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.
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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?
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.