Has there ever been a name that invokes more fear in the hearts of batters? Lynn Nolan Ryan Jr. was born in Refugio, Texas in 1947, the youngest of six children. From a young age he showed an aptitude for throwing things, and by the time he made his first little league all-star team at the age of 11, he was well on his way to a career of greatness.
It’s hard to put a finger on which part of Ryan’s career was the greatest accomplishment. He suited up four different franchises, three of which retired his number forever. The only other player to receive this honor is of course, the great Jackie Robinson. It is always difficult to compare players across different generations, but if you think velocity is important, Ryan routinely clocked in at well over 100 mph with his fastballs. There is no doubt that Ryan would be just as dominant today as he was in the 70’s.
Nolan Ryan: By the Numbers
What was more impressive: Ryan’s longevity or his strikeout record? Nolan Ryan pitched in a total of 5,386 innings in 807 games across 27 major league seasons. Remember that Ryan pitched in an era where pitch counts were rarely enforced, so it was unlikely any manager would have pulled him late in a game for going over his limit.
Of course, Ryan’s greatest accomplishment is likely being the all-time MLB strikeouts leader with 5,714. This is nearly 1,000 better than the great lefty Randy Johnson who sits in second place, and nearly 1,100 more than third place Roger Clemens. To give you context, he is more than 2,700 strikeouts ahead of the current active leader Max Scherzer.
The career accolades don’t stop there for Ryan as he is one of only five pitchers in MLB history to be inducted into Cooperstown with more career strikeouts than innings pitched. His opponent’s career batting average of .204 is yet another all-time record, as well as his mark of allowing an average of only 6.6 hits per 9 innings.
Ryan led the major leagues in strikeouts in eleven different seasons including in seven of eight seasons between 1972 and 1979, arguably his most dominant stretch. He tallied a staggering 222 complete games with 61 of those coming as shutouts. An MLB record 7 of those shutouts were no hitters.
Nolan Ryan never once allowed more than 20 home runs in a season over the span of 27 years, and only allowed more than 100 earned runs three times. Ryan’s career is a legacy of consistency, and it seems surprising that he was only voted an MLB all star eight times. What is even more puzzling is that Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young award during his career, although he did manage to capture two National League MVP awards.
Nolan Ryan: The Arsenal
A pitcher is only as good as the pitches he can throw. Nolan Ryan really did keep things simple as a pitcher, relying on his flamethrower of a fastball. There was no greater weapon for striking batters out, but every baseball fan knows if you only throw fastballs, batters will catch up. That’s why perhaps more important than his fastball, was the high velocity breaking ball that he threw that kept batters off balance the entire time they were up to bat.
The fastest ever pitch recorded by Nolan Ryan was a four-seam fastball in a game against the Detroit Tigers. While the pitch was originally measured at 100.9 mph, the radar gun incorrectly captured Ryan’s distance from home plate. After adjusting for the proper distance, Ryan’s pitch sets an official MLB record clocking in at an unimaginable 108.5 mph.
Is Nolan Ryan the Most Dominant Pitcher in MLB History?
Baseball historians will actually point to the negative aspects of Ryan’s game when this question is posed. Ryan is also the all-time MLB record holder for walks, wild pitches, and stolen bases allowed. The argument is that Ryan only racked up strikeouts, but his career .526 winning percentage shows he didn’t always help his team win games.
As already mentioned, Ryan barely won any personal hardware with zero Cy Young awards and only one World Series title that came early on in his career. You can make a case for other pitchers who were just as dominant and have more hardware in their trophy case. Think about pitchers like Mariano Rivera who was as dominant as they come whenever he came in to get the save for the Yankees. Rivera has five World Series rings, was a 13 time all star, and holds the all-time MLB record for saves with 652.
What about Boston Red Sox legend Pedro Martinez who won three Cy Young awards and five ERA titles during his career, while also being named an all-star eight times. Randy Johnson has nearly as many strikeouts as Ryan, but also has five Cy Young awards, was a ten-time all-star, and won four ERA titles. Does Ryan really only have strikeouts in his favor?
There is something about Nolan Ryan that still cannot be quantified through statistics or numbers. If you grew up collecting baseball cards, you remember the distinct aura that came with pulling a Nolan Ryan card. If you ever watched him play, there was a sense that he was untouchable on the mound. He was otherworldly and immortal. Ryan was as automatic of a strikeout machine as there ever was, and as a fan you could almost feel how demoralized opposing batters were to play him.
Former two-time National League MVP Dale Murphy perhaps summed it up best when he said, “Nolan Ryan is the only pitcher you start thinking about two days before you face him”. Was he the best to ever pitch? Perhaps not. But the all-time strikeout record will likely never be broken, and thus Ryan’s legacy is forever cemented as the most dominant pitcher to ever play the game.
Scott Trick has collected sports cards since the early 80’s and because of his love for collecting he started the website https://sportscardsauthority.com. His favorite players are Robin Yount and Hank Aaron, but he cherishes all sports and all cards like they are art.