Comparing Halladay to Larsen

My dad didn’t have much gas in the tank last night. Given his commute and the hours he works, an 8:30 weeknight start time means that he’ll watch an hour or so of the game before having to pack it in. So Dad didn’t see much of the Yankees-Twins game, but he did stay awake long enough to provide me with the inspiration for this post.

Dad was researching previous no-hitters on his Droid (I’m so proud of him) when he said it. “I wish people would stop comparing Roy Halladay to Don Larsen. Halladay pitched a no-hitter. Larsen pitched a perfect game. In the World Series.” I replied with a grunt. Michael Cuddyer had just homered to give the Twins a 2-0 lead and I wasn’t in the mood to talk about anything other than how screwed the Yankees were.

But it’s 14 hours later, and now I’m in the mood to stir things up and maybe get a disowning look from my dad later. 

I think Halladay’s performance last night was better than Larsen’s in the 1956 World Series. Some of that is subjective, I know. Many people – and I have no idea of my dad does all of this – give huge significance to the context of Larsen’s feat: He was a Yankee, pitching against the intra-city rival Dodgers, in Yankee Stadium, in a World Series that ended up going seven games. And, yes, not a single batter reached base against him. But me being me, I’m far more interested in the actual performance than in all the context. I don’t really care that Larsen did it in the World Series. It makes for a better story, sure, but if the question is “who pitched better, Halladay or Larsen?”, then I don’t think it matters much. Both feats were in the postseason, and given that we have no way of quantifying pressure – much less quantifying the difference between pressure in the NLDS and in the World Series – I think we just have to accept that both pitchers did it on a grand stage and be done with it.

Now, I just said that “both pitchers did it,” and that’s technically wrong. Halladay allowed a baserunner. Larsen did not. Given that simple fact, it seems ridiculous to argue that Halladay pitched better than Larsen. But then I have a question for you. Who pitched better: Nolan Ryan in his first no-hitter, or Kerry Wood on May 6th, 1998? If you’re link-wary:

  • Ryan: 9 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 12 K
  • Wood: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 20 K

I think any reasonable person would say that Wood pitched better than Ryan. Wood allowed one hit – a single in the third inning that didn’t even leave the infield – and then struck out 15 more Astros on his way to victory. Ryan allowed two more baserunners while striking out eight fewer batters. If you believe that Wood pitched better than Ryan, then you have opened yourself up to the possibility that a no-hitter with one walk (Halladay) can be better than a perfect game (Larsen). So let’s see if I can talk you into joining me.

When comparing Halladay and Larsen’s performances, the natural place to start is the quality of competition. Larsen’s perfect game came against the 1956 Dodgers. That team scored 720 runs and hit .258/.342/.419 in a 154-game season. Halladay’s opponent – the 2010 Reds – scored 790 runs and hit .272/.338/.436 in a 162-game season. So by traditional statistics, even adjusting for the extra eight games in today’s schedules, the Reds are a better offensive club than the ’56 Dodgers.

The advanced numbers bear this out, too. If you’ll remember, OPS+ is OPS measured against league average while adjusting for ballpark. An OPS+ of 100 is defined as perfectly average. The ’56 Dodgers had a team OPS+ of 96, so they were a below-average hitting club. The 2010 Reds’ team OPS+ is 108. Moreover, this difference existed in the Dodgers’ and Reds’ lineups on the days they were no-hit. The lineup the Dodgers sent out to face Don Larsen had an OPS+ of 96. The Reds’ against Roy Halladay? 102. By nearly any measure, Halladay faced tougher competition during his no-hitter than Larsen did during his perfect game.

Before moving on to what I think is the most compelling data, I should mention the difference in ballparks, too. Halladay threw his no-hitter in Citizens Bank Park, which favored pitchers slightly in 2010. Over the last few years, however, it has hovered right around average, meaning it favors neither hitters or pitchers. Larsen’s perfect game came in Yankee Stadium, a park that decidedly favored pitchers not only in 1956, but since 1949. So not only did Halladay face tougher competition than Larsen, but he did it in a less-cooperative ballpark too. I won’t even delve into the fact that the ’56 Yankees had a better defense than the 2010 Phillies do.

All of that information is convincing enough, but the strongest point in Halladay’s favor is the distribution of batted balls. In addition to his eight strikeouts, Halladay induced 12 grounders, three flies, one line drive, and three pop-ups. Larsen, on the other hand, recorded six grounders, seven flies, four line drives, and three pop-ups to go along with his seven strikeouts. To be clear:

  • Halladay: 8 K, 12 GB, 3 FB, 1 LD, 3 PU
  • Larsen: 7 K, 6 GB, 7 FB, 4 LD, 3 PU

Which line indicates a more dominant pitching performance to you?

I’m not arguing that Halladay’s result is better than Larsen’s. It isn’t. Larsen literally did not allow someone to reach base, and Halladay did. But I also think that in order to evaluate true skill and ability, it’s more important to look at the process than the result. And here are the processes: Halladay allowed one baserunner, against a good lineup, in a neutral ballpark, with an inferior defense, and with a dominant distribution of batted balls. Larsen allowed no baserunners, against a weak lineup, in a pitcher’s ballpark, with a superior defense, and with an average distribution of batted balls.

Even if his result was imperfect, I think it’s pretty clear that Halladay pitched better in his no-hitter than Larsen did in his perfect game.

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5 Responses to Comparing Halladay to Larsen

  1. Obviously not many of us were around to see Don Larson’s perfect game but Halladay delivered one of the most dominant performances I’ve ever seen. When you take inot consideration his body of work he’s a much better pitcher than Larson. But there’s no argument — perfect game in a World Series against a great Dodger team.

    I recently moved to the BAy Area from New York City. It feels so strange to wawtch a triple header and still be wide awake at the conclusion. I was never able to watch those Yankee playoff games (with all hte pitching changes) without the use of toothpicks to hold open eyes.

  2. Alex says:

    I didn’t get to see Halladay, but that Kerry Wood game in all likelihood is the greatest pitching performance of our lifetime. It’s on a DVD collection of the best Cubs games (ha ha) and worth watching in its entirety.

  3. Kevin says:

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any better. Pedro Martinez’s 1-hit, 17 K game against the 1999 Yankees (http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1999/B09100NYA1999.htm) will always stick out to me. But even if the ’99 Yankees’ lineup was better than the ’98 Astros’ (too lazy to look it up right now), it’s hard to say Pedro was better than Wood. After all, the one hit he allowed WAS a homer.

  4. Jeff says:

    I hate to show my age, but to me there’s the World Series and then there’s everything else. The World Series is the two best teams, and when they play the world stops and it watches. It’s not one of two or four games being played that day. I have no doubt that Hallyday’s game was statistically better. I already knew that he was the better pitcher because I’ve seen Larsen pitch.

    Larsen’s no-hitter is one of the best individual accomplishments in all of sports, a tribute to both what he did and the circumstances under which he did it. I applaud the Doc. He’s great, but they won’t be talking about this game 50 years from now.

  5. JJ says:

    I’ll take lincecums preformance yesterday over halladays anyday of the week

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