Asked by a reporter to pinpoint the reason for his increase in strikeouts this season, Roy Halladay quickly pointed out that for the first time in his career he has the luxury of befuddling opposing pitchers.
And the numbers provide some evidence: In 65 at-bats against the ninth spot in the order this season, he has struck out 23 batters, an average of one K every 2.82 ABs. Last season, he struck out 17 in 87 at-bats against the ninth spot, an average of one K every 5.1 ABs.
But the numbers only go so far. Even if you took away all 23 of his strikeouts against the No. 9 spot in the order, Halladay would still be averaging 7.05 strikeouts per nine innings. That's higher than the rate he has posted in all but three of his big-league seasons, even before considering: a) Not all of his 23 strikeouts against No. 9 have come against pitchers, and b) He would still have some strikeouts against AL No. 9 hitters.
In other words, his league-leading 168 strikeouts (career high: 208, set last season) and career-best 8.2 K/9 (career average: 6.7) aren't entirely products of his switch to the National League.
Which is where his newest pitch enters into the equation.
In spring training, Halladay worked hard at developing his changeup, a pitch that had always been a distant fourth option behind his two-seamer, cutter and curveball. First, with some consultation from pitching coach Rich Dubee, he changed his grip on the pitch. Instead of nestling the ball in his palm, a technique that pitchers like Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer use to loosen their grip on the ball and lower its velocity while maintaining arm speed, Halladay began using a split-finger grip. Next, he spent much of the latter part of spring training throwing it over and over and over again. Now, he is more comfortable with the pitch than ever before.
Halladay has thrown his changeup roughly 11 percent of the time this season, according to pitch data tracked by Major League Baseball's website. That's more than double his career average.
"I could throw it when I needed it before, but it didn't have the action that it has," said Halladay, who has struck out at least nine batters in each of his last four starts and is now 14-8 with a 2.34 ERA in 24 starts. "It was a pitch that I'd give up hits on at times, so I kind of put it in my pocket unless it wasn't going to hurt me. Now I have the trust in it. It's a pitch I feel like I can throw in a jam."
Take the Phillies' 6-5 win over the Mets on Sunday, when Halladay allowed five runs in seven innings and could have easily allowed even more. With a man on third and one out in the first inning, Halladay threw David Wright a 2-0 changeup that resulted in a foul ball. Two pitchers later, the Mets star struck out swinging at a 2-2 curveball. In the third, Halladay got Carlos Beltran swinging at a curveball that he threw immediately after a fouled-off changeup.
"I think it's just given me something else that I can go to soft, whether I am behind in the count or ahead in the count," Halladay said. "I don't have to rely so much on curveballs and fastballs. I have something else I can go to that's soft, and I think that's been a big part of it, being able to throw it behind in the count, being able to do it with two strikes. It's something else that I can throw in there."
The result is a season in which Halladay is on pace to set career highs in complete games (eight currently/nine career high), innings (185/266), ERA (2.34/2.41), and, yes, strikeouts (168/208).
Although Halladay will be the first to admit: Bat-wielding pitchers haven't hurt his cause.