May 7th, 2013

Kobe Bryant, Roy Halladay and the Helsinki Bus Station Theory

“To field a groundball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.” - Aparicio Rodriguez, The Art of Fielding

Defensive wunderkind Henry Skrimshander, the protagonist in Chad Harbach’s wonderful novel, The Art of Fielding, lives by the words of his idol, fictional St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez (based, it would seem, on real-life Cardinals shortstop Luis Aparicio). “Skrimmer,” as he was called, consumed Rodriguez’s book (of the same title) as if it were gospel, memorizing lines and recalling them while in the field. The Art of Fielding, for Henry Skrimshander and Aparicio Rodriguez, was more than Yoda-like fielding advice, it was a philosophy.

If Aparicio Rodriguez was based on Luis Aparicio, his book, The Art of Fielding, one would think, is likely based on Ted Williams’ The Science of Hitting. In Harbach’s fictional universe, Aparicio Rodriguez was the greatest defensive shortstop in history; in other words, Aparicio Rodriguez was the Ted Williams of fielding the baseball. The difference between Aparicio Rodriguez, Ted Williams, and most other ballplayers is that Aparicio and Williams approach the game cerebrally (even if one only did so fictionally). Baseball, to them, isn’t a competition of physical tools, it is a science; an art form.  

When Roy Halladay was demoted to Class-A Dunedin following his abysmal 2000 campaign - in which he compiled a 10.64 ERA in 67 and 2/3 innings - he found himself depressed; he and his wife were even contemplating whether or not the couple had saved enough money for him to quit the game altogether and attend college.

His wife, Brandy, in the days when brick-and-mortar bookstores were king, found herself in a Books-A-Million, searching for anything which could potentially help her husband and her family. She happened to come across psychologist H.A. Dorfman’s The Mental A.B.C.’s of Pitching, and purchased it (and seven other books) for Roy, along with two journals - one for personal thoughts and reflections, the other for professional purposes.

As a young man, Roy Halladay devoured Nolan Ryan’s Pitcher’s Bible which educated him in the value of a pitcher’s work ethic and training to his own success. To the extent that Roy Halladay’s struggles were physical, however, they weren’t physical - his issues were never a matter of poor conditioning or strength work. Reading Dorfman’s Mental A.B.C.’s as an adult exposed Roy Halladay to the mental half of the game.

The book preaches a simplistic approach to pitching theory, focusing on a pitch-by-pitch methodology. Halladay’s new approach - combined with his new cutter and two-seam fastball - transformed his career. In the words of his wife Brandy, “The book and [Dorfman] helped his pitching career, our marriage, the way we looked at life in general…. It absolutely saved his career.”

For a ten year period, from 2002-2011, Roy Halladay was, without question, the best pitcher in baseball. Worth 60.9 fWAR over that time, the gap between Halladay and the next best pitcher (C.C. Sabathia, 51.3 fWAR) was as big as the gap between the 10th (John Lackey, 34.7 fWAR) and 29th (Ted Lilly, 25.2 fWAR) best pitchers in the league. He was a workhorse in that he could throw 230+ innings every season, but he was also the most economical pitcher on the planet. In those years (not including the playoffs), Halladay threw a total of 31,462 pitches in 2,194 and 2/3 innings (14.3 pitches/inning; averaging just over 7 innings per start), throwing 21,141 of those pitches for strikes (67%). Halladay struck out 200+ batters five times over that span, and five times he issued fewer unintentional walks than games started (three of those also being 200 K campaigns). During those seasons, C.C. Sabathia started 19 more games than Halladay (Halladay, if you’ll recall, had some bad injury luck in the mid-aughts), but threw 10 less innings, and 30 fewer complete games.

Watching Roy Halladay carve the strike zone with cutters and two-seam fastballs every fifth day is like watching Michelangelo sculpt the Statue of David in real-time. He is a master of the pitching mound, not only with superior control to throw strikes, but superlative command to throw good strikes. The way he attacks his opponent - always being better prepared, always outlasting them, and never wasting a pitch - is Madduxian in every sense. It’s that artistry, that mastery, that consistent dominance, throughout his career that makes his recent performance that much more discomfiting.

I saw Roy Halladay pitch live for the first time recently at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. He was facing the Pittsburgh Pirates, and, for the most part, it appeared as if I would be treated to a vintage Doc Halladay performance. Six of his first nine outs were strikeouts (four of them looking), and the other three were groundballs - this all coming after a leadoff walk to Starling Marte. And while his final box score shows a strong 6 innings and 1 earned run on 1 hit, 2 walks and 8 strikeouts, there were also signs of this being a different Roy Halladay than we’re used to.

He received two gifts from the BABIP Gods on two separate John McDonald liners (of all people): one a terrific diving stop by Chase Utley behind second base, the other a ridiculous full-extension diving catch in left field by Dominic Brown. In those six innings, Doc threw an un-Halladay-like 95 pitches, 57 for strikes (60%). In the fourth inning, he walked Garrett Jones on four pitches, hit Neil Walker in a five pitch at-bat, and then gave up an RBI base hit to Pedro Alvarez on consecutive batters.

Everyone’s allowed a bad inning, that’s not what’s upsetting about Doc (though his 59% strike rate this season was a bit worrisome even before his admission to shoulder soreness - small sample size caveats applied). What was shocking about this particular Roy Halladay outing was that, after 6 innings of one-hit, one-run ball, a pedestrian (for Halladay) 95 pitches, and a 2-1 lead, Charlie Manuel pinch-hit for Roy Halladay in the bottom of the 6th, with runners on first and third and two outs. It was obviously the smart play, as the pinch-hitter, Kevin Frandsen, subsequently singled home a run, but the Phillies would be done in by their bullpen. Lefty Antonio Bastardo (who replaced Halladay) gave up a home run to Pedro Alvarez - who never hits lefties - in the 7th inning, and Mike Adams lost the game in the 8th. Did Manuel make the right move pinch-hitting for Halladay? Probably; the Frandsen RBI increased the Phillies’ Win Expectancy from 75% to 85%, but Bastardo gave that jump right back, and this was also Roy Freaking Halladay.

Surely the fact that this was National League baseball played in a role in Manuel’s decision, but it’s tough to think of a scenario in which any of his managers had opted to lift Halladay with his having retired seven straight batters, and sitting at only 95 pitches - child’s play for someone like Doc.

The purpose of this, however, isn’t to Monday Morning Quarterback a fairly minor decision made by Charlie Manuel in an April baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates; the purpose of this is to marvel at the current stage of Roy Halladay’s career - his decline phase where he’s being treated as if he were, literally, any other pitcher in baseball. Just two year’s ago that would have been Doc’s game - there wasn’t a chance in hell he’d let Cholly pull him, least of all for Antonio Bastardo. Which isnt a knock on Bastardo; he’s actually a fairly underrated pitcher - there are only six relievers in baseball with a higher K/9 since 2011 (Kimbrel, Jansen, Chapman, Grilli, Robertson, Frieri). It is to say, though, that as good as Bastardo has been, a Prime Halladay doesn’t get pulled for him in that instance.

Watching Roy Halladay during his prime was watching one of the true artists in the history of the sport at work. He is the Ted Williams or Aparicio Rodriguez of his generation - if The Art of Pitching were being written, Halladay would, at the very least, warrant his own chapter alongside those of Koufax, Gibson, Seaver, Ryan, Maddux, Clemens, Johnson and Martinez.

Roy Halladay in his decline phase could still be better than the large majority of starting pitchers in Major League Baseball; it’s entirely plausible to believe that, given health, he could be worth somewhere around 3 WAR a season for the next few years in the same way that Maddux was from 2003-2007. But it’s that realization that certain things which came so easily for him not-too-long ago are becoming less and less easy, that realization that his leash is a just a little bit shorter, which places what you’ve seen him do for so well for so many years - what you’ve taken for granted for so long - in perspective.

Roy Halladay’s recent struggles, with health and with ineffectiveness, haven’t led to a decline so much as they have a nosedive from immortality. After considering his last two performances against Cleveland and Miami, I’m starting to wonder whether what I had witnessed first-hand on that windy night in Philadelphia was a vintage Doc Halladay performance, or merely a facsimile of what Doc Halladay used to be; what someone with his cerebral approach to the art of pitching is able to do when attacking a less disciplined foe (such as the Pirates), even with diminished “stuff.”

Watching Halladay make Adeiny Hechavarria look like Mike Trout on Sunday - only to be placed on the disabled list Monday, after admitting to feeling shoulder soreness since his start against Pittsburgh - has had me wondering (and hoping I’m wrong) if Roy Halladay is the actualized version of Rookie of the Year's Chet Steadman (minus the mentoring of a 12-year-old): unwilling to accept that he is no longer the pitcher he once was - unwilling to admit to injury - only to blow out his shoulder in the pursuit of one last shot at glory. And it’s that which is the most worrisome aspect of this - the idea that, maybe, this is the end of the line for the greatest pitcher of an entire era.

Witnessing a star athlete reconcile their own fallibility on a nightly basis (or every fifth day, in Halladay’s case) is difficult for both the player and his/her fans. In a society which deifies its athletes, their inevitable decline in abilities is likely the only thing which reminds us that, while the majority of their feats seem supernatural, they are, in fact, human beings. Even someone as consistently great as Roy Halladay must eventually return to Earth and live amongst us mortals; at some point all of those innings, and all of those pitches, will take their toll on your body, no matter who you are. At some point, everything must end.

*****

In a lot of ways, Roy Halladay’s career reminds me of Kobe Bryant’s. His prime came in shadows of Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson; Kobe’s came in the shadow of Michael Jordan. As he aged, younger phenoms like Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg have looked to dethrone him as the game’s best pitcher; Kobe has had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant. They both have almost legendary training and workout regimens, and both are masters of their respective crafts.

They’re also, both, declining right before our eyes (one, perhaps, more abruptly than the other).

Great NBA scorers aren’t all that different from great pitchers insofar that both jobs are predicated on identifying and exploiting the weakness(es) of their opponents. And, since not all opponents are alike, great scorers and great pitchers are required to do so in a myriad of ways. A great scorer is, in a way, a renaissance man; the vast majority of the NBA’s greatest scorers on a per-game basis have all been players who have been all able to beat their opposition through different means: 3-point shots, high-post fadeaways, pull-up jumpers, dribble penetration, in isolation and on the fast-break.

A young Kobe Bryant was one of the most explosive players on the floor; he was a former dunk champion back when that was considered a rite of passage for great NBA wingplayers. Young Kobe could beat you at the rim and he could beat you from the outside. He was one of the league’s best scorers by the age of 21, but he was never complacent, and was always looking to improve. Over the years he’s added various moves and skills to his already vast repertoire: he added the Jordan fadeaway; he improved his 3-point shooting; he added a pump-fake and a few perimeter moves; and he even tweaked the fadeaway to include Dirk Nowitzki’s signature leg kick.

Kobe Bryant became a scoring artist. It was never enough for him to simply defeat his opponents with his incredible physical gifts, he thrived on being smarter, on making your weakness his strength.

He hasn’t just been a great scorer, though, Kobe has been a great player. The difference between the two is that a great scorer cares about scoring; a great player cares about defeating his opponent by any means necessary. For Kobe, that meant guarding the other team’s best player when it mattered most, or playing through excruciating pain; it meant abusing his body for the sake of a win.

As of right now, Kobe Bryant ranks 4th all-time in points scored, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan (he trails Jordan by only 675 points), and he ranks 11th all-time in points per game (behind Jordan, Wilt, LeBron, Baylor, West, Iverson, Durant, Pettit, Gervin and Robertson). Kobe also happens to be the only player on either list who spent half of his career as the second option to someone else (Shaquille O’Neal; 6th in points, 20th in PPG). He’s third in playoff scoring and 10th in playoff PPG. He’s 12th all-time in regular season minutes played, and second all-time in playoff minutes played. He’s been a five-time champion, a two-time Olympic gold-medalist, an NBA MVP, and a two-time Finals MVP; he was first team All-NBA ten times, first team All-Defense nine times, and a two-time scoring champ.

Unfortunately for Kobe, coming into the league when he did, and carrying himself the way that he does, only serves to invite comparisons to Michael Jordan (and later LeBron James). If it’s at all possible for one of the greatest players of all-time to be underappreciated, Kobe Bryant is underappreciated. He began his career as Jordan was ending his (and was passed “the torch” on national television at the age of 19); he spent half of his seasons playing alongside one of the most dominant players of his era; there were a few years when he was one of the most reviled athletes on the planet (Kobe’s rape trial is one of the most bizarre story arcs of any modern athlete’s career);* one of the greatest players of Kobe’s generation, Tim Duncan, has won four championships and counting (debating who’s greater between Kobe and Duncan seems an awful lot like arguing about Magic and Bird); and now LeBron James and Kevin Durant have come along.

*If you’d like to see first hand just how divisive of a player Kobe has been, look no further than Basketball Reference’s Elo Rater - a “community based project” which asks fans to rate the greatest players of all-time - where Kobe ranks (as of this writing) at 246th. TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY SIX. That’s three behind Kelly Tripucka. They’d be the first to admit that their formula has flaws, but this is beyond anomaly.

There’s a theory in the world of photography, first made famous by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, that states that the secret to a successful, fulfilling career lies in one’s ability to understand the operations of the Helsinki bus station.

There are two dozen platforms at this station, each from which several different bus lines depart. Each bus leaving the station takes the same route for the first kilometer or so, making identical stops along the way. Every individual bus line represents a different career path, and each of these stops, it is said, represent one year in the life of a photographer - or, really, any artist.

After a few years the photographer takes their work to a gallery, only to hear that someone else has done what they’ve done before; that someone else was on this bus before them. So they get off, go back to the station and board a new bus, only for the same thing to happen a few years later. And then they repeat the cycle, and all throughout their career they’re compared to others who came before them.

So what are they supposed to do? Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.

The key is getting past that first kilometer to the point where the bus lines diverge, at which point any artist who has persevered will be able to create their own unique career. The story, is, in a sense, a cautionary tale against zealously pursuing originality. It’s not all that different from Chad Harbach’s/Aparicio Rodriguez’s The Art of Fielding - let the ball’s path become your own path.

Stay on the fucking bus: continue down the same beaten road to discover what lies beyond.

And yet, for Kobe Bryant, it seems as though, after all of these years, after all of those championships - after every accomplishment, and every bus stop, throughout his career - Kobe’s detractors have shrugged him off, as if to say, “Jordan already did it.”

And it’s facile to say so because Kobe has a competitive fire that is truly Jordanesque; it’s been his greatest strength as a scorer and player, but it has also been his greatest weakness. All of these games, all of these minutes, all of these deep playoff runs and international competitions - all of those miles - have punished his body. The points and the wins come with a price, and they were a price which Kobe Bryant has been willing to pay for seventeen years.

Kobe’s been dealing with various ailments - some more serious than others - for years now, yet through it all he has always remained one of the league’s premier scorers; one of it’s premier players. Watching him play this season (as Bill Simmons put it) like a designated hitter in baseball - taking defensive possessions off - you start to realize how much Kobe has negotiated his physical limitations over the years in order to maintain his effectiveness on the offensive end; he’s been declining for a while, but he’s done a great job of masking it. This injury may not signal the end of Kobe Bryant’s career, but it is almost certainly a harbinger of Kobe’s fall from the NBA’s elite. Watching him console Pau Gasol and his teammates after they were embarrassed by San Antonio, you could only get the feeling that Kobe’s window not only closed, but slammed shut.

But Kobe has been so much more than just this possessed Jordan-emulator; he stayed on the bus until the wheels - quite literally - fell off. He may not have made it quite as far as Michael Jordan - it’s possible no one ever will - but what he has achieved is something wholly unique. What he has created is something entirely remarkable, beautiful and awesome, in the most literal sense of the word.

It appeared, to many of us, as if Kobe had pursued greatness and originality with hawkish fervor, only it has been us who were too spoiled, too jaded, too cynical, to recognize that what we’ve been watching on a nightly basis wasn’t just historic, but sui generis. Kobe’s career is almost like Picasso’s Guernica: it’s a surreal tableau of prom dates with Brandy, dunks and fadeaways, poor rap songs, scoring titles, villainy, ugly break-ups with his co-star, selfishness, redemption, self-applied nicknames, and championship banners that we may never see again.

These were seasons and games and moments which we’ll tell our children about: the championships; the All-Star Games; the MVPs; the gold medals; the leap into Shaq’s awaiting arms; the 81 points against Toronto; the crossover against Pippen, and the lob to Shaq; the tireless work ethic; the grins and fistpumps and f-bombs; the last second daggers and vicious dunks.

They’ve all combined to create one of the most confounding and incredible careers in the history of basketball. Guernica may not be the greatest painting we’ve ever seen, but it is, unequivocally, great.

One of my favorite Kobe stories is when, after a loss to the Miami Heat in 2011, Kobe remained at American Airlines Arena, maniacally and obsessively shooting hundreds of jumpers for 90 minutes. It showed everyone just how much he wanted to win, but he was also sending a message to the two young stars hoping to unseat him as the league’s alpha-dog.

When he explained his motivation to Adrian Wojnarowski that night, Kobe quoted Achilles (from the movie Troy): I want what all men want. I just want it more. It’s only fitting for a great artist to have met his demise in such poetic fashion.

Statistical support provided by Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference.com, and Basketball-Reference.com.

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