MLB - Nolan Ryan: Why he's overrated (2024)

The following column was originally posted on September 16, 1999.

The topic might not be "hot" any more, but now that the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are little more than a warm fuzzy memory, perhaps we can address an issue and check our emotions at the door ...

    Hey Rob,

    I enjoy your column and I have a question for you. With Nolan Ryan recently going into the Hall of Fame, I found out a lot about his career numbers which I never knew. But the one I can't understand is his winning percentage. He was a .525 pitcher for his career. He basically threw 95-100 mph with a great curveball for his entire career, he has the lowest BA against and the most strikeouts ever. It seems to me that someone with that kind of "stuff" should have had a better winning percentage. Is there such a thing as a pitcher's OPS, on-base plus slugging allowed? If so, how does Ryan's stack up? Or is there some other reason why he doesn't have a better winning percentage? I mean, Walter Johnson pitched on some pretty terrible teams and he still had a .600 winning percentage. I remember reading how all the teams combined that Tom Seaver played for had a .500 record, yet Seaver has a .603 winning percentage. What gives with Ryan?


Here's what gives, Joe: Nolan Ryan was a fine pitcher for a long time, but he doesn't belong in the same room with Walter Johnson and Tom Seaver.

Ryan's problem was a simple one. He didn't throw enough strikes. I know that seems like a strange thing to say about the all-time strikeout king, but consider:

  • Ryan led his league in strikeouts 11 times, but he also led his league in walks eight times.
  • Walter Johnson led his league in strikeouts 12 times, but never led his league in walks.
  • Tom Seaver led his league in strikeouts five times, but never led his league in walks.
  • Christy Mathewson led his league in strikeouts five times, but never led his league in walks.
  • Roger Clemens led his league in strikeouts five times, but never led his league in walks.

    Not to be too simplistic, but it's almost that simple. The truly great pitchers, the guys who belong on the all-time teams, were able to record great numbers of strikeouts and avoid issuing many walks. While Ryan's .204 batting average allowed is indeed the lowest in major-league history, his .309 on-base percentage allowed isn't really close to being in the top 100. The other problem was, Ryan didn't do any of the little things well, like fielding the ball and holding runners.

    People like to defend Ryan by pointing to the quality of the teams for which he pitched, but you know, they really weren't all that bad. Not including 1966 -- he worked only three innings that year -- Ryan pitched for 26 seasons. I entered the winning percentages of his teams those 26 seasons, and then I added everything up. And you know what?

    In those 26 seasons, Ryan's teams won 2,104 games, and they lost 2,048 games.

    In those 26 seasons, Ryan's teams finished above .500 in 15 of them.

    What's your definition of a truly awful team? Does 90 losses seem reasonable? Well, in 26 years Ryan played for one team, the 1974 California Angels, that lost 90 or more games.

    All of which is to say, let's stop making excuses for Nolan Ryan. He was a very good pitcher. Total Baseball rates him as about 21 games better than a league-average pitcher over the course of his career. That's more than some Hall of Famers (Catfish Hunter, Early Wynn, Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning), but fewer than almost everybody else.

    That said, I do believe Ryan belongs in the Hall of Fame, because he won 324 games and he did a lot of things that nobody else has done, or likely will do. A Hall of Fame without Ryan would be like a lake without water.

    But to suggest that Ryan is, say, one of baseball's nine greatest pitchers is, in a word, indefensible.

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    Is Nolan Ryan considered the greatest pitcher of all time? ›

    After his retirement in 1993, Ryan served as chief executive officer (CEO) of the Texas Rangers and an executive advisor to the Houston Astros. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest MLB pitchers of all time.

    Who is considered the greatest pitcher of all time? ›

    1. Walter Johnson

    What player struck out the most against Nolan Ryan? ›

    Claudell Washington has the most career strikeouts against Nolan Ryan, with 39 strikeouts.
    Claudell Washington3239
    Chili Davis2828
    Andre Dawson2925
    Jorge Orta2025
    19 more rows

    Who taught Nolan Ryan to play baseball? ›

    Ryan was taught to play baseball by an elder brother and was a wild but fast pitcher in high school before he was signed by the National League (NL) New York Mets in 1965.

    Did Nolan Ryan threw 235 pitches in one game? ›

    On June 14, 1974, Ryan purportedly threw 235 pitches in a start against the Red Sox.

    Was Nolan Ryan better than Randy Johnson? ›

    Unfortunately, it ended his career a little earlier than he was planning. That excessive amount of time played, innings pitched, along with his unmatched strikeout abilities are why his record will never be broken. Randy Johnson ranks second on the all time list, only 839 strikeouts behind Nolan.

    Who has the fastest pitch in MLB history? ›

    Aroldis Chapman officially holds the Guinness World Record for fastest baseball pitch with a 105.8 mph fastball. On Sept. 24, 2010, the Cincinnati Reds' pitcher set the record with a high-velocity pitch against the San Diego Padres.

    How fast did Nolan Ryan throw? ›

    Thus, tales of Nolan Ryan's 108.1 mph fastball in 1974 or Bob Feller's 107.6 mph pitch in 1946 remain unofficial. After spending multiple seasons with the New York Yankees, Chapman recently finalized a one-year deal with the Kansas City Royals for the 2023 season.

    Which pitcher has the best era in MLB history? ›

    Ed Walsh, the career leader in earned run average. This is a list of the top 100 players in career earned run average, who have thrown at least 1,000 innings. Ed Walsh holds the MLB earned run average record with a 1.816.

    How did Tony Gwynn do against Nolan Ryan? ›

    Tony Gwynn had a batting average of . 302 with 6 RBIs in 67 plate appearances against Nolan Ryan in his career.

    Who threw harder, Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson? ›

    But flamethrowers aren't a new phenomenon in Major League Baseball, going back to the days of greats such as Walter Johnson. As far as the technology of the time could tell us, Nolan Ryan threw a 100 mph fastball. Randy Johnson was clocked as high as 102.

    Who is the hardest hitter to strike out? ›

    Over nearly 145 years of professional baseball, no player was tougher to strike out than Hall of Fame shortstop Joe Sewell. In 7,132 career at-bats, Sewell heard the umpire say “Strike three” just 114 times. That's one strikeout for every 63 at-bats, or once every 17 games, or in just .

    What ended Nolan Ryan's career? ›

    The end came on September 22, 1993, at Seattle. In his last career start, while throwing a fastball in the first inning, Ryan tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Later that night in the clubhouse, he described his final game.

    Was Nolan Ryan dyslexic? ›

    Ryan's dyslexia proved to be just as tough as the sports he played. Ryan recounts that one of his high school teachers thought he “was stupid” and wanted to give him a failing grade- which wouldn't have been too far below what he typically got in school.

    What was Nolan Ryan's nickname? ›

    Nolan Ryan, nicknamed “The Ryan Express,” stands as an icon of Major League Baseball and holds the all-time strikeout record with seven no-hitters pitched, three more than any other pitcher. Ryan was born in Refugio, Texas as the youngest of six children and grew up in Alvin.

    Is Nolan Ryan in the Hall of Fame? ›

    Hall of Fame Career: Nolan Ryan was selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America on January 5, 1999 in his first year of eligibility.

    Who has thrown the most 1 hitters? ›

    Walter Johnson threw 8 one-hitters. Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan each threw 12 one-hitters. Both Newsom and Feller lost one of their one-hitters. Newsom lost his 2-1 in 10 innings.

    Who was the first pitcher to throw 100 mph? ›

    We know who the first pitcher was to accurately be measured pitching over 100 mph (162 kph), at least in a game. That was Nolan Ryan, in 1974. His pitch was measured at 100.9 mph. At that speed, the ball gets to the plate faster than you can blink.

    How many Cy Youngs did Nolan Ryan win? ›

    You may be surprised to learn that Ryan never claimed a Cy Young Award, as his name is practically synonymous with the type of hard-throwing, fire-breathing aces that so often win. The closest Ryan got was 1973, the year he went 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA and 383 strikeouts -- a single-season record in the modern era.

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