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Why Nolan Ryan Wasn’t the Best Pitcher Ever

The great sportswriter Joe Posnanski, over on his blog, is working his way through a ranking of the 100 greatest baseball players. Of interest to Texas Rangers fans, today he’s reached No. 87: Lynn Nolan Ryan Jr.

In his post, he comments on how much better Ryan’s “stuff” — his impossibly fast fastball, his curveball that seemed to “defy physics” — was than his career record. According to Posnanski, he had the talent to be the best pitcher of all time, but that’s not what the man they called the Ryan Express wanted to be:

When you put it all together — the walks, the stolen bases, the errors, the wild pitches — you see the incomparable Nolan Ryan weakening in a rather astonishing way. The most unhittable pitcher of them all has only a 112 ERA+. He lost 292 games. He gave up six or more runs in a game an almost unbelievable 99 times, most for any pitcher in the last 70 years, 25 more times than Blyleven or Spahn, more than twice as often as Seaver or Feller.

Nolan Ryan was a great pitcher, unquestionably, but his stuff was greater. His aura was greater. His electricity was greater. It almost feels wrong to put him on a Top 100 list because he belongs on his own list, in his own club of which he is the only member.

The question I’ve always had, the one that he probably could not answer is this: Did it have to be this way? Couldn’t Ryan have taken five mph off his fastball and thrown more strikes? Couldn’t he have taken just a little bit of the bite off his curveball and thrown fewer wild pitches? Couldn’t he have shortened up his delivery just a little bit to prevent base stealers from running at will against him? Couldn’t he have worked on his defense just a little bit more?

Maybe the answer is: Yes, he could have done those things. But then he would not have been the most unhittable pitcher who ever lived. He would have been too much like others. And he would not have been Nolan Ryan.

 

  • Dubious Brother

    What Nolan Ryan had as much as anything was durability. Modifying his delivery may have made his arm an 8 year arm instead of a 27 year arm. 27 years maybe for a knuckleballer but a fastballer – unbelievable.

  • Long Memory

    I’m not exactly certain that Nolan Ryan would qualify as the most unhittable pitcher of all time. You might want to look into James Rodney Richard, the 6-foot-8 flamethrower who was Ryan’s teammate in Houston. He was felled by a stroke when he was 30. Kinda like Ryan, his wildness left hitters feeling dominated and helpless at the plate much of the time.

  • Michael Mason

    JR Richard was incredible. But sadly, only for a short time. You can’t figure “could have been” in comparing him with Nolan’s 25+ years of being unhittable.

  • Long Memory

    Point taken, Michael. It’s sad that we didn’t get to see him for a good (great) long career. And I don’t have his outing-by-outing stats from when he was on top of it. One other thing he had going for him versus Nolan: When Ryan hit a batter, the batter usually knew he had done it for some reason or other. When JR hit you, it might have been because he had no idea where the ball was going. His stats 1977-1980 are pretty amazing.