The Decline of Doc: Is the End Near for Roy Halladay?

The 2013 season went from bad to worse for the Phillies starter when he landed on the disabled list on May 6, and the future doesn't look bright for the best pitcher of the last decade.

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A regrettably familiar sight for Phillies fans this season.

For the last decade, Roy Halladay has been—with little question—the best pitcher in all of baseball. Sure, there have been other challengers to his dominance: Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander, to name a few. But since 2003, none has been able to match Halladay’s durability, consistency and longevity. Those days, however, certainly appear to be at an end.

As early as last season, something seemed wrong with Doc Halladay, who’s a few days short of 36. Coming off his greatest statistical season yet in 2011 (2.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 6.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an 8.9 WAR over 233 innings for the Phillies), he stumbled for the first time since his forgettable 2004 campaign in Toronto. He failed to crack 220 innings pitched—a feat he’d accomplished every year since 2006—and managed just a 0.9 WAR. Much of the blame was placed on his injured right shoulder, which landed him on the disabled list for nearly two months and limited him to only 156 innings on the mound.

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His struggles this spring, however, have changed the narrative. Halladay allowed five or more earned runs in his first seven starts, and in each one of them failed to get past the fourth inning. He’s surrendered nine home runs in those seven starts—the second-most in the National League and a highly uncharacteristic development for a pitcher who ranks 10th in home runs allowed per nine innings among all active pitchers. The two mile-per-hour drop in at-bat-ending fastballs that arrived in 2012 hasn’t reversed itself. Diagnoses of “shoulder injury” have turned to lamentations of “shoulder fatigue,” and with them increasingly persistent questions of whether Doc’s arm has any juice left in it.

Following his abysmal performance against the lowly Marlins on May 5 (2.1 IP, 4 H, 9 ER, 4 BB, 4 K), Halladay is back on the disabled list, this time with “shoulder inflammation,” which, just as often as not, is code for “he’s hurt and not performing, but we’re not quite sure why.” The latest DL stint has brought on a deluge of eulogies for Doc’s career, and there’s little evidence to suggest that they’re premature. Starting pitchers—especially those as successful as Halladay—rarely bounce back to their previous levels of success, especially after such a substantial, prolonged drop-off.

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What’s perhaps most surprising about Halladay’s decline is its abruptness. Over the course of just 18 months, he’s gone from Cy Young runner-up to ineffective innings-eater (not to mention a roster albatross—Doc is owed $20 million for the 2013 season with a vesting option for the following year that’s highly unlikely to be fulfilled). Much of the blame for the sharp decline lie with the number of innings Halladay has already eaten over the course of his 16-year career. In spite of baseball’s recent (and wholly justified) fixation with pitch counts and innings limits, Halladay has always seemed the exception to the rule—showing few signs of fatigue despite leading baseball in complete games in seven of the last nine years. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that his throwing shoulder is injured, sore, inflamed and/or fatigued (depending on whom you ask). But if Halladay is able to return this season and prove even somewhat effective, there’s little question that some team will take a flier on him in the offseason. Then the big question is: What sort of Doc will they be getting?

In all likelihood, it will be one that more closely resembles the one we saw last season, rather than the one who won Cy Young awards in 2003 and 2010. If that’s the case, hitters will be thrilled. The rest of us? Not so much. Watching a great player fade away is never easy. Halladay may have lacked star power — he was never a recognizable face, like a Randy Johnson, Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez. Years toiling in Toronto will do that to you. But for hard-core baseball fans, his career was one we won’t ever forget.