Legendary, dominating, historically wild? There will never be another pitcher like Nolan Ryan

  • Senior writer of SweetSpot baseball blog
  • Former deputy editor of Page 2
  • Been with ESPN.com since 1995

On May 15, 1973, Nolan Ryan pitched the first no-hitter of his career in Major League Baseball. As far as Nolan Ryan no-hitters would go, it was a relatively pedestrian effort, with a mere 12 strikeouts, although there were no hard-hit balls against the Angels right-hander until the final couple of innings, including the final out, a fly ball to the warning track.

The opposing Royals, however, understood this was no ordinary no-hitter from an ordinary pitcher.

“He’s throwing the ball harder than any man I ever saw in my life,” first baseman John Mayberry said.

“If they had a higher league, he could be in it,” outfielder Hal McRae said.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the no-hitter was that Royals manager Jack McKeon had protested the game in the third inning, arguing that Ryan was illegally lifting his foot off the pitching rubber during his delivery.

Ryan himself seemed rather unimpressed with the whole affair, saying his biggest thrill in baseball remained pitching in the World Series for the Mets in 1969. “I never honestly felt I was the type of pitcher to pitch a no-hitter,” Ryan suggested after the game. He said his fastball doesn’t really have that late movement like some other pitchers and that his curveball “isn’t overpowering.”

Royals shortstop Freddie Patek didn’t agree with Ryan’s self-assessment. “Is this his first one?” he asked. “Well, I don’t believe it’ll be his last.”

It wasn’t. He would throw six more.

There has never been a pitcher like Nolan Ryan. To describe him as unique and fascinating barely paints the picture. He struck out more batters than anybody, walked more batters than anybody, was the hardest to hit, threw the most wild pitches, made the most errors, allowed the most stolen bases, threw the most pitches, pitched the most no-hitters and never, ever gave in to a batter.

Ryan struck out 5,714 batters in his career, 17.2% more than Randy Johnson, the No. 2 pitcher on the list. To put that in perspective, Barry Bonds would have needed to hit 885 home runs to break Hank Aaron’s record by 17.2%. To put it another way, in 2019 Gerrit Cole struck out 326 batters in 212⅓ innings. A pitcher could have 17 such Gerrit Cole seasons in a row — and he would still be 173 strikeouts short of Ryan’s record.

On the other hand, Ryan walked 2,795 batters in his career — 52.5% more than Steve Carlton, the next player on the list. Dakota Hudson walked 86 batters in 2019, most in the majors. He would need to do that for another 32 seasons to break Ryan’s record.

The ultimate Nolan Ryan game had to be his duel against Luis Tiant of the Red Sox on June 14, 1974, a Friday night at Anaheim Stadium. Through 12 innings, both pitchers remained in the game. Angels manager Bobby Winkles wanted to take Ryan out. “Nolan wanted to win this one, and I just let him go,” Winkles said. “At the end of 12 innings I told him that’s it, but he said, ‘You got to let me pitch at least one more inning because I haven’t set my record yet.'”

Winkles figured he meant Tom Cheney’s record of 21 strikeouts in a game. No, Ryan was referring to the 242 pitches he threw against Detroit in a 1973 game. Ryan would have to settle for 235 pitches in this game. His line: 13 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 10 BB, 19 SO, 58 batters faced. In the same game, he would set his career highs for walks (matched one other time) and strikeouts (matched three other times).

That’s what Ryan did throughout his career: do things that now seem fictional. He fanned 383 batters in 1973, breaking Sandy Koufax’s modern record. He averaged 10.57 strikeouts per nine innings that season. The No. 2 pitcher in the league that year averaged 7.74. Ryan also walked 162 batters — actually a reasonable total for him at that point in his career. He walked 202 batters in 1974 and 204 in 1977. From 1972 to 1974, his first three seasons with the Angels, he threw 942 innings, 72 complete games and 16 shutouts. After throwing 235 pitches, he started on three days of rest — and tossed six scoreless innings. In fact, from the no-hitter through July 19, just over two months of action, he started 16 games, completed 12 of them and threw 135⅓ innings.

Oh, and he threw another no-hitter. That was the infamous Norm Cash episode. Ryan was one out away from the no-hitter when Cash stepped to the plate, brandishing not a bat but a wooden table leg ripped off from a table in the Detroit clubhouse.

“Check his bat!” Ryan shouted from the mound. Umpire Ron Luciano, after first doubling over in laughter, told Cash to get rid of it. Cash declared he had no chance to get a hit off Ryan anyway. After finding a legitimate piece of lumber to use, Cash popped out and Ryan had the no-hitter.

For much of his career, however, critics dismissed Ryan as “just a .500 pitcher,” back when pitchers were judged, foremost, by their win-loss record. When he signed his record-setting free-agent deal with the Astros for the 1980 season, making him the first player to earn a $1 million annual salary, his career record was just 167-159.

In Tony Kornheiser’s profile of Ryan in the inaugural edition of Inside Sports magazine heading into that season — Ryan was the cover subject — Jim Palmer, Ryan’s contemporary, threw a pointed barb. “Nolan’s got so much more natural ability than the rest of us,” Palmer said. “He’s like a child prodigy. You can’t even comprehend what it’s like to be that talented … [but] he tries to intimidate people. I try to get them out. If you’re going to lose, it’s sure great to strike out 380 guys. I’m not saying he isn’t a winner. Maybe his niche is 383 strikeouts. Mine is winning two-thirds of my games.”

Of course, we now understand that judgment wasn’t completely fair. Those Angels teams in the early and mid-1970s were woeful offensive clubs, finishing last or next-to-last in the American League in runs scored each season from 1972 to 1976.

Near the end of Ryan’s career, the evaluation shifted. In the minds of many, Ryan had become the best pitcher of all time, conflating Ryan’s particular achievements — the strikeouts, the no-hitters, the longevity — with other measurements of greatness. (Ryan ranks 12th in pitching WAR since 1920 and would rank lower on a list that measured a pitcher’s seven best seasons or something like that.) The .500 pitcher had become an Authentic American Hero.

In a sense, that was understandable. Signing with the Rangers in 1989 when he was 42, Ryan reeled off a string of memorable performances. On April 12, in his second start of the season, he allowed one hit in eight innings and struck out 15. Two starts later he pitched a one-hitter with 12 strikeouts. On June 3, he pitched another one-hitter. A month later it was a three-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts and in his final start of the season, he fanned 13 in another three-hit shutout. He struck out 301 batters that season, the first time he had topped 300 since 1977. Ryan had five of the 14 highest game scores of the season, a one-person highlight reel. Ryan had curbed some of the wildness from his Angels days, but would still throw what today looks like an ungodly number of pitches: a season high of 164, seven games of 140-plus and 16 of 130-plus.

In 1990, now 43 years old, it was more out-of-this world outings for Ryan. A one-hitter with 16 strikeouts. Then the sixth no-hitter of his career on June 11, striking out 14. He threw 10 scoreless innings against the White Sox on Aug. 17, striking out 15 with no walks — the most strikeouts in a game in his career without walking a batter. He had the three highest game scores of the season: 101, 99 and 99 (Erik Hanson also had a 99).

On May 1, 1991, he pitched perhaps the best game of his career: His seventh no-hitter, against a playoff-bound Blue Jays team, striking out 16 with two walks. Only two pitchers have struck out more in a no-hitter: Max Scherzer and Nolan Ryan (he fanned 17 in the Norm Cash game).

According to reports at the time, Ryan’s fastball clocked 96 mph in the fourth inning and his final pitch to Roberto Alomar clocked 93 mph. That might not seem so impressive now, but factor in that radar guns used back then were slower than today’s technology. Oh, Ryan also pitched the entire game with a sore on his middle finger that cracked open as he warmed up in the bullpen. He pitched the no-hitter with blood on the baseball.

“I hurt from the moment I got out of bed ’til the moment I walked out to the mound,” Ryan said after the game. “It was one of those days when I knew how old I was when I woke up. I could feel every minute of these 44 years.”

Manager Bobby Valentine popped open a bottle of Dom Perignon that Rangers owner Brad Corbett had given him in 1986. He had been saving it for a World Series celebration. Instead, he had the team toast Ryan.

After the champagne, after all the interviews, Ryan headed off to his usual postgame ritual: He rode the exercise bike.

“The mystique of Nolan Ryan was based on two things,” Bill James wrote in “The New Historical Baseball Abstract.” “First, the other players were somewhat in awe of Ryan. The hitters were in awe of him because they couldn’t hit him; the pitchers were in awe of him because they understood how difficult it was to do what he did.”

This is true. A few quotes:

Dave Duncan: “A guy like Ryan doesn’t just get you out. He embarrasses you. There are times when you’ve won some sort of victory just hitting the ball.”

Reggie Jackson: “You don’t face Ryan without your rest. He’s the only guy I go against that makes me go to bed before midnight.”

Alan Ashby: “The funniest line I ever heard about Nolan was said by Oscar Gamble. We were teammates on Cleveland and driving past Anaheim Stadium. The marquee advertised: ‘Nolan Ryan versus the Cleveland Indians.’ Oscar turned to me and said, ‘A good night tonight is 0-for-4 and don’t get hit in the head.'”

James’ summary best explains the adulation of Ryan late in his career. That spilled over into the sportswriting of the day as well. After that seventh no-hitter, Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote, “Seven no-hitters and counting. Somewhere, in another league where the cheering never stops and the beer is icy cold, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb and yes, Shoeless Joe, too, are waiting for their starting pitcher to arrive so the game can start.”

Apparently Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove or Satchel Paige weren’t good enough.

It was impossible not to marvel at what Ryan was doing, to separate all the SportsCenter moments from the big picture, all the strikeouts from all the walks.

“Ryan tried to throw unhittable pitches, one after another, even to weak hitters, even when he was behind in the count,” James wrote. “The ‘ease up and let the fielders do their work’ software had never been installed on his machine. From the beginning of his career to the end, a Nolan Ryan game featured strikeouts, walks, and very few hits.”

I tried to figure out what, exactly, made Ryan into this pitcher. He was wild, sure, but it doesn’t feel quite that simple. Ryan has written, by a quick accounting, at least four autobiographies, plus a pitcher’s guide to performance written with his Rangers pitching coach Tom House, plus the “Nolan Ryan Beef & Barbecue Cookbook.” I did not order the cookbook, but did pick up the two most recent biographies, hoping to find some insight. Of those, “Throwing Heat,” published in 1988, is by far the better of the two books, much more of a “baseball” book with stories and anecdotes. “Miracle Man,” which came out 1992, apparently to capitalize on his peak popularity, is a terrible book.

Ryan isn’t really into much self-analysis, at least on the baseball field. We do get examples of his work ethic. He writes about how when he came up with the Mets he didn’t want to be like many of the teammates he saw: “They were in their 30s, but some looked like old guys, paunchy and out of shape. Many of the pitchers were all 15 to 20 pounds overweight and it affected their effectiveness. I decided that if there was any way to keep that from happening, I was going to do it.”

When he was traded to the Angels in 1971, he discovered a weight room at Anaheim Stadium — although he said it wasn’t for the Angels, as baseball players were discouraged at the time from lifting weights (he wasn’t sure who was it built for, suggesting maybe a soccer team). That started a careerlong dedication to conditioning.

In fact, we learn a lot about Ryan when he describes Mike Scott, his teammate with the Astros who won the 1986 Cy Young Award. “When he was on the mound, he was a committed pitcher,” Ryan wrote in “Miracle Man.” “He’d do whatever it took to win. But off the mound he was one of the laziest pitchers I have ever seen. … He never did anything to enhance himself physically. Would never work. Nothing. Didn’t run. Didn’t lift. Had terrible eating habits. All he cared about was playing golf.”

For Ryan, there was no cutting corners. That’s why he would head to the exercise bike after throwing a no-hitter.

His Astros teammate Bob Knepper said this, which I think is telling as well: “You can’t imagine how determined you have to be to throw your hardest fastball every time. It takes incredible concentration.”

That’s exactly how I picture Ryan. That intense focus on every pitch. When you watch highlights of him pitching, whether from his first no-hitter or his seventh one 18 years later, you see the same push off the mind, the tremendous drive with the legs, the max-effort delivery. You feel like you can hear the grunting.

To Knepper’s point, Ryan offers an anecdote about Pete Rose going up to him and asking him what pitch Mike Schmidt hit for a home run or some guy who had gone 2-for-3 two weeks ago. Ryan had no idea. For Ryan, as soon as the game was over, he forgot about it, brushed it from memory. He needed every ounce of stamina — physical and mental — to concentrate on every pitch of every start. For him, worrying about what somebody did the game before was a waste of energy. I’m not sure how he would function in the modern world of analytics. His brain might explode. Or maybe he would be more efficient and even more unhittable. Imagine that.

Maybe the Kornheiser piece best figures out Ryan. “In the face of overwhelming criticism,” Kornheiser wrote, “he persists: His way is the right way.” Let up a little, Ryan had always been told. Just throw it down the middle, they won’t hit it anyway. Don’t throw so many curveballs on a 3-2 count.

Ryan explained to Kornheiser, “I want to make the perfect pitch. With perfect location, it doesn’t matter how bad your stuff is. I will not throw the ball down the middle.” Ryan then takes his own jab at Palmer: “Don’t tell me that Jim Palmer says he wouldn’t throw a 3-2 curveball if he could throw 98; he wouldn’t throw it down the middle if he could he throw 98 — and anyway, he wouldn’t know what it’s like because he can’t throw 98.”

His way. “I walked a lot of guys,” he said. “I drove managers crazy. They said I wasn’t pitching the way someone of my ability should. If I’m going to lose, I’m going to lose my way. Who gets the L?”

Ryan did change, however, at least a little. Some of his best seasons came at the end of his Astros tenure and then with the Rangers. He didn’t throw as hard and didn’t throw as many innings, but he cut way down on his walks, became more efficient and just as effective. After suffering elbow pain in 1986, he had added a sinker. He developed a changeup. He never threw either pitch that much, but it was a little something extra to throw at batters. Four of his five highest strikeout rates — percentage of batters faced whom he struck out — came in 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1991.

So maybe you could call him stubborn. In some way, perhaps, it was also acknowledging that gift of maybe the fastest fastball ever. To not give that max effort on every pitch would be cheating the gift. That was not Nolan Ryan’s way.

To the best of my recollection, I saw Ryan pitch four times in person:

• The 1979 All-Star Game, which he started for the American League.

• June 3, 1989, one of those one-hitters mentioned earlier (Ryan is tied with Bob Feller for the most career one-hitters with 12). Harold Reynolds led off the game with base hit, the only one of the game for Seattle. I remember buying an upper-deck seat that day and moving down to a box seat, just a few rows behind the first-base dugout. I’m pretty sure I could hear the grunting from there.

• Opening Day of 1992, matched up against Randy Johnson. Ryan pitched into the fifth inning in a game the Rangers won 12-10 with a nine-run rally in the eighth inning.

• Sept. 22, 1993. The final game of Ryan’s career. Ryan faced six batters, walked four of them and allowed two hits, including a grand slam to the not-so-immortal Dann Howitt. After the home run, Ryan threw three more pitches to Dave Magadan, but with a 2-1 count he summoned trainer Danny Wheat, handed Wheat the ball and walked off the mound. Doctors had recommended surgery on Ryan’s elbow way back in 1986, but he decided to keep pitching. After 5,386 innings, 5,714 strikeouts and an estimated 34,500 pitches, Ryan’s elbow ligament had finally snapped.

I had forgotten this, but the Seattle crowd — over 40,000 were on hand, most of them, I suspect, to see Ryan (the teams had drawn 14,000 the night before) — “sensing the historic moment, rose to its feet in a sustained ovation,” Reeves wrote. “In a move that seems both bizarre and yet totally typical, Ryan stepped back out for a curtain call. A wave, a grim smile, and he was gone.”

“Painful goodbye to a hero,” read the headline in the Star-Telegram.

The greatest ever? No. One of a kind? Absolutely.

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