If you listen to sports talk shows where the experts are trying to figure out where Nolan Ryan sits on the all-time greats list, don’t be surprised if none of them puts Ryan number one on their greatest pitchers list.
Here’s what Tim Kurkjian, baseball analyst on ESPN, said when Ryan was ranked number 46 in a poll of the best 100 baseball players in MLB history. “He was the greatest power pitcher of all time…and the hardest pitcher to hit in Major League history…but, given the number of walks, the number of grand slams for instance that he gave up, the number of losses….everybody loves him, but the numbers don’t support him in many cases (for being the best pitcher).
And Bleacherreport.com ranked Ryan 36th on their greatest 100 players list, noting that “his longevity and overpowering stuff place him squarely among the best pitchers of all time.” Still, they ranked him behind 12 other pitchers, eight of them right-handed throwers.
He was named an All-Star just eight times, and never was given the Cy Young Award, presented to the best pitcher each season.
Many fans see it differently. The “Major League Baseball All-Century Team” was chosen by fan vote in 1999. More than two million voted, and Nolan Ryan received the most votes among pitchers, right ahead of Sandy Koufax. Only fitting, because when you look at Nolan Ryan’s career, Koufax’s name often pops up.
The fact is, there isn’t a baseball fan who doesn’t believe that in some way Nolan Ryan is a legend. A hero. Unmatched in a lot of ways. And certainly one of the most amazing pitchers to have played the game, for a variety of reasons.
Here’s a look at the amazing career of Nolan Ryan.
Four teams over four decades.
He was a blazing fast-baller when he started as a rookie for the New York Mets, and he was still throwing hard in his last season with the Texas Rangers.
He was just 19 years old in 1966, his first season, when he was 0-1. He was 46 years old in 1993, with a 5-5 record. Over that span covering four decades and 27 seasons, he pitched the New York Mets, the California Angels, The Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers.
In the heart of his career 1m 1979, Ryan become the first MLB player to earn a million dollar a year when he signed a four-year, $4.5 million contract as a free agent with the Houston Astros. It was four times more than he had been earning with the Angels and it made him the highest-paid player in MLB history.
By the numbers.
Ryan set the all-time MLB records with 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters.
Nolan Ryan also walked more batters than any other pitcher, 2,795, which many people refer to and point out as a flaw in his record. But that stat shouldn’t diminish his long list of amazing achievements:
- Ryan pitched 807 games; more than Carlton, Maddux, and Warren Spahn,
- He threw 222 complete games
- He threw 61 shutouts.
- His 5,714 career strikeouts came in 5,386 innings…more than one an inning.
- Ryan holds the all-time record for the lowest number of hits allowed—6.6—per nine innings pitched (1,000 innings minimum). Right behind him? Sandy Koufax.
- He is also tops in the Majors in “opponents batting average” at .204 (that’s what all batters hit against him). The runner up? Mr. Koufax.
Ryan won 324 games, which is the milestone that not all Hall of Fame pitchers reach. Only Carlton, Clemens, Maddux and Spahn from the modern era won more than Ryan. You could win a bet with this one: Ryan won almost twice as many games as Sandy Koufax (165).
The Strikeout King of the Hill.
Batters found it impossible to hit Ryan. It’s as if they either walked or struck out:
- He holds the single-season strikeout record with 383, breaking the existing record, held by Sandy Koufax, by one.
- He led the league in strikeouts 11 times (seven out of eight times from ’72-’79).
- He led the league in Ks when he was 40 years old….and 41, 42, and 43.
- He struck out more than 300 in a season six times, tying him with Randy Johnson.
- At the age of 42 in 1989, Nolan Ryan struck out 301 hitters. No…let’s call them batters.
How fast was The Ryan Express? Try 108.5 mph.
Nicknamed “The Ryan Express,” Nolan Ryan was most likely the owner of the fastest pitch in baseball history. Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees, “The Cuban Missile,” is the hardest thrower today and was clocked with a 105.1 fastball a few years ago to set the official MLB record.
Ryan was once clocked by radar gun with a 100.9 mph fastball, which he threw in the 9th inning in a game in September 1974. (He pitched a complete 11-inning game that day, in a 1-0 loss).
But, since then, that one pitch has been reexamined and recalculated…and it’s picked up speed. That’s because the 100.9 mph pitch Ryan threw was measured at 10 feet in front of home plate, whereas today’s pitches are clocked at 50 ft. from home plate. When expert radar analysts recalculated the pitch with that information, the speed was estimated to be 108.5 mph.
Baseball fans knew that when Nolan Ryan took the mound, magic could happen. Ryan’s MLB record seven no-hitters put him three ahead of the next-closest pitcher. That would be the left-handed thrower for the Dodgers, again:
- His first no-hitter came on May 15, 1973, his second season with the California Angels.
- No-hitter number two came just two months later, with a win over the Tigers.
- He threw his next and third no-hitter the next year (’74) in late September with a win over the Twins.
- In June of 1975, Ryan pitched his 4th no-no against Baltimore. His four no-hitters, all with the same team, no less, tied him with…Koufax.
- Six seasons later in 1981 and now with Houston, he passed Koufax with a 5-0 no-hitter against…the Los Angeles Dodgers.
- Skip ahead nine seasons this time to June of 1990, when Ryan tossed no-hitter number six against Oakland.
- Ryan, at age 44, became the older pitcher to throw a no-hitter with a his seventh against the Blue Jays in May of 1991.
Ryan is tied with Bob Feller all-time for the most one-hitters, with 12. Ryan also pitched 18 two-hitters. If you’re wondering, he never pitched a perfect game.
A case of “Ryanitis”
There were players, it was said, who would come up with a one-day temporary “illness” that may have prevented them from playing on nights when Nolan Ryan was slated to pitch. It was called “Ryanitis,” and all MLB batters understood. Everyone who faced Nolan Ryan was well of what awaited them when they stepped in the batter’s box, even the greats.
- Reggie Jackson: "(Nolan) Ryan's the only guy who puts fear in me. Not because he could get me out, but because he could kill me. You just hoped to mix in a walk so you could have a good night and go 0-for-3."
- Pete Rose: “At the age of 41, Nolan Ryan is the top power pitcher in the league. You can talk about Dwight Gooden, you can talk about Mike Scott, you can talk about whoever you want, but none of them throw as consistently hard as Ryan does.”
Ultimate, and fitting, recognition.
In 1999 Nolan Ryan was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, his first year of eligibility. He received 98.79% of the vote and was only six votes short of a unanimous election.
Resources: sabr.org/research/baseball-s-major-salary-milestones; baseball-almanac.com/players/=ryan;
baseball-reference.com/players/r/ryan; bleacherreport.com/articles/the-100-greatest-mlb-players; thegamehaus.com/nolan-ryans-record-108; bleacherreport.com/articles/77843; mlb.com/news/unbreakable-records-Nolan-ryan; si.com/mlb/power-week-baseball-pitchers; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nolan_Ryan; “Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid.” John Rosengren, Sourcebooks, 200