Dissecting Nolan Ryan's One-of-a-Kind Legacy, 25 Years After 5,000th Strikeout

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Dissecting Nolan Ryan's One-of-a-Kind Legacy, 25 Years After 5,000th Strikeout
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Let's go back 25 years to Aug. 22, 1989, to appreciate Nolan Ryan doing something that hadn't been done before, hasn't been done since and may never be done again.

Ryan, then a 42-year-old veteran in his first year with the Texas Rangers, began a game against the Oakland A's needing six strikeouts to reach 5,000 for his career. Hardly a tall order for The Ryan Express, so the only real question was who would help him make history.

It turned out to be a fellow great in Rickey Henderson. In the fifth inning, he went down as so many opposing hitters had gone down before against Ryan: swinging at a fastball.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Afterward, Henderson took his new distinction in the record books like a champ.

"It was an honor to be the 5,000th," he said, via The Associated Press. "As Davey Lopes says, 'If he ain't struck you out, you ain't nobody.'"

With that, we now return to the present day to do what we usually do in the event of important sports anniversaries. We must speak of Ryan's legacy.

Which is actually a complicated thing, featuring as many question marks as exclamation points. But if we have to pick one of those two things to discuss first, it has to be the exclamation points.

Starting, naturally, with the strikeouts.

Richard Sheinwald/Associated Press

Ryan was born to strike guys out. Well before he had the numbers to prove it, that he had the right arm for it was obvious as early as 1964.

That was when New York Mets scout Red Murff saw a 17-year-old Ryan throwing for Alvin High School. As The New York Times noted in 2008, he reported back to the Mets that Ryan had "the best arm I've ever seen in my life."

Whether Ryan had the best arm anyone had ever seen became a legit question soon after he started his pro career. So much so that it was determined science was needed to answer it.

This is according to Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated, who wrote in 1975 that scientists had clocked Ryan's fastball at a record 100.9 miles per hour the year prior. And amazingly, that might actually be a conservative figure.

Here's Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated:

That speed was measured by a laser radar when it was 9-10 feet from the plate; if measured at the standard distance of 50 feet from the plate (as PITCHf/x does), that extrapolates to an astounding 108.1 mph.

So yeah. Take a 106-mph fastball by Aroldis Chapman and add two miles per hour, and you have an idea of what Ryan's best fastball might have been like.

Should we mention that he also had a hammer curveball that was clocked at 85 miles per hour, meaning it might have actually been more like 92 or 93? Yeah, let's mention that.

Ryan first got the chance to put this stuff to serious use in Anaheim in 1972 after the Mets traded him (and others) to the Angels for Jim Fregosi. The result was him striking out a league-leading 329 batters, thus announcing his arrival as baseball's strikeout king.

That was one of Ryan's six 300-strikeout seasons, tying him with Randy Johnson for the most all time. But Ryan holds the edge in 200-strikeout seasons, with 15, and in career 10-strikeout games, with 215.

All-Time 10-Strikeout Game Leaders
Rank Player Total
1 Nolan Ryan 215
2 Randy Johnson 212
3 Roger Clemens 110
4 Pedro Martinez 108
5 Sandy Koufax 97

Baseball-Reference.com

Among the more notable entries in that list of games are a record four contests with at least 19 strikeouts and another effort that went down in Ryan's final start in 1973. Needing 15 strikeouts to match Sandy Koufax's single-season record of 382, he naturally collected 16 to finish with 383.

And so it continued all the way to number 5,000, and then to No. 5,714. Though Johnson charged hard at Ryan, the 4,875 strikeouts he finished with are more than 800 off the mark.

Now, in an age when seemingly every pitcher throws mid-90s heat with physics-defying secondaries, the thought of somebody having the stuff to make a spirited run at becoming just the second member of the 5,000-strikeout club isn't unthinkable.

That Ryan was able to hang on long enough to collect 714 more strikeouts after getting No. 5,000, however, is perhaps the ultimate reminder that it wasn't just stuff that got him so many strikeouts. 

ERIC GAY/Associated Press

Ryan played in 27 big league seasons. If that sounds like a large amount, it's not.

It's an absurd amount.

No other modern-era player has logged as many as 27 seasons. And even despite not becoming a full-time starter until his sixth season, Ryan still made a modern-era record 773 starts. And though he's not the modern-era leader with his 5,386.0 innings, he is the modern-era leader with 24 100-inning seasons

Modern-Era Leaders in Games Started
Rank Player Total
1 Nolan Ryan 773
2 Don Sutton 756
3 Greg Maddux 740
4 Phil Niekro 716
5 Steve Carlton 709

Baseball-Reference.com

Even more amazing is how Ryan never stopped being a hard thrower. 

"On our radar gun at our Arlington Stadium home games, Nolan has topped out at 97 miles an hour," then-Rangers manager Bobby Valentine told The New York Times' Dave Anderson in early 1989. "And he's averaged 93 miles an hour. Averaged!"

How did Ryan do it? Certainly not without hard work, but he also granted a couple of years ago that, yeah, he really was a freak of nature.

"But the biggest thing is genetics," he said, via Daniel I. Dorfman of The Philadelphia Inquirer. "There were a lot of pitchers who wanted to pitch as long as I did. But because of their body type or injury, it didn't allow them to play as long as I did."

When you can hang around for as long as Ryan did without losing your stuff, you can do more than just pile up strikeouts.

You can also win 324 games. An antiquated point, sure, but there is something to be said about how Ryan won so many games while playing mainly for mediocre teams. From 1972 on, 15 of the 22 teams he played on were sub-.500 clubs. Ryan won 295 games anyway. 

BILL JANSCHA/Associated Press

We also can't forget Ryan's record seven no-hitters. Koufax is the only other pitcher with as many as four, and Ryan's seventh no-hitter in 1991 saw him top his own record for being the oldest pitcher to ever throw one at 44 years and three months.

"I haven't gotten bored with no-hitters yet," he said to mark the occasion, via The New York Times' Jack Curry.

These are the exclamation points you think of when pondering Ryan's legacy. You think of the strikeouts and longevity first and foremost, and then the wins and no-hitters as icing on the cake.

But after the exclamations come the questions, and they fall under the umbrella of one in particular:

Just how good was Nolan Ryan?

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That Ryan's right arm was a force of nature is good news and bad news. The good news is everything we discussed above. The bad news is how, like all forces of nature, there was no controlling it.

Just as Ryan's the all-time leader in strikeouts, he's also the all-time leader in walks. And not just because of his longevity, either. He averaged 4.67 walks per nine innings, easily the highest rate among 3,000-inning pitchers.

Highest All-Time BB/9 Rates (Min. 3,000 IP)
Rank Player Total
1 Nolan Ryan 4.67
2 Bob Feller 4.15
T2 Bobo Newsom 4.15
4 Mike Torrez 4.05
5 Charlie Hough 3.94

Baseball-Reference.com

Elsewhere, Ryan's also the all-time leader in wild pitches and in the top 10 in hit batsmen. No wonder Oscar Gamble once told The New York Times' Dave Anderson that a good night against Ryan was "0-for-4 and don't get hit in the head."

With all this wildness, Ryan's strikeout habit wasn't just a rare talent. It was a necessity.

And even his strikeout habit could only help his ERA so much most seasons. Ryan only finished eight seasons with an ERA under 3.00—certainly giving him fewer chances to contend for a Cy Young Award that, shockingly, he never wonand retired with a 3.19 career ERA.

Using ERA+ to adjust for park and league standards, Ryan's career 112 ERA+ puts him in the same company as Al Leiter, Bartolo Colon and Josh Beckett. Good company, but far less than great company.

This is when you remember that Ryan paired a modern-era record 292 losses with his 324 wins. Of those, 254 came in those final 22 seasons we discussed. It's commendable that he won so many games with mediocre teams, but he himself wasn't entirely separate from that mediocrity.

All this leads us to the obligatory wins above replacement discussion. If you consult FanGraphs' version of WAR, Ryan is the sixth-most valuable pitcher ever. Consult Baseball-Reference.com's WAR, however, and Ryan is only 20th all time. 

Such is the essential conundrum of Ryan's legacy. As easy as it is to argue he's one of the greatest pitchers ever, it's just as easy to argue he's not. If you're in the latter camp, it boils down to how being born a great thrower isn't the same as being born a great pitcher.

This debate exists. This debate must be acknowledged. This debate will rage on.

And yet, something tells me it will never escape the background of Ryan's legacy.

Where Ryan ranks among great pitchers is not the point. His is more a legacy of feats. It's more appropriate, and indeed more fun, to remember him for the things he could do that nobody else could. 

That includes throwing a baseball at record speeds. And playing forever. And through those two things, making more hitters look puny than any other pitcher we've ever seen and perhaps ever will see.

All this was worth celebrating 25 years ago. It's still worth celebrating today.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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