CONCENTRATION & FOCUS TRAINING GRIDS
*This article appeared in the April, 16, 2007 of Sports Illustrated.
Second To One:
A perfectionist, a prankster and the best pitcher
in the AL not named Johan Santana:
That’s Roy Halladay, whose recent success makes
it easy to forget how far he once fell
By: MICHAEL FARBER
Roy (Doc) Halladay was mowing them down in order last Saturday afternoon: 00, 01, 02, 03…. Routine. Twice on the day before starts and once more on game day, the Toronto Blue Jays righthander takes a laminated grid containing 100 randomly distributed numbers and locates each one in sequence: 37, 38, 39, 40…. Think of it as Sudoku for Cy Young winners. The purpose of the exercise is to narrow the focus of a lively mind to nothing but the next number, which helps Halladay sharpen his concentration on nothing but the next pitch when he reaches the mound. “I’m not one of those guys who’s worried about who’s on deck,” he says. When he began working the 10-square-by-10-square grid five years ago, he needed 17 to 20 minutes to finish. Now he has become so proficient that he sometimes amps up the distractions, turning on the TV or listening to songs with burrowed-in-the-brain lyrics: 89, 90, 91, 92…. He usually finishes in 3 1/2 minutes. This effort, he clocked in four minutes and 29 seconds.
Most of the time Halladay is just as efficient dispensing with numbers one through nine. “He’s more than just good, he’s great,” says Detroit Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield. “His breaking ball is second to none. His sinker is second to none. His changeup is second to none. If he’s on that particular day, forget it.”
For someone with a 2003 Cy Young award on the shelf, a .664 career winning percentage and an array of pitches with more plane changes than a platinum-level frequent flier, Halladay deserves Johan Santana–like recognition. But Halladay is far less visible than the Minnesota Twins lefty–and not just because he plays for Canada‘s Team, bystanders in the AL East laser-sword fight between the Yankees and the Red Sox. He simply isn’t on the mound long enough. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the average time of a nine-inning game started by Halladay since ’02 is 2:37, alacrity surpassed only by Chicago White Sox lefthander Mark Buehrle. (In a 6–3 win on Sunday at Tampa Bay, Halladay dispatched the Devil Rays in a tidy 2:32.) As A.J. Liebling, the prolifically brilliant New Yorker writer, once described himself, Halladay is better than anybody faster than him and faster than anybody better than him.
“Your second foot is getting into that [batter’s] box, and he’s already winding up,” says Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons. “With a lot of movement and great control, it’ll be one, two pitches and a grounder to second. He’s the quickest 0 for 3 in the league.”
Despite technicolor stuff and so many pitches (cutter, curve, change and a China Syndrome sinker) that, as Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer puts it, the catcher has to remove his glove to flash signs, the 29-year-old Halladay has averaged just 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings during his 10-year career. “He knows what hitters are hunting and entices contact,” Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg says. “He throws so many strikes that the hitters get very, very antsy. Because they don’t want to see that hook and don’t want him carving the edges of the plate, they try to attack him early in the count. He defines hitters’ strike zones for them.”
Once the season opens, purpose rules in Halladay’s world. No deep counts. No lollygagging. No clubhouse card games. “He’s looking at video on hitters, working out, throwing a bullpen [session], putting in an eight-hour day whether it’s his day [to pitch] or not,” Toronto catcher Gregg Zaun says. “A towel over his shoulder and a bead of sweat dripping off his nose–that’s him.”
Halladay inherited his work ethic from his father, Roy Jr., a commercial airline pilot from the Denver bedroom community of Arvada, who when his young son was idle would invite him to build a model boat or toss a baseball or fly a remote-control airplane. “Something productive,” says Halladay, whom the Blue Jays chose with the 17th pick in the 1995 draft. “I never had a lot of time when I was just ‘kicking rocks,’ as my dad called it. That comes into play now. I always feel I have to do something to make myself better.”
It’s pitching as a self-help program. “He’s prepared in every department and overprepared in some,” Arnsberg says. “His focus is almost overfocus.” Indeed, when Arnsberg joined the Toronto staff before the 2005 season, he was warned not to pick up Halladay’s towel or touch his rosin bag or talk to him while he stretched. While Arnsberg treads gingerly when he visits Halladay on the mound–“I tell him he scares me at times, always growling and grumbling”–he might grab the forbidden towel before the game to break the ice, a tacit reminder to focus on the window of the strike zone rather than the window dressing.
If Halladay holds dearly to routine, it is because not so long ago his career was in free fall.
On Sept. 27, 1998, in only his second major league start, Halladay lost a no-hitter on a two-out, ninth-inning home run by the Tigers’ Bobby Higginson. As much as Kerry Wood’s 20 strikeouts in his fifth major league start for the Chicago Cubs earlier that season had excited U.S. baseball fans, Halladay’s precocious start made Canada take notice. Two seasons later, after allowing 80 earned runs, 107 hits and 42 walks in 67 2/3 innings, a performance of historically bad proportions, he was demoted. Not to Triple A Syracuse. Or even Double A Knoxville. He was shipped to Class A Dunedin in the Florida State League, Dante’s Inferno with early-bird specials. Oh, how the righty had fallen. If Halladay had been sent to Syracuse, he could have rationalized that a few good starts would put him back in Toronto‘s rotation. Instead, the Jays’ emotional shock therapy stripped him of all pretension. Halladay actually learned of the demotion not from then general manager Gord Ash or manager Buck Martinez but from an employee assistance program facilitator.
“I knew [management] thought some of the problems were a lot more serious than they were,” Halladay says. “They were looking at a lot of things: ‘Is there anything wrong with his personal life? What happened to him as a kid?’ It just had gotten to the point where I couldn’t build confidence in myself. I’d never had a doubt from the age of eight to 22. Now for the first time I wasn’t getting guys out, and as someone who never had to deal with that kind of adversity, I had no idea how to turn it around. I was thinking about negatives: I can’t bounce this pitch or I can’t walk this guy or if I throw it over the plate, he’s going to hit it 800 miles.”
The trip back to Toronto was actually 1,098 miles, a three-month journey eased by a former Jays pitching coach and a 334-page self-help book. Ash, now the Milwaukee Brewers‘ assistant G.M., cautions that many want to take credit for Halladay’s Lazarus-like comeback. “The person who deserves the credit is Doc,” says Ash. (Has anybody with a name similar to Halladay’s not been nicknamed after gunfighter Doc Holliday?) Halladay, however, says his time in Knoxville with Mel Queen, then an organizational pitching coach, was invaluable.
When Halladay broke into the majors, he threw straight over the top, a 6’6″, 225-pound Iron Mike whose pitches were flat. Queen simply lowered his arm angle. Within two bullpen sessions Halladay’s pitches were jitterbugging. This was about the same time that Halladay’s wife, Brandy, presented him with The Mental Game of Baseball, written by sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. Halladay devoured it. After moving up to Syracuse and finally being recalled to the majors on Canada Day, July 1, 2001, Halladay met Dorfman through first-year general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who, as a member of the A’s organization, had become acquainted with the psychologist. If 90% of baseball is half mental–by the way, that’s former big league outfielder Jim Wohlford, not Yogi Berra–Halladay owns the inner half. He thumbs through Dorfman’s The Mental ABC’s of Pitching a few times a week and reads it cover-to-tattered-cover eight or nine times a season, keeping his dog-eared copy close to his numbers grid.
While Dunedin 2001 represents Halladay’s career nadir, Dunedin 2006 represents the apex–at least of the ace’s understated wit. When shortstop Russ Adams and second baseman Aaron Hill joked that Halladay and fellow starter A.J. Burnett might as well be married after seeing them hang out a lot at spring training last year, the pitchers decided to get the last laugh. Operating on the premise that nobody is closer than a double-play combination, they arranged a mock wedding for Adams and Hill at the team’s spring training site. This was Katie and Tom’s nuptials, only in double knits: embossed invitations, matching tuxedos with the couple’s numbers and names on the back, a classy spread in the team lunch room, a wedding cake with baseball-player figurines on top, a flyover from a plane that trailed a banner reading congratulations aaron + russ, a deejay, gifts, a photographer and an SUV decorated with blue and white balloons for the faux honeymooners. “See, Doc wouldn’t just make up a T-shirt,” says Zaun of the elaborate gag. “He went to great lengths with that wedding. That’s typical. He goes to great lengths to be the best.”