something else.

Halladay’s velocity is down from a high of 96 and a consistent 94 at the tiptop of his game two years ago to barely hitting 90 last night. This has been a recurring issue all spring and spurred the worries that are rising with every subpar start. For the hitter, there’s a significant difference between preparing for 96, being used to 94 and seeing 89-90. That’s an eon of pitch recognition time. Add in that he doesn’t have the same pop you get the results Halladay’s produced in his first two starts.

Counting him out is silly. Pitchers like Carlton, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris have been labeled as “finished” and come back to be productive, even Cy Young Award contending arms at Halladay’s age and beyond. He still has his intelligence and his stuff is good enough to get hitters out, but he’s got to learn how to do it and it doesn’t happen overnight.

On another note with the Phillies, the Charlie Manuel contract situation is going to get messy. Were it not for a blown save by Greg Holland of the Royals in which he couldn’t find the strike zone, the Phillies would be sitting at 1-6 with a lame duck manager, an angry fanbase and ominous speculation concerning the age of their roster. Manuel has no intention of walking quietly into the night at the end of the season as the Phillies clearly want him to do and he’s working with his clear heir apparent, Ryne Sandberg, on the coaching staff.

This has happened with Manuel before. With the Indians in 2002, his contract was up at the end of the season, he wanted to know where he stood and basically told them to give him an answer or fire him. The Indians were in a similar position then as the Phillies are now with an aging core and an unavoidable rebuild beckoning, so with the club 39-47 and far from playoff position, they fired him. Manuel deserves better from the Phillies after all he’s accomplished—an extra year on his contract as severance even if they have no intention of him fulfilling it and not having to look at the guy who’s going to replace him every single day—but he’s not going to get it and if this thing spirals out of control, Sandberg will be managing the Phillies by June 1st.

Or sooner.

Extended discussions of this along with predictions, player analysis, under the radar fantasy picks, breakout candidates, contract status of all relevant personnel—GMs, managers, players—and anything else you could possibly want to know is in my new book Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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