With the ongoing emphasis on pitch counts, innings and extra days of rest, it’s likely that we’ll never see a pitcher with the dominant longevity of Nolan Ryan.
After flashes of brilliance with the Mets from 1966 through 1971, Ryan’s Hall of Fame career didn’t truly take off until he joined the California Angels in 1972.
The right-hander erupted that season, registering a 2.28 ERA over 39 starts and led the league with nine shutouts, 329 strikeouts, 157 walks and 18 wild pitches. However, as was the case throughout his entire career, Ryan’s wildness was offset by his overall lack of hit-ability. That season, his 5.3 H/9 (166 hits in 284 innings) was the best mark among all pitchers.
Although it was undocumented, Ryan also paced the circuit in overall old-man strength—as a 25-year-old. But in all seriousness; when debating the best plus-plus fastball-curveball combinations in baseball history, the conversation should start and end with Ryan.
Ryan's fastball received its own nickname, “The Ryan Express,” and was nearly impossible to barrel due to exceptional late life, not to mention the fact that it routinely scraped triple digits. Equally impressive was his curveball—an absolute hammer of the 12-to-6, downer variety.
Over his historic 27-year career, Ryan, now 65, posted a 324-292 record, 3.19 ERA, 9.5 K/9 (5,714 K), 4.7 BB/9 (2,795 BB) and 6.6 H/9 in 5,386 innings.
He is the all-time career leader in strikeouts (5,714), fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.6), no-hitters (7), walks allowed (2,795) and wild pitches (277).
But as we look toward the minor leagues, are there any pitching prospects with the potential to be the next Nolan Ryan? Well, considering that he played for 27 seasons and holds so many prestigious records, it’s extremely doubtful.
However, there are several pitching prospects worth noting who, like Ryan, post high strikeout and walks rates but allow few hits.
Selected by the Red Sox in the supplemental-first round of the 2001 draft, Owens is a 6’6” left-hander with swing-and-miss stuff.
Oddly, his struggles stem from an inability to retire left-handed hitters—it almost seems like a mental block, which is commonly referred to as the "yips". This season, lefties batted .361/.489/.542 with eight extra-base hits and 15 walks in 91 plate appearances.
Against right-handed hitters, he’s a completely different pitcher: .232/.306/.382 with 116/32 K/BB in 359 plate appearances. If he can improve those atrocious splits, Owens may be able to reach his high ceiling.
A reliever for his first three minor league seasons, the Angels moved Hellweg, a 6’9” right-hander, into the starting rotation during the 2011 season. With a fastball that sits in the upper-90s and a wipeout breaking ball (when he’s on, that is), his inability to repeat his mechanics continues to be problematic. With limbs flying in all directions, the lanky 23-year-old has averaged 6.4 walks-per-nine innings over 325.1 innings, though he’s still managed to fan more than one batter per inning.
After a midseason trade to the Brewers as part of a prospect package for Zack Greinke, Hellweg now has a more direct path to the major leagues once things eventually come together.
If any one player’s 2012 season embodied a Nolan Ryan-like campaign, it was Diamondbacks’ right-hander Archie Bradley.
Making his professional debut for Low-A South Bend, the 19-year-old exhibited front-line-starter stuff throughout the entire season and, in general, was difficult to barrel.
The 6’4”, 225-pounder posted a 3.84 ERA, 5.8 H/9, 10.1 K/9 and 5.6 BB/9 in 136 innings spanning 27 starts.
A highly athletic and projectable right-hander, Walker spent the entire season pitching for Double-A Jackson in the Southern League in his age-19 season.
While the overall results weren’t spectacular, he demonstrated an ability to make improvements throughout the season and finished on a high note. Overall, Walker posted a 4.69 ERA, 8.4 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 in 126.2 innings covering 25 starts.
With a three-pitch mix of above-average offerings, smooth mechanics and outstanding athleticism, Walker has the potential to be a special pitcher.
Bundy made an immediate and substantial impact this season in his professional debut. In fact, his minor league campaign was so phenomenal that it earned him a mid-September promotion to the major leagues—as a 19-year-old.
Possessing an arsenal comprised of above-average to plus offerings, Bundy fired 30 consecutive scoreless innings for Low-A Delmarva to begin his career, fanning 40 batters and walking only two along the way.
He went on to pitch at both High-A and Double-A, and is currently stashed in the Orioles’ dominant bullpen. It’s clear why the right-hander is regarded as the top pitching prospect in the game.