Wednesday was Roy Halladay's chance to put all the concerns to rest. All he had to do was pitch well against the Atlanta Braves, and the Philadelphia Phillies could have breathed a collective sigh of relief.
That didn't happen.
Instead of giving the Phillies and their fans reasons to relax, Halladay gave them reasons to gather around the giant panic button (if there is one) in the heart of Philadelphia.
The veteran right-hander's 2013 debut saw him last only three-and-a-third innings and surrender five earned runs on six hits and three walks. Two of the hits he gave up left the ballpark: one off the bat of Justin Upton, and the other off the bat of Evan Gattis (the first of his career).
The bright side is that nine of the 10 outs Halladay recorded came by way of the strikeout. The not-so-bright side, obviously, is the fact that he only got 10 outs.
Ordinarily, bad first starts like this one can be forgiven. They can certainly be forgotten if the pitcher who put up the stinker finds his way the rest of the season.
But this one? Those hopes of yours better not get too high.
It was clear early on that Halladay's stuff was not going to be good. He was getting his hard stuff over the plate in the 87-90 miles-per-hour range, which is where he resided for most of 2012. Per FanGraphs, his average fastball velocity tumbled from 92.0 miles per hour in 2011 to 90.6 miles per hour, and his average cutter velocity dipped under the 90-MPH threshold as well.
An offseason's worth of rest didn't do Halladay's velocity any good in spring training. David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News noted in early March that Halladay was sitting in the 86-88 range in an outing against the Washington Nationals.
It was always a possibility that Halladay's velocity would return to him once the season began, but that didn't happen.
What's more, you have to wonder if Halladay's velocity loss has gone to his head. As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer can vouch, Halladay barely used his hard stuff against the Braves on Wednesday:
This is another thing which hearkens back to what we saw from Halladay in 2012. With his velocity slipping, he resorted more to his curveball and his split-change. It was more of the same against the Braves.
Halladay's off-speed stuff did look pretty good. It had more bite than his hard stuff, and he wouldn't have been able to compile those nine strikeouts without it. And for what it's worth, ESPN's Jayson Stark noted on Twitter that Halladay's the first pitcher to strike out nine batters in less than 3.2 innings in 98 years, so he did make a bit of history.
That's an encouraging sign, as it serves as proof that Halladay's arsenal isn't completely depleted.
But it's only encouraging to a degree.
Pitchers need hard stuff to keep the strikes coming. Halladay moved away from his hard stuff on Wednesday and, sure enough, he didn't throw that many strikes. Only 55 of his 95 pitches went for strikes, about 58 percent.
This from a guy who has a strike percentage of 68 over the last four seasons. Even while he was struggling through so much of 2012, Halladay still managed to throw 67 percent of his pitches for strikes. That's up where the best strike-throwers in the business generally reside.
The writing on the wall says that Halladay isn't going to be around the plate all that much without his hard stuff. That means he's going to have to reestablish his confidence in it, and he may not be able to do that until his velocity returns to him.
Halladay certainly can't just keep doing what he did against the Braves start after start. He's not going to be able to just strike everyone out. He can try, mind you, but that sort of approach isn't good for the pitch count, and hitters are going to get wise sooner or later (smart money's on sooner).
The situation is bleak, but the obligatory question must be asked: Is there hope for Halladay?
As dire as things look right now, there's always hope. Halladay's stuff doesn't look so good, but we're talking about a guy who has one of the best minds for pitching of anybody in recent memory. If Greg Maddux could get by for so many years with mediocre velocity, then Halladay may be able to as well.
In addition, there is the reality that Halladay didn't exactly enjoy a normal spring. He battled a stomach virus that kept him from getting some work in, and it could be that he's still building himself up after having to deal with that.
But I wouldn't go out and bet the farm on Halladay bouncing back and thrusting himself into the National League Cy Young Award race this season. Based on what we saw last year, in spring training and in his 2013 debut, we're clearly looking at a pitcher who is not the guy he used to be.
And that, obviously, is a disconcerting thought for the Phillies. Halladay's dominance had a lot to do with their success in 2010 and 2011, and we saw last year that the team can only be so good without a dominant Halladay.
That was particularly true toward the end of the year, when the Phillies were close to full strength and making a push for the postseason. Halladay didn't do his part, with a 5.88 ERA in his last nine starts.
The Phillies needed the old ace version of Halladay then, and they're certainly going to need him this year, given the competition they're facing in the NL East. The Nationals are legit, and the Braves look as good as advertised so far.
If Halladay doesn't get himself squared away, the Phillies will be staring also-ran status in the face for a second year in a row.
Worse, their already-closing championship window is finally going to shut.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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