The Ryan Commuter
This weekend will be a memorable one in Cooperstown. For one, it'll be the last induction ceremony in the 1900's. And two, 3 of the greatest players ever will be inducted - George Brett, Robin Yount and Smokey Joe Williams. WHAT? What about Nolan Ryan?
OK, let's look at Nolan Ryan. He was the most phenomenal talent to ever take the pitching mound. No one threw harder for a longer period of time than Ryan. And there were times when he was simply unbelieveable. I remember sitting in the front row for a game in Baltimore and being amazed how loud the pop was when his fastball hit the catcher's glove. He owns tons of pitching records. His uniform number has been retired by three teams. He is perhaps the most famous pitcher ever. But the reality of Nolan Ryan is somewhat tragic.
For every amazing positive record he owns, there is an equally amazing negative record which he also owns. He's first in strikeouts by a whopping 38% margin over the #2 guy on the all time strikeout list. If you combined the strikeouts of Hall of Fame strikeout pitchers Sandy Koufax and Ferguson Jenkins, you still wouldn't have as many K's as Ryan. Wow! Of course, he's also first in walks by a whopping 52% over the #2 guy on the list. So if you combined the walks of Koufax and Jenkins and added the walks of Randy Johnson, you still wouldn't have the total given up by Ryan. Whoops.
The guy is 12th all time in wins. He pitched for 27 years! Yes, but if you go 12-11 for 27 years, you'll end up with the same record as Ryan. In those 27 years, Ryan made an amazing 773 starts. Cy Young made 815, a mere 42 more starts than Ryan and Young won 187 more games. Many have said that Cy Young's record number of wins could never be broken because of the way pitching staffs are set up these days: starters make too few starts to win that many games. Well, Ryan proved that's not necessarily true. The difference in the number of starts between him and Young is a little more than a year's worth. It's not necessarily the number of starts... you just have to know how to pitch.
Well, the reason Ryan didn't win more games is that he was on some pretty bad teams. Was he? In his 27 years of pitching, Ryan was only on 1 team that lost 90 games, the 1974 Angels. Ironically, that year was one of his best, winning 22 games for a team that won 68. He was also on the 1966 Mets which lost 95 games, but I don't really think you can call 3 innings pitched a year in the majors. However, Ryan was on 3 teams that won 90 games and another that won its division. The rest of the teams he was on were pretty mediocre. All totalled, Ryan's .526 winning percentage is not that much better than the .506 winning percentage of the teams he pitched on. Walter Johnson, on the other hand, made 107 fewer starts and won 93 more games on some historically bad teams. While he did pitch on 4 teams that won 90+ games, Johnson toiled on 3 teams that lost 90 games including one, the 1909 Senators, which lost 110! His .599 winning percentage is considerably better than the .492 percentage of the Senators' teams on which he pitched.
The man who held batters to the lowest batting average in history (.204) also happens to be the record holder for allowing the most sac flies and grand slams. Ryan's not in the top 100 in ERA, although many of his contemporaries - Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Greg Maddux... Andy Messersmith(!) - are. And Ryan spent most of his career in good pitcher's parks.
So what's my point in all this? There's no question Nolan Ryan is a legendary figure in the history of baseball. His seven no-hitters are a testament to that. And he's certainly deserving of his induction into the Hall of Fame. But all this hubub about him being one of the greatest pitchers of all time is just a lot of empty hype. Ryan never learned how to pitch until the last few years of his career. He relied solely on his physical ability to get him through rather than employing the most devastating weapon in every pitcher's arsenal: his head. Ted Williams is often described as the greatest hitter who ever lived. And rightly so. But he was more than just a great talent. Williams never met his equal as a student of his craft. Had Ryan been a fraction as diligent, we might have been treated to seeing Williams' pitching equivalent. As it stands, we are left with the legacy of a very good pitcher who accomplished some amazing things. But that's not quite the greatest.
By the way, Nolan lost that game in Baltimore in a pitcher's duel, 3-1... to Jose Mesa, another guy tabbed for greatness only to come up short..