August 28, 2013

ZAKOUR | Over the Hill: A Pitcher’s Struggle

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Pitching is tough. Every fifth day you are expected to give maximum effort for around 100 pitches or more. Such bursts of intensity and strain eventually get to you. They get to every pitcher eventually. It’s a cliché, but Father Time is undefeated. Guys like Satchel Paige, Nolan Ryan and Jamie Moyer have put up the best fight, but the end result is always the same. Age eats away at everyone. And Roy Halladay and Johan Santana are on the ropes.

Halladay and Santana were the imported aces of the NL East. After their historic collapse in 2007, Santana was filched from the Twins and was supposed to be the piece of the puzzle that put the Mets over the top. Halladay was brilliant for years in Toronto, but became a Phillie in exchange for Cliff Lee in order to reload for another title run. Neither move ended up garnering a ring, although the Phillies came much closer than the Mets, who would again collapse in 2008 despite Santana’s brilliance. Halladay would win a Cy Young in Philadelphia and would become only the second pitcher in history to throw a no hitter in the postseason. Halladay was the picture of consistency, making at least 31 starts for five straight years and boasting an ERA of 2.86 over that span of over 1400 innings. Santana would not win a Cy Young  — although he certainly was deserving in 2008 — but would cement his legacy in New York with a gritty complete game shutout in game 161 out of 162 to save New York’s season.

As recently as last year, these two men were still brilliant. Or at least occasionally brilliant. Santana threw the Met’s first no-hitter ever last June, starting the year off on a high note. Although he led the National League in complete games for five straight years, Halladay had several strong outings without completing any of them in 2012. By the season’s end, both pitcher’s ERA was over 4.40, and neither made more than 25 starts. Injuries began to pile up.

Most pitching careers don’t end with dignity. Relatively young men break down physically and often these injuries that plague them are not acute. They manifest as a few chronic problems, or scores of smaller injuries. Vague phrases like “shoulder stiffness,” “back problems” and “elbow pain” begin to punctuate every outing. Santana missed the entirety of the 2011 season. He will miss all of 2013 and possibly 2014 if he hopes to ever pitch again. Halladay has only made seven starts this year. Santana has made none. And in both cases it was hard to say what exactly was wrong with them. But they are hurting. They are not the same. Something or someone has to carry the blame for their decline. Both of them have lost velocity on their fastballs and drop on their breaking pitches. Santana once said that he tips his changeup, but it didn’t matter when he was younger; it was unhittable nevertheless.

Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” And by now Halladay and Santana have been lapped and left in the dust by their contemporaries. Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are the best pitchers on the Phillies staff, while Matt Harvey — who himself may have to undergo Tommy John surgery — has been anchoring the Mets rotation and electrifying the national league. Not to mention burgeoning star Jose Fernandez of the Marlins who is another possible candidate for Rookie of the Year, but will likely be overshadowed by the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig.

Perhaps the best evidence of Halladay’s decline was on April 8th, when his counterpart on the mound, Harvey, was 12 years his junior. Harvey’s fastball can reach triple digits on the radar gun and blew away the Phillies that day. For once, Halladay was not the main attraction on the mound. Halladay had always been able to handle the Mets easily since landing in Philadelphia. And the Mets didn’t exactly throw murders row at them. But that day, Halladay got hit hard. He only lasted four innings, getting battered for seven runs. So he must be hurt right? It can’t possibly be that his skill has deteriorated or that Halladay simply can’t be as consistent as he once was. Many times management doesn’t exactly know what is wrong with their pitcher, but they know he just does not look right.

A month later Halladay would land on the Disabled List. Halladay and Santana’s injury report is a concerning read. Injuries are indiscriminate like that. Santana has torn his anterior capsule twice now, and one of the tears is serious enough to jeopardize the rest of his career. Halladay has a partially torn rotator cuff. It has been repaired, but reports say that his fastball has been topping out at 88 — right around where Santana’s was in 2012 — in rehab while its average velocity just a year ago was 92 miles per hour (per FanGraphs).

Retirement acts as sport’s metaphor for death. It is a natural part of an athlete’s career that is unavoidable. And like death, retirement is sad and often imminent. Death can also serve as an anesthetic, like retirement, putting one out of their misery. Maybe either or both men can come back, but it seems unlikely. Halladay will surely pitch again, but expectations will be different. He might have a few great starts left in him, but he’s going to be just like any pitcher. Santana’s future is entirely up in the air. In sports, like life, everything has to come to an end.

Original Author: John Zakour