Sunday, October 23, 2011

Still in Awe of Nolan Ryan

Nolan Ryan began his pitching career when this writer was ten years old. He didn't finish his career until this writer was 37. Ryan pitched for 27 seasons. And as such, Ryan was a major part of this baseball Fan's formative years. For each of those seasons, his legend grew. By the time he was finished, he was the all time strikeout king. He pitched seven no-hitters. And for a kid who grew up on baseball cards, the back of his card was right up there with Hank Aaron's and Pete Rose's as three of the coolest baseball cards ever with all those stats plastered everywhere. To this day, Ryan's page is a favorite destination for its sheer awe power.

He spent his first five seasons with the Mets who really didn't know what to do with him. They knew he had electric stuff, but they didn't trust that he could catch the strike zone often enough, and truthfully, back in those days, he couldn't hit the strike zone often enough. But his legend was already building. That legend became near fever pitch in the 1969 Miracle Mets season. Back then, before the World Series, the top two division winners (yes, only two divisions then, East and West) played a five-game playoff to see who would go to the World Series. Talk about a free-for-all, do-or-die format! The Mets won 100 games that season for the legendary Gil Hodges and faced the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs. The Braves had Hank Aaron, Rico Carty and Orlando Cepeda and could mash the ball. But the Mets were led by Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.

The Mets won the first two games of that playoff series and were looking to sweep. The Mets didn't have much in their rotation after their top two guys. Gary Gentry was their Number Three and he was decent, but that was all. The Mets gave Gentry only two innings of that Game Three. Then they handed the ball to Nolan Ryan, a curious move since Ryan had only made ten starts and fifteen relief appearances for only 89 total innings that season. But Ryan totally dominated the rest of that game, pitching seven innings while giving up only one run and he struck out seven. He won the game and in doing so, sent the Mets to the World Series where they would go on to beat the powerful Baltimore Orioles for the title. Ryan only pitched once in that World Series. But his legend really started in that post season.

The Mets never really trusted Nolan Ryan full time and in his first five seasons in the big leagues, he never pitched more than 152 innings in a season for that club. After the 1971 season, the Mets traded Ryan to the California Angels (along with three other players!) for Jim Fregosi. That trade in retrospect is probably one of the worst trades in baseball history. Fregosi had one forgettable season in New York before the Mets practically gave him away to the Texas Rangers the following season. Ryan, meanwhile, went on to three of the most talked about seasons ever for a pitcher in his next three seasons with the Angels. He won 62 games in those three seasons while pitching an incredible 942 innings. He struck out 1,079 batters in those three seasons including 383 in 1973. The legend of Nolan Ryan hit full stride.

The thing about Nolan Ryan's career is that during his run, he was more of a fan favorite than a darling of the writers. He never won a Cy Young (though there is a case he should have won two during his career). He only made eight All Star teams in his 27 years of pitching. And it's somewhat understandable from that time period's way of thinking. A pitcher back then was valued for his won-loss record. Ryan would not have a .600 winning percentage for a season until his fifteenth season in the big leagues (in the strike shortened 1981 season) and he would have a winning percentage of .600 or better only four other seasons after that. Despite all those strikeouts, his eight year record for the Angels would only add up to a mundane 138-121 record. While he would lead the league in strikeouts for seven of his eight Angel seasons, he also led the league in walks for six of those seasons. It's simply a shame that we don't have pitch counts from those days. One can only imagine how many pitches Ryan threw during those years.

It was only later in his career that Ryan would harness his control. It wasn't until he was 40 years old that Ryan reached the three strikeouts per walk ratio. Ryan's final career tally of 324 wins against 292 losses led to quite a debate during his Hall of Fame eligibility days. Yes, said the writers, he finished with the all time strikeout record, but he also finished with the all time walk record. But even in his forties as in most of the rest of his career, Nolan Ryan was the one pitcher that every fan wanted to see pitch. Any game could be historic. Any game could be a no-hitter. Heck, his last no-hitter came when he was 44 years old. And he was striking out nine batters per nine innings in his 26th season as a 45 year old.

Nolan Ryan finished with a career ERA of 3.12, that's pretty remarkable for a pitcher who threw as many games as he did. Fangraphs pegs his FIP at 2.97...even better. He gave up only 6.6 hits per nine innings for his career, an all time record. He only gave up homers at a rate of 0.5 per nine innings for his career. His career slash line against looks like this: .204/.307/.298. Remarkable.

And for those of us who cut our baseball teeth on Nolan Ryan, to see him sit on the sidelines as the head and glue of these Texas Rangers as they battle in their second World Series in a row, he's still a legend and we are still in awe of him. Nolan Ryan was always larger than life and his baseball life is somehow matched and perfect in his status as the head of the American League's best team. In a world where "awe" is thrown around like candy, Nolan Ryan has inspired more of it than almost anybody.

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