Nolan Ryan

Nolan Ryan is overrated.  There, I said it!
But then again I wasn’t the first to explain it in writing.

HE was.

Or the first that I had read it from anyway.

Of course, my first post ever was at the same time that I first discovered that Ryan, in fact, was not the greatest pitcher ever.

My first post ever.

Not really even close comparatively, when speaking of the greatest pitchers ever (after much research, one who thought he was the best ever soon discovers that his greatness was less than originally thought).  But of course, very, very close to the best ever, in relation to the amount of pitchers that have toed the rubber overall.  And that number is great.

Let me state something, something that may be misconstrued while reading this post.

First, this is not meant to disrespect Nolan Ryan.  He was a great pitcher.  And his 5,000+ strikeouts are 5,000+ more than I have below my non-existent name on “Baseball Reference.”  But these kind of arguments are part of why sports fans enjoy being sports fans.  So to argue one’s greatness, should still be a form of flattery, cause Ryan is still great (I doubt the athlete would take it as “flattery” however, if one is trying to make them appear less-great).

Second, I am not ripping off Stark, because I will explore this a little differently.  And I came to the conclusion that Ryan was overrated before the book ever came out anyway.  I just didn’t have a platform, a name, or any other means to get it out with any kind of readership.  Although give Stark credit, for he was more concrete in his opinion, more deliberate earlier.  And even though he has built up a name, a respect in the game, he did actually write a book about the subject.  And neither Stark, nor I, probably originated this opinion anyway.  There are most likely multiple stat-guys that have proposed this premise.  The “Nolan Ryan was overrated” premise.

I guess there should be a “third” reason why too, so…

Third, I have to make it clear.  ERA+ or “Adjusted ERA” if you wish, is a pretty telling statistic.  But there are other factors that make a pitcher great.  Although earned runs allowed are pretty critical, just understand that there are variables.  Defense being one of those variables, crucial to understand this at its extreme. 

Of course, when are there not variables?

But one thing that must be understood–and most do, although there are some that don’t–is the more innings that are pitched, the harder it is to sustain greatness, or to sustain a certain level of performance.  Basically, more innings will generally lead to a lower level of performance, compared to whatever the performance had been (if there was even a “had”).  It is less difficult to give a team 200 quailty innings than 300.  So rate stats will generally be less appealing with the greater number of innings pitched.

And this is an example of why closers have better ERA’s than starters.  They can come in, throw as hard as humanly possible, and produce better rate numbers. 

For example, Jonathan Papelbon’s ERA+ was 198 last season, while CC Sabathia’s was 162.  Sabathia was definitely more valuable, but that would appear deceiving because Papelbon’s ERA+ is significantly higher than Sabathia’s. 

Of course, anyone that watches baseball probably understands this already, but it applies to the subject.  So no matter its primitiveness, I felt that it was important to explain a little.

Because this plays a role when comparing from one era to the next.

Nolan Ryan averaged 231 innings adjusted for 162 games.  Averaged!  “Innings eaters” eat about that many innings nowadays at their max, usually fewer than that.  But Ryan averaged that many.  So naturally, Ryan’s ERA+ will be lower (worse in the case of ERA+) because he threw more innings than the pitchers of today do, generally speaking anyway.

Because in todays game, an ERA+ of 111 would most likely fall short of Hall of Fame induction (focused on solely of course). 

Looking at pitchers of recent, and their workloads.  That Adjusted ERA just wouldn’t cut it.  Mike Mussina is a pretty borderline case to many different minds surrounding the game, and his ERA+ was 122.  Schilling’s (who isn’t a shoe-in to many) was 127.  And Blyleven’s was 118 while averaging 245 innings per 162–and he may not even get in (although Blyleven is more in Ryan’s mold because he averaged so many innings and pitched in the same time-frame.  That should only increase his candidacy though).

So his ERA+ was 111.  Effected by Ryan and one thing.  What was that one thing?  The “adjusted” part means that it already takes into account the ballparks that Ryan played in, and the league(s) that he played in. 

So that one “thing” would have to be team defense. 

The defense that was backing up Ryan in his effort to win ballgames.

Among pitchers who qualify, Nolan Ryan’s ERA+ falls in tied at 287th.  Tied with AJ Burnett, Freddy Garcia, and Todd Jones. 

Ryan is better than any one of those pitchers. 

And speaking of Todd Jones…there are some relievers on this list, another reason why pitchers on this list are not in order of actual greatness.

But over Ryan’s career, his average team’s “Defensive Efficiency” was ranked 11th out of 25.  Roughly average.

So it seems clear that Ryan’s lower ERA+ was not do to a poor defense, which could have been an excuse without the proper research. 

Ryan simply wasn’t as great as everyone thought that he was, and everyone thinks that he is still. 

Again, 5,714 strikeouts is incredible, it really is.

But listen to some of Ryan’s single-season walk totals:  157, 162, 202!, 183, 204!, 148. 

Two times Ryan walked over 200 batters.

Those are somewhat skewed when compared to the era we are currently witnessing because of the innings pitched issue.  But they are still valid to the point.  The base-runners allowed by Ryan were not exactly scarce. 

Never did Ryan allow fewer than a base-runner per inning. 

Pedro has done this 6 times.

Clemens never did it either, but came close many, many times.

Bob Gibson, although playing in the NL (pitcher bats, obviously), at least did it once.  And Ryan DID spend half of his career in the National League too, so it wasn’t as if the better opportunity to put up a sub-1.000 WHIP wasn’t there. 

Am I going to hold it against Ryan that he didn’t do something truly great from a starters standpoint (referring to sub-1.000 WHIP)? 

Well, a little.  But that wouldn’t solely prevent him from greatness. 

However, Ryan’s career WHIP is currently ranked 260th all time. 

WHIP may not be as great an indicator as “opponent OBP.”  But come on, its pretty darn close!  And I don’t have the career numbers in the form of a leader-board for a pitchers “opponents OBP” anyway. 

Nolan Ryan struck out a lot of batters.

Nolan Ryan allowed many hitters to reach base as well though.  And defense wasn’t an issue.  It wasn’t an issue in regards to ERA or ERA+ either. 

It’s funny how so many associate Ryan with being “The greatest of all time.” 
So many believe this because of the absurd number of career strikeouts that he has.

But Ryan won 0 Cy Youngs.  So his legacy had built over time, it seems.  Because if the writers believed, at the time, that he was so great, wouldn’t they have thought, at least once, that he was the best in the league (I think Stark said this too)? 

Cy’s aren’t everything, for voting is a subjective and sometimes flawed process in regards to MVP’s and “The Hall.” 

Ryan may have thrown 7 no hitters.  But his greatness is overrated. 

Yet, Ryan should of course be proud that he was a great baseball player.  Because that isn’t exactly an easy task.

So applaud his greatness, then downplay it while keeping a positive frame of mind.


ok well that made me go back and find the first time that i stopped by your blog- may 6th 2007. More On Clemens. i made a crack about dice-k.

well i’m not quite sure of your point today. he’s great, but not so great?

PS this was an old post of yours that made me smile

JD Drew you are starting to anger me now. Hit the ball out of the infield please!

Far as I’m concerned it’s impossible to overrate a guy who threw 7 no-hitters. But you make a good argument.

Steve T.

I just think people should view him as great, but understand that he might not be as great as they first thought. I mean, if someone had asked me who the best pitcher ever was, I probably would have said Nolan Ryan up until I started this blog in the beginning of 2007 and started doing my own research.

Cy Youngs? Eric Gagne won a Cy Young; I guess he’s a better pitcher than Nolan Ryan?

Striking out 5,700+ with a career WHIP under 1.3 is pretty amazing. We could all write articles about every player, pointing out why they aren’t the best; but I guess maybe that’s not my game. I’m fairly prone to hyperbole, though, so that’s not surprise.

Ryan is tied for 7th all time in shutouts, 1st for no-hitters, 1st in strikeouts (almost a thousand more than the next guy)… okay that comes with being 1st all-time for walks issued, as well (also almost a thousand more than the next guy), and 1st all-time for Punches Landed on Robin Ventura’s Head.

I mean, I get it. Maybe he wasn’t the greatest, but he definitely belongs in the conversation, and he’s a more recent player than most of the other guys in the conversation. I was too young to watch Tom Seaver, Norm Charlton, Sandy Koufax. Other than Greg Maddux and the now-tainted Roger Clemens, there aren’t many pitchers that I have personally watched who were as great as Ryan. I don’t think he’s the best ever, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t go after someone who thought that he was.

That may have come off as more argumentative than I intended. I’m not saying he’s the greatest, but he’s pretty great, and I’m okay with that. :)

Thanks for stopping by. I consider Ryan great, as I mentioned. Just not as great as legend has it…

I think what separates him is his longevity, and he continued to dominate into his last (complete) season. A 103 ERA+ for a 45-year-old is even more impressive than a 98+ ERA for a 21-year-old, and he did them both.

I think he can be given the honor of being the most intimidating pitcher ever. He might have gotten all those strikeouts, but if he did not show you a little wildness at times you would lean in on him, and he hated that.

But what made him one of my favorites was when he hit Robin Ventura, and Ventura was stupid enough to come out to the mound. He plastered him in the lip and bloodied his jersey. I bought a signed copy of that picture from a collectibles dealer about 6 years ago, and it is still hanging in the family room next to the baseball bat collection.

Rays Renegade

I know I sure would have hate to face him. lol He was a great pitcher but not the #1 pitcher who ever played.

~King of Cali

Jason Stark wasn’t the first person to proclaim Nolan Ryan wasn’t the greatest pitcher of all time, Bill James has been talking about Ryan for years. In the 2007 off-season, Bill James created something called “The Nolan Ryan Award” to give to the pitcher who most closely resembled Nolan Ryan. He did it mathematically with the following formula:

Times Losses
Times Strikeouts
Times Walks
Divided By Innings Pitched.

I always tell him he should change it to “Times Innings Pitched” since Nolan Ryan always played a ton. Anyway, the point is, Nolan Ryan’s career was characterized by Huge Positives, Huge Negatives, and Tons of Volume. He’s won a ton of games (324), but lost almost as many (292). He’s logged the 5th most innings all time. He holds the record for strikeouts by a gigantic margin, but he also holds the record for walks by an even BIGGER margin. He holds the record for career wild pitches. He led the league in SB allowed 8 times which HAS to be a record and allowed 757 SB in his career which also HAS to be a record. His career fielding percentage was 890 and he committed 90 errors. As Bill James stated, “His positive numbers will stagger you, but his negative numbers will knock you out.”

The problem Nolan Ryan had is that he did not know how to pitch. Well, he did, but he didn’t know how to help his team win games, he knew how to strike batters out. That is, in essence, the only thing he was good at. And probably not because he could only be good at that, but because he refused to adjust. He had no idea how to use his defense or work quickly. He was THE iron-man, probably the toughest pitcher of all time, but his refusal to give into hitters, aka let them hit it and see what happens, kept him from being a legitimately great pitcher. He is the greatest strikeout pitcher of all time, but the worst teammate of all time. And for whoever said Ryan is great because he threw 7 no-hitters, when you play as much as he did, strike out as many batters as he did, and complete as many games as he did, you’ll get lucky and throw a no-hitter or 3. Ryan was exceptional in that he threw 7, but if he had thrown 150, he wouldn’t have thrown a perfect game because he’d rather walk a batter in hopes of working a strikeout than let his defense field a weakly hit ball to 2nd. Lets be honest, you have to get pretty lucky to throw a no-hitter. Some of the greatest pitchers of all time have never thrown a no-hitter. Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, etc.. In summary, I agree with you. Nolan Ryan is nowhere near the greatest pitcher of all time and there’s no question he’s extremely overrated.

Well that was long :), but solid. I have been aware of his walk totals and win percentage for a long time. I really wrote this because I was exploring the defense behind him too, to see if there was some extreme case of poor defense. But as I guessed, over 27 seasons, it was close to average. I would take Randy Johnson, Clemens, Maddux, and Pedro over him from just the era that we have watched.

I would certainly take Maddux, Clemens, and probably Johnson over Nolan Ryan over the pitchers I’ve been able to watch. I can’t take Pedro because of his fragility. He’s only thrown 180+ innings ten times, and as you’ve mentioned, it’s harder to be good over a large number of innings than it is over a shorter number. He’s certainly been very good, but I don’t think his general lack of durability is going to do him many favors. What I particularly like about Johnson is that he started out very Nolan Ryan-like — he threw hard, and always went for the strikeout, creating more baserunners via walk than he would have by putting the ball into play. But then, beginning in 1994, he only allowed more than 75 walks twice, and never triple digits. On top of that, he has every opportunity to continue being productive.

Isn’t that the beauty of baseball – maybe there is something besides just the numbers that go into deciding how great a player is.


You wouldn’t take Pedro over Ryan? Unacceptable on this site! :)

Well, I agree. But I like the numbers a lot more…

There’s tons of pitchers I’d rather have on my team. But pitchers I’d rather watch than Nolan Ryan? Not many. Maybe Maddux just because I love his style, but Ryan was probably the most fun pitcher TO WATCH of all time.

Well I would rather watch Pedro, but obviously that is bias. But Ryan would be cool to watch, definitely. Bob Gibson would probably be next. Although Walter Johnson would be awesome so that I could watch that era…

There’s definitely got to be a balance between statistics and scouting. The problem is that I can’t physically watch and scout so many players from so many eras. What I can do is look at the numbers. The numbers are permanent. I would never pretend that they tell the full story, but they do tell a pretty big one.

I agree, roundrock. At this level stats are a greater indicator of performance than other levels (lower levels where scouting matters even more). And I definitely have faith in them most of the time.

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