No. 87: Nolan Ryan

Do you remember Richard Ben Cramer’s magical lead in his incomparable story on Ted Williams? The lead was simply this: “Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those.”

Nolan Ryan, in his own way, tried for something even bigger than best ever. He might have been the best pitcher ever if that had been his ambition. Certainly no pitcher ever threw harder. Certainly no pitcher ever threw a more devastating curveball. He struck out more hitters than any pitcher ever, and he gave up fewer hits per inning than any pitcher ever. Yes, he might have been the best ever but that would have meant sacrifices, moderation, it would have meant accepting a few small losses in order to gain the larger victory. Nolan Ryan was not one to ever accept losing.

And Nolan Ryan wasn’t trying for best ever.

There’s a story I’ve written before. In 1979, late May, there was a Sunday afternoon game between Nolan Ryan’s Angels and the Chicago White Sox. The leadoff hitter that day for Chicago was a man named Ralph Garr, a lifetime .300 hitter with a shrill voice and a happy-go-lucky attitude. They called him the Road Runner. Garr stepped to the plate to lead off the game against Ryan. He had seen Ryan 59 times before so this wasn’t a new experience.

Only, it was. Ryan threw fastballs that day that Garr — even 30 years later — would insist he never saw. He struck out (on three pitches if he remembered correctly) and walked back to the dugout.

And then, throughout Anaheim Stadium, 27,189 people if they listened carefully could hear that high-pitched voice of Ralph Garr shriek: “Boys, we got NO SHOT today.”

That, I think, is what Nolan Ryan was trying for.

* * *

In Larry Tye’s fascinating book, “Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” we learn that the idea of kryptonite — the matter that could steal Superman’s powers — did not come along for years after the comic book. Kryptonite had a complicated history in the comics and radio (It, apparently, was first known as K-Metal), but essentially the creators realized they needed it. Why? Superman was too invulnerable. If a man is stronger than any villain, faster than any villain, can see through walls, is impervious to pain, bulletproof, can burn with his eyes, can blow a wind cold enough to freeze stuff and can fly around the world so fast he can reverse the earth’s rotation and turn back time … what’s the next plot point?

Superman needed something, a vulnerability, or he would have become, well, boring.

There is something genius about the idea of kryptonite, I think. It was a stone that couldn’t hurt anyone else. But it wrecked Superman. How could something so seemingly harmless, so utterly innocuous destroy the Man of Steel?

As mentioned: Nolan Ryan Struck out more batters than any pitcher in baseball history. He also allowed fewer hits per nine innings than any man in baseball history. Here’s a good little quiz for you.

Since Deadball ended — it was a different game in Deadball — who has thrown the most no-hitters?

A: Nolan Ryan. Of course. He threw the seven no-hitters, most ever even if you include Deadball.

OK. Next. Since Deadball, who threw the most one-hitters?

A: Nolan Ryan. He’s tied with Bob Feller with 12 one-hitters.

Since Deadball, who threw the most two-hitters?

A: Nolan Ryan. He threw 18 of them.

Since Deadball, who threw the most three-hitters?

A: Nolan Ryan. He threw 31.

Think about this for a moment. Nolan Ryan threw 69 complete games where he allowed three or fewer hits. That’s more than Roger Clemens … and Pedro Martinez … and Randy Johnson. COMBINED. It’s more than Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale combined, even if you throw Greg Maddux on top.

This describes Nolan Ryan, I think. You take a man. Give him a 100-mph fastball that he can basically throw all day and night. Give a curveball that defies physics. What will he do with these gifts? Nolan Ryan chose to use them, full-speed, full-throttle, full-everything every single time he pitched. He would not back off. He would not take something off. He unleashed the A fastball every time out. He unleashed the A curveball every time out. And if anyone dared charge the mound, he would grab that person in a headlock and pummel his face.

What kryptonite could weaken such a pitcher?

Even now, looking back, it does not seem possible that the little things that did weaken Nolan Ryan were powerful enough to do so. The first little thing was walks. Such a small thing. A walk. But Nolan Ryan walked more batters than any pitcher ever. No, that’s not quite right, he walked WAY more batters than any pitcher ever. He walked almost 1,000 more batters than any pitcher ever.

Gaylord Perry pitched forever, right? Utterly forever. Gaylord Perry could have had his career TWICE and not walked as many batters as Nolan Ryan. Sandy Koufax could have had THREE careers and not walked as many batters as Nolan Ryan. His 2,795 walks are mind-boggling … I always like to put it this way. You know that Nolan Ryan has allowed the fewest hits per inning in baseball history. So where do you think his WHIP ranks — WHIP being walks plus hits per inning. Remember now, he’s the lowest ever at hits per inning pitched.

So where do the walks drop him in WHIP? Into tenth place? Twenty fifth? Sixtieth?

Answer: 276th.

I never see that coming.

So Ryan walked lots and lots of hitters. How much could that really hurt him? Well, he also threw more wild pitches than any pitcher since 1900. He threw 276 wild pitches — FIFTY more wild pitches than the No. 2 guy (knuckleballer Phil Niekro). So that didn’t help the cause.

OK. Walks and wild pitches. What else?

Well, he was so slow to the plate that he gave up 757 stolen bases in his career. SEVEN HUNDRED FIFTY SEVEN. Nobody is even close to that. Greg Maddux gave up 547 — he’s second on the list.

Oh, and he also committed more errors than any pitcher since Deadball. Ryan committed 90 errors in his career. By comparison, Tom Seaver committed just 42, same as Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry committed 38, Phil Niekro 37, Bert Blyleven 30. Ryan did not field his position well or with any particular verve. He did seem to like when people actually hit the ball against him.

When you put it all together — the walks, the stolen bases, the errors, the wild pitches — you see the incomparable Nolan Ryan weakening in a rather astonishing way. The most unhittable pitcher of them all has only a 112 ERA+. He lost 292 games. He gave up six or more runs in a game an almost unbelievable 99 times, most for any pitcher in the last 70 years, 25 more times than Blyleven or Spahn, more than twice as often as Seaver or Feller.

Nolan Ryan was a great pitcher, unquestionably, but his stuff was greater. His aura was greater. His electricity was greater. It almost feels wrong to put him on a Top 100 list because he belongs on his own list, in his own club of which he is the only member.

The question I’ve always had, the one that he probably could not answer is this: Did it have to be this way? Couldn’t Ryan have taken five mph off his fastball and thrown more strikes? Couldn’t he have taken just a little bit of the bite off his curveball and thrown fewer wild pitches? Couldn’t he have shortened up his delivery just a little bit to prevent base stealers from running at will against him? Couldn’t he have worked on his defense just a little bit more?

Maybe the answer is: Yes, he could have done those things. But then he would not have been the most unhittable pitcher who ever lived. He would have been too much like others. And he would not have been Nolan Ryan.

72 thoughts on “No. 87: Nolan Ryan

  1. ksbeck76

    Thanks, Joe – I’ve been eagerly waiting for the entry on Nolan. I grew up just a few miles from his home in Alvin, Tx. (we shared the same dentist and my family was friends with the veterinarian who took care of his animals), and he has always remained my favorite player. I think you got exactly what made him both a legend and a flawed pitcher – he had to win every single pitch and so sacrificed many wars to win the battles. Objectively, I guess as an Astros fan, I would have liked for him to reign the power for bit more control, but he wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting a player.

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  2. Kevin

    All those K’s. All those BB’s. All those complete games. I want to know how many pitches he threw and where that ranks among contemporaries.

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      1. Donald A. Coffin

        Ryan ranks 5th in batters faced [behind Cy Young (29,565), Pud Galvin, Walter Johnson, and Phil Niekro (22,677)], with 22,575. He almost certainly threw more than 100,000 pitches in his career, and almost certainly more than anyone before or (to date) since. And no one will ever catch him; the leading active player is Mark Buerhle, with around 14,000 BFP. (Data from Baseball Reference)

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  3. Bill White

    You are certainly entitled to your opinion that “Nolan Ryan wasn’t trying for best ever.” You might even be right, but I read nothing in your article which supports that notion in the slightest. I think that is something that is best answered by Nolan Ryan himself and I also think you, as one who most probably has access to Nolan Ryan, ought to ask him directly, rather than make that conclusion for him.

    Ryan is quoted as once saying, “It took me a while to figure that out and to realize what a gift that I had been given. And when I finally did, I dedicated myself to be the best pitcher I possibly could be, for as long as I possibly could be.” While that doesn’t address the point of him striving to be the “best ever” directly, it certainly doesn’t sound like the words of someone who wasn’t leaning strongly in that direction.

    Why not just ask him?

    Reply
    1. GoonerNC

      The rhetorical point of this post is NOT that Nolan Ryan didn’t try to be the greatest pitcher of all time. It’s an appreciation of what he was. It’s a speculative, quasi-artistic blog post. Why did that part bother you so much?

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      1. Bill White

        If the intent was to be “speculative and quasi-artistic” the sentence would have been just as effective had it been, “But I don’t think Nolan Ryan was trying for best ever”. I am bothered by the original because one of the basic rules of reporting is that opinion should be clearly delineated from fact; it’s something that I feel (Note: I am stating an opinion here) is often ignored in journalism today.

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    2. James

      Yeah…I think a better sentence would be “he wasn’t trying for best ever by my definition”. Which isn’t as fun of a statement to try and prove.

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    3. tycobb420

      I suspect Ryan thought his approach would make him the best ever. He was utterly uncompromising. He would not let you beat him, but he was okay if he beat himself (or bested on his own terms.). I think Joe captured the pros and cons of this approach very well.

      Regarding what Ryan himself would say: I don’t know that it matters. Not to me, at least. His actions — and they are very clear — make plain his own career objectives.

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  4. Chad Meisgeier

    My oldest son’s name is Nolan. When a friend of mine had a chance to meet Nolan Ryan, he mentioned my new born son (about 12 years ago). Nolan Ryan pulled out a ball signed it and sent it back with my friend for my son. That’s what baseball should be.

    For my No. 87, I would say Old Hoss Radbourn.

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  5. bellweather22

    My family had season tickets to the Angels during the Ryan era. I saw him at his best and his worst…. And once both at the same time. He had a no hitter against the Twins, I think on the last day of the season. He struck out 15 and walked 8….. And there were a few balls shelled to the warning track, that were hauled in, held in only by the thick night time ocean air and the big dimensions of Angel Stadium at that time. Ryan struggled mightily that night…. And threw a no-hitter.

    But unlike his aura suggests to many, he had far too many games where the walks, wild pitches and errors led to disaster. Of course he was thrilling to watch when he was on his game….totally unhittable at times… And teams knew you had to get to him early or he might settle in and make it GAME OVER …. Or like Garr said, WE GOT NO SHOT TONIGHT…..But you never knew that you were going to get THAT guy, or the guy that couldn’t throw a strike and was constantly on the brink of disaster. The big question for Angel fans every time was “can he get through the first three innings and find a groove?”

    I was stunned when he became a first ballot HOFer. A lot of players, after five years, don’t seem so awesome. With Ryan, everyone seemed to forget the flaws and just remembered the awesome stuff. Joe captured the bad stuff that everyone seems to forget. Oh, and I was a HUGE Fan, not a hater at all. I just saw, in person, over 100-200 of his starts, not just the highlights.

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      1. Josh L

        Schilling’s career bWAR: 80.7
        Ryan’s career bWAR: 83.8

        Best five seasons by bWAR:
        Schilling 8.8, 8.7, 7.9, 6.3, 6.2
        Ryan 7.8, 7.7, 6.2, 5.9, 5.4

        Number of seasons with 4 or more bWAR:
        Schilling: 11
        Ryan: 8

        Ryan struck out way more guys (5,714 to 3,116) but also walked way more (2,795 to 711)

        Schilling’s career K/BB ratio: 4.38 (best ever)
        Ryan’s career K/BB ration: 2.04

        Playoffs:
        Schilling:
        133.1 innings, 2.23 ERA, 0.968 WHIP, 4 complete games, 2 shutouts, 11-2 record
        Ryan:
        58.2 innings, 3.07 ERA, 0.903 WHIP, 1 complete game, 0 shutouts, 2-2 record

        The only thing Ryan really has over Schilling is longevity (27 seasons to 20; 5,386 innings to 3,261 innings)

        Schilling was most definitely a better pitcher than Ryan

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        1. Richard Aronson

          You are cherry picking your statistics. How about most seasons leading the league in ERA (Ryan 2, Schilling 0). Or strikeouts (Ryan 11, Schilling 2)? Schilling for his career ranks in the top 20 in strikeouts and strikeout to walk ratio. Ryan ranks in the top 20 in WAR, in wins, in H/9, in K/9, in IP, in strikeouts, starts, and shutouts. Yes, Schilling has a lot fewer negatives, which are reflected in Ryan’s WAR and ERA not being better. But Ryan did a lot of things extremely well, both in counting stats and ratio stats. Since it’s a Hall of Fame, I think 7 no hitters ranks as being pretty famous. Ryan had some of the best ratios in history while also pitching 2,000 more innings. K/W is an important ratio, but I think H/9 is more important.

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          1. Josh L

            Yeah, I’m cherry picking because I’m only using stats that indicate how good they were as actual players. Famous does not equate to better. No-hitters and strikeouts are sexy, but as an overall pitcher Ryan simply wasn’t as good as Schilling. There’s a reason Schilling’s top five seasons blow Ryan’s top five out of the water. There’s a reason Schilling’s career ERA+ of 127 dwarfs Ryan’s ERA+ of 112.

          2. Spencer

            It’s incredibly unfair to say Josh L is cherry picking his stats or trolling.

            Especially when Joe has these two players ranked relatively close.

            I don’t know if I agree with Josh but he definitely has an argument.

  6. Rich

    I always used Ryan as a way to explain to people the use of things like walks, stolen bases, defense, etc. If Nolan Ryan isn’t the best pitcher ever, then those other things MUST matter…and Nolan gave us a large sample size due to his career. Great posts Joe

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  7. KTM

    Great stuff Joe… I’m wondering if he would’ve had as many walks, if everything being equal, he threw from the Port side. Either Lefty’s have mesmerized the umps or they must be magical. Tom Glavine is a case in point. Has there ever been anyone in baseball get so many outside corner strikes. I doubt it.

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    1. Cathead

      I think Randy Johnson (not Tom Glavine) is the left-handed Nolan Ryan. Johnson & Ryan were power pitchers. Glavine was all about finesse, the ultimate nibler.

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    2. bellweather22

      Glavine nibbled and had a surprisingly high walk rate for a non power pitcher with only two pitches…. Who pitched at a HOF level. His mantra was “never give in” and he never did. It worked for him.

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  8. Anon

    The most underrated aspect of Ryan was that he was INCREDIBLY HR stingy. Really one of the best at preventing HR in the last 50 years. while that’s partly from just not giving up hits, it’s more than that. I’ve always thought based on the numbers that Ryan was the biggest nibbler ever – that’s how you get high Ks, BBs and low HR totals.

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    1. bellweather22

      Being able to get outs with 390 foot drives to the alleys of Angel stadium in the heavy night time ocean air didn’t hurt him any either. At home, at least, he pitched without fear of HRs.

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  9. KHAZAD

    I am really enjoying this series.

    I think you did a pretty good job of capturing the contrast between Nolan Ryan and many other players. Sometimes we talk about the differences between peaks and counting stats. Ryan obviously had a long career and the counting stats, but his “peak” wasn’t a section of years followed by a long section of pedestrian play. He had the ability to peak every night, well into his 40s. There was no real decline. Only his last year, at the age of 46, did he no longer seem capable of greatness on a given night. But when comparing him to other dominant pitchers there were too many valleys for his averages to stack up. Of pitchers with at least 1000 innings pitched (since 1901) there are 56 guys in the hall of fame. Ryan is ranked 48th in ERA+. The 8 pitchers behind him, and a few above him, are people who are mentioned as questionable or sometimes ridiculous hall of fame choices. When looking at the best peak seasons, by ERA+ (162 innings +) Ryan’s best season clocks in at #174.

    I would not have been surprised if Ryan was #100 on your list, but it still would have been a travesty if he was not a first ballot hall of famer. Ryan was one of the pitchers with the most “fame” for 20 solid years. He was must see TV.

    I have been going to see live baseball games, mostly in Kansas City, since 1973. I am a fan of good pitching, and I go to many games to see a great pitcher or a great pitching matchup. One of my favorite games was an 18 inning affair, that ended obviously with both starters long gone. I went to that game specifically to see Bret Saberhagen vs. Nolan Ryan. I have no doubt that I probably saw Nolan Ryan pitch in Kansas City more than any other opposing pitcher, (despite the fact that he spent 9 years in the NL before interleague play) because there was always the possibility that the home team would have a bunch of base runners and stolen bases and beat one of the best, and also the possibility that Ryan would be great that night, and you would witness it.

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  11. Joshua Raisen

    I have no doubt Ryan consciously tried for best ever throughout his career . . . and also have no doubt he feels that he achieved it. That anyone else feels different can be attributed to merely differences of philosophy.

    There is nothing truer Joe has ever written than that Nolan Ryan was unique in baseball history. Funny that statheads and traditionalists agree on why he was great (Da K’s!) but would disagree on his fatal flaw (walks or win %?)

    Reply
  12. Ed

    One thing that does support Ryan’s claim that he got better as he got older is that of the top ten WHIPs in his career, only one of them is from a season where he is less than 34 years old.

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  13. Will3pin

    Favourite Stat: Ryan pitched more no-hitters (7), than no-walkers (4)!

    Favourite Topps card: Ryan Saves The Day! (1970)

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  14. Dave

    Did Ryan ever throw a change-up? Even just once a game? I don’t think I’ve ever read anybody say that he did. Do any of you fans know?

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    1. NRJyzr

      Ryan developed a change up at some point in his Astros career. Or what looked like a change up on TV, anyway, slower with that down and in movement to RH batters…

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      1. Dave

        Thanks for the info. I saw Ryan pitch in ’68 I believe, back at Shea. He went fine through the order once, the second time he was shelled. I don’t think he so much threw one curve that day; he shook off Grote a lot. It was “here’s my heat. It’s going by you, or you’re going to hit it.”

        Koufax didn’t develop his pinpoint control until he dropped down a few mph, and with that control and the development of a change–threw it only 3-5 times a game, that was enough–he still got his K’s.

        Ryan was unique. “This is what I do. This is how I do it. I’m not giving in.” In many ways, he was the complete opposite of Maddux, and if he had hurt his arm, he never would have transformed himself the way Tanana did. Pitching Tanana’s way in his “second career” was not Ryan’s way.

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        1. bellweather22

          That’s why the Mets lost faith in him. When the Angels got him, they were awful. They just wrote his name on the lineup card every fourth game and sent him out to do his thing. It drew a lot of fans, and the Angels weren’t ever in the playoff hunt the first few years. So, why not, right? The Mets had a great pitching staff already and were trying to win, so they didn’t have the luxury of letting Ryan work it out…. Not dissimilar from how the Braves trotted Glavine and Smoltz out there in their first years when their results were often bad.

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        2. Richard Aronson

          Koufax disagrees with you. Koufax says it took him a lot of innings (and he wasn’t working regularly because Alston resented having a wild bonus baby on his roster) to finally perfect his pitching motion. I don’t think he was any slower in 1966 (and his stats don’t agree with you); I think he just placed the ball much better. His first good control year was also his first year of getting to stay in the rotation and, not coincidentally, his first year with 200+ IP, 200 K’s, or leading the league in Ks (1961, for those of you keeping score at home).

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    2. bellweather22

      He had one he developed before he left the Angels. In fact he threw it, I believe to Bobby Grich, to close out a no hitter against the Orioles. Grich, looking for the heat, had no chance and took it for strike 3. He didn’t throw it much, but he didn’t have to.

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    3. Rick R

      Ryan did develop a pretty good change-up later in his career, it was one reason he was lasted so long. He didn’t throw it often—maybe a few times a game—but given how good his fastball and curveball was, nobody was ever looking for the change, and it became a very effective complimentary pitch.

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  15. Rick R

    I remember meeting Nolan Ryan at a book signing. There was nothing about him that said “this guy threw the ball harder than anybody who ever lived”. I mean, he looked like a banker (which at the time he was). He was 6′ 2″ and fit, and you could buy him as an ex-jock, but he wasn’t huge like Randy Johnson or possessed of the simian arms of Walter Johnson or the whip-like arms of Satchel Paige, and he never bulked up like Clemens, but somehow this guy had the perfect physique coupled with the perfect technique to throw as hard as anyone ever has for a quarter century, and never suffer from arm problems. A unique specimen.

    I understand the reason for the ranking, but for all his flaws, Ryan’s got to rate higher. I mean, c’mon. Most strikeouts and no-hitters of all-time (two records that may never be broken)? 324 wins? The hardest starting pitcher to hit in the history of baseball? He’s a top 50 guy at least.

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    1. Which hunt?

      Dude was seriously #1 in the Bad Motherf***er department, but 112 ERA+ and 2,795 BBs mean there were people who were better at preventing baserunners and runs, which is the job of a pitcher. I wouldn’t want to face him though. Other than Randy Johnson or Bob Gibson I can’t think of anybody as terrifying on the mound.

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  16. otistaylor89

    June 14, 1974 CAL vs. BOS. 19 strikeouts, 10 walks, 13 inning CG win. I watched that game and I was scared for my Red Sox – I wouldn’t have the balls to go up against that. He came back in August and struck out 19 again against Sox, but only 2 walks.

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    1. bellweather22

      235 pitches too! On the August return date you mentioned, I believe it was the one start ahead of a planned promotion vs the Tigers where they were going to put a radar on Ryan to measure his fastball. This was before radar guns, so the setup was complex. So, they supposedly tested it during the Aug Red Sox 19 K start and caught Ryan “unofficially”at 104 mph. That, to me, was totally believable. He didn’t have his best against the Tigers during the “official” start against the Tigers a week later. Still, he was in the 97-99 range in the early innings (I was at the game btw). But as Ryan often did, he strengthened as the game went on and clocked an “official” 100.9 mph, I recall, in the 9th inning. That was with, for him, mediocre stuff.

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      1. bellweather22

        Looked it up and I guess the start I went to was the next start the first week of Sept. Saw a pic of the scoreboard that they put up after each inning with the fastest pitch of the inning. Some innings were really low. Ryan wasn’t even throwing 90 mph!!! That squares, though, with my remember his often starting slow. He did top out at 100.8 mph in the ninth. And it looks like the claim via Doppler radar gun previously was more like 107 mph. As I understood it, they measured the speed of the pitch at home plate, assumed a 50 ft flight from hand to plate and added 8-9 mph to account for the deceleration of the ball during its flight.

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  17. Josh L

    I think I’ll forever be grateful to this series for leading me to that Ryan vs. Ventura moment. Maybe I’ve seen it before, but it was probably before I knew who they were or was following baseball. Though maybe not. I feel like Ryan was one of the first MLB players I ever knew.

    In any case, it’s fantastic to hear the fantastic highs with the grand flaws. Makes for a more nuanced picture of the man that I never imagined as a kid, picturing the all-time K leader.

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  18. johnq11

    I’m surprised there isn’t more mention about Nolan Ryan and steroids.

    He has a very odd career arc. He had his peak from the age of 25-30 where he was a great pitcher. Then he had some good years off and on but nothing spectacular in his 30′s. He aged normally so he was an average pitcher by the mid 1980′s when he was in his late 30′s. I remember selling baseball cards back then and the thought was kind of mixed as to whether he would make the HOF or not. Then he has this amazing late career peak starting at age 40 going until age 44-45.

    During the winter of ’86-87 he was 40 years old had a 253-226 record, it looked like the end for Ryan.

    Suddenly at 40 years old he has a great season, he leads the league in ERA, K’s, K/9, H/9, and K/BB. He had awful run support so his W-L record but he had a great year. He had 270 k’s for God’s sake!! 270?? He hadn’t had that many since 1977? He hadn’t led the league in K/9 since 1979. He never led the league K/BB before. He hadn’t led the league in ERA since 1981 and H/9 since 1983.

    From 1987-1991 he led the league in K’s 4 times throwing 301 in 1990. He led the league five consecutive seasons in K/9. He led the league in H/9 four times. He had never led the league in whip but led the league 2 consecutive years in 1990-1991 at the ages of 43-44 years old???

    This late career peak created an aura & mystique around Ryan and he credited his success to a fitness regime and throwing a football??

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  19. Blake

    I watched Ryan pitch many times against the Orioles in the ’70s.

    The O’s were always patient in the Weaver era. He no-hit them once. But he was 10-17 lifetime against them, with a 4.21 ERA.

    As a fan, I never feared Ryan. Sure, he might be unhittable, but as you can see by the record, the odds were good that he wouldn’t be.

    No question he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But I don’t think he’s one of the best 100 players ever. At the risk of sounding like a Jack Morris advocate (I’m not), he was great at pitching, but not at winning, and no, it wasn’t just his teammates’ fault.

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  20. invitro

    Ryan was my very first favorite baseball player, favorite celebrity, favorite anything, really. I was age 6 in 1976 and my dad was watching an Angels game on Saturday afternoon, and that was that. I was only a casual fan of MLB until he signed with the Astros, who happened to be my first favorite team. I would beg to go to relatives’ or friends’ houses when he was pitching on a cable station, which was fairly often in the early 1980s.

    Sometime around 1982, I subscribed to Sporting News, and that blew up the size of the sports world I knew, and other things happened that blew up the size of the world in general. Tons of things were happening. Ryan became less crucial; still a favorite player, but not someone I would think about all week, hoping he would be on TV that afternoon or weekend.

    The explosive adoration of Ryan that happened in the 1990s was a strange thing for me. The love I had for the guy as a player when I was age 6 to 12 seemed to have suddenly, after ten years, spread to all fans. He was one of a kind, helped make me a baseball fan, a sports fan, and well, just a fan… taught me what rooting for someone was right, and feeling crushed when they failed or elated when they succeeded.

    Anyway… great article, great series. We are spoiled for getting this for free. With some color photos and tables of stats, it could have been Joe’s next book, and maybe still should be. I’d buy it.

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  21. Clayton

    Nolan Ryan at #87 is laughable. Joe you just lost all credibility with this post. Having Lou Whitaker in your top 100 was bad enough but Nolan freaking Ryan at 87? How many records does Nolan have? He has nearly 1000 more career strikeouts than the second-place pitcher. He won 300+ games. He was robbed of the Cy Young award on at least 2 occasions. Did he walk a lot of batters? Hell yeah he did. But that’s like penalizing Mickey Mantle for having too many strike-outs or not enough SBs.

    I love your HOF columns and I will continue reading those but this list has become a waste of time.

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    1. bellweather22

      I think Joe captured his downsides quite well. Btw, how many of his starts did you witness vs how many highlights did you see? I had season tickets to watch him for years and he , no doubt, was exciting, dominating and filled the highlight real. But the lowlights were frequent enough too. I compare him to Dominique Wilkins. Super exciting to watch. The human highlight real. But was a poor shooter and played no defense. A HOFer, but nobody puts him in the same conversation with Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Robertson, Bird, West, et al. Too many flaws. Same with Ryan, but his aura of the amazing highs seems to have blotted out the reality of the also amazing lows for too many.

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    2. Karyn

      Clayton, did you read the whole article? No one’s saying Ryan isn’t a Hall of Famer–he most certainly is. But he was not among the ten best pitchers of all time. He just wasn’t.

      Reply
    3. ben

      Clayton, could you be any ruder. Since this list has become “a waste of time,” don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.

      Reply
    4. Spencer

      We’re all very sorry reality doesn’t square with your childhood impressions.

      Perfectly acceptable ranking for Ryan, one my 2 favorite players as a child.

      Reply
  22. Anon

    Ryan had 20 seasons where he pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and he led his team in ERA only 8 times. (counting only ERA elig starters). This despite not ever having a HOF caliber pitching teammate.

    Reply
  23. franklb

    Joe, you hit precisely on why Nolan Ryan is my all time favorite pitcher. I am a huge Greg Maddux fan, too (Doggie is my second favorite), but for completely different reasons, obviously.

    And thank you for reminding me of the Ryan/Ventura mound incident.

    Your list is provoking great discussion and great comments. The folks who call this a waste of time obviously disagree with you, but maybe they just don’t like arguing baseball. I love it. And because you write so well, I’d read the rest of the list, even if Yunieski Betancourt and Jeff Francoeur are on it.

    Reply
  24. Cliff Blau

    The key statistic on Ryan: Home ERA 2.77, Road ERA 3.73. If he’d pitched his home games in even a neutral park, he wouldn’t be mentioned in a ranking of the top 250 players, let alone the top 100.

    Reply
  25. Dennis Laudal

    The most dominating game I ever saw was by Nolan Ryan. It was against the Chicago White Sox and he threw a one-hitter with 15 strikeouts. I am not sure of the year but it was a bit latter in his career (I think he was with Texas). He didn’t walk anyone!!! There was not one ball that was hit with any authority the one hit was a simple bloop over the first baseman’s head. The non-strikeout outs were easy pop flies or slow rolling groundouts. Simply amazing.

    Hoskens

    Reply
  26. mrgjg

    Nolan Ryan was simply a freak of nature and one of the most remarkable athletes we’ll ever see. He did things that seem impossible. Seven no-hitters, 13 one-hitters and 18 two-hitters.
    That’s 38 CG 2 hits or less. Next on that list is Bob Feller with 22.
    Sure he walked too many guys and wasn’t as great as the Seavers and Groves, but who else would have a 100/1 betting line against throwing a no-hitter.

    Reply
    1. mrgjg

      I guess this is what happens when you skim the article. I see Joe already covered the low hit games. I’ve read every article in the series including this one, except here I commented prior to digesting the whole article. Won’t happen again.

      Reply
  27. Spencer

    Great stuff as usual Joe.

    Nolan Ryan is also a fantastic teaching example for people I speak with about the importance of the win statistic. Anyone who overstates its importance I quickly ask if Nolan Ryan wasn’t an excellent pitcher in 1987 with a 2.76 ERA (led the league) but an 8-16 record.

    They either begrudgingly concede my point or stay to make exceedingly convoluted arguments about pitching to the score.

    Reply

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