Sports Nut

Perfectly Unlikely

Why great pitchers like Roy Halladay don’t usually throw no-hitters.

Roy Halladay

At about 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies was your ordinary terrific pitcher, considered among the best in the major leagues but hardly a transcendent figure. Two and a half hours later, having completed his second no-hitter of the year and only the second in playoff history, he was something more.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark compared him to Francis Ford Coppola. The New York Times suggested that he was better than perfect. Even Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski, normally a reserved writer, proclaimed him “one of the best to ever pitch in the big leagues.” High praise for a man who’s won all of 169 games and never led the league in ERA or strikeouts—and evidence of what the right game pitched at the right time can do for a reputation.

So Halladay does not need another tribute, much as I admire his achievement. What’s worth explaining, however, is how his performance was even more unlikely than it seems.

Great pitchers divide, broadly, into two classes. The first includes what you might call the snorting bulls—grimacing maniacs with huge fastballs and merciless attitudes: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan. These pitchers will typically strike out lots of batters and walk lots as well, glowering all the while and occasionally coming close to killing an opponent. For these men, every at-bat is a fight and every hit a failure, and what makes them so good is that they never give in at all. Nolan Ryan, who had years where he gave up as many walks as hits, was almost a caricature of the type, seemingly more interested in overpowering hitters than in winning.

The other kind of great pitcher takes a more modest approach. For him the point is not to master a given hitter but to master the game—think of Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina or Robin Roberts. These kinds of pitchers frequently lead the league in fewest walks allowed per game, throwing strike after strike, daring the batter to put the ball in play and let the fielders do their work. They accept that outcomes in baseball are random or nearly so, trust percentages and concentrate on what they can control. They are rarely seen trying to impale opposing players with splintered bats.

By appearance and demeanor, Halladay, an enormous man and a very hard thrower, seems to be a pitcher of the first class. He isn’t. His annual goal, met three times, is to have more games started than walks allowed. He always rates near or at the top of the league in the fewest pitches thrown per inning. Halladay has an arm like Ryan’s and is capable of throwing like him—never relenting or giving batters anything to touch. Instead, he almost always gives a batter something to hit. In fact he gives up a lot of hits. He’s twice led the league in hits allowed, and among pitchers with at least 2,000 innings and a .650 winning percentage, only Lefty Grove gave up more per inning.

It’s unusual for such pitchers to throw even one no-hitter, for the simple reason that they don’t particularly care whether they give up hits. A pitcher trying above all else to avoid contact will generally not throw first-pitch strikes to 25 of 28 hitters or fail to run a single 2-0 count, as Halladay did Wednesday. And this is perhaps the best proof of exactly how good he is: Even pitching a style deliberately designed to make the hitter do his work for him by putting the ball in play, Halladay can pitch two no-hitters in a single year—one of them a perfect game. He can’t help himself.

Past the attention deservedly brought to a great pitcher who’s done his work in the relative obscurity of Toronto for a dozen years, then, the delightful thing about Halladay’s achievement is that it represents a triumph of the better side of baseball.

At its worst, in the preening narcissism of a pitcher who would rather walk a hitter than give him something to hit, baseball is a selfish game played selfishly. (What other game could possibly have produced Reggie Jackson discoursing on “the magnitude of me“?) At its best, though, baseball can be a game of sacrifice. This is most visible in small, quickly forgotten moments—a close strike taken to allow a runner to steal, a well-laid bunt that covers a busted hit-and-run—that usually draw golf claps when they’re noticed at all.

For Halladay, every pitch is such a moment—and paradoxically, this has now led him to unprecedented individual glory. The pitcher who goes for the strikeout over the lightly tapped grounder to second base is usually the one who wins the fame and fortune (as Nolan Ryan, .526 pitcher and icon of American manliness, could tell you). Virtue does not always win out in baseball. This once, it has.

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