Several years ago, I was at a baseball conference hosted by the Society of American Baseball Research.
SABR, as it is known among baseball junkies, is an organization dedicated to fostering the study of baseball past and present. That's why I was astounded when, in a roundup of the best pitchers of all-time, SABR members voted Nolan Ryan the greatest hurler in the history of the game.
Ryan certainly has some gaudy numbers. All baseball fans acknowledge—and the stats support—that the righty from Refugio, Texas, is the best strikeout pitcher in the history of the game. Ryan holds both the single-season and all-time records for Ks, as well as the record for most career no-hitters with seven.
These two categories, perhaps the most exciting numbers a pitcher can attain, makes Ryan, on the surface, numero uno in the minds of baseball fans and aficionados.
However, upon closer inspection, Ryan in my view just barely ranks as a great pitcher.
He wasn't the best pitcher of his generation, and he never won a Cy Young. In fact, I can name at least 20 pitchers since 1900 who were better.
Here's a list, in no particular order...
1) Tom Seaver
Ryan's ex-teammate in New York was called "The Franchise." He won three Cy Youngs, and was a five-time 20-game winner.
Ryan won 20 games twice, but also lost 16 games those same years.
2) Steve Carlton
Won four Cy Youngs. He and Ryan battled it out for the title of all-time strikeout king after both passed Walter Johnson in the 80s.
Carlton was the best lefty of his era. He won 27 games for a Phillies team that won only 58 games in 1972.
3) Christy Mathewson
Mathewson may rank as the greatest pitcher of all time.
The scholarly righty for the New York Giants won 20 games nine times and 30 games four times. True, he pitched in the Dead Ball Era, but those numbers are staggering by any standard.
Oh, by the way, a 2.13 career ERA.
4) Walter Johnson
A contemporary of Mathewson, Johnson won 20 games 12 times. The Washington Senators were habitually bad. Johnson wasn't just a power arm; he knew how to pitch too.
5) Sandy Koufax
Ryan may have had more lifetime wins, and edges Koufax in no-hitters by three, but Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball for five seasons. Ryan never accomplished that.
6) Bob Feller
Though the power righty lost four years because of World War II , Feller was the best pitcher of his era. A six time 20-game winner, he led the Indians to their last World Series title in 1948.
7) Jim "Catfish" Hunter
Though Hunter finished under 300 career wins, he had a great postseason record, leading the A's to three consecutive championships. Hunter won 20 games five times and never walked more that 84 batters in a season.
Ryan walked 200 batters in a season twice!
8) Eddie Plank
Eddie who? Plank was left-handed pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics who won 20 games eight times. Lifetime ERA 2.35.
9) Warren Spahn
Spahn pitched three decades for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves, and one year for the miserable Mets of 1965. Won 20 games 13 times.
10) Bob Gibson
Who can forget the intimidation of the first great African American power-pitcher? A five-time 20 game winner, Gibson's winning percentage was a superb .591.
11) Greg Maddux
Finally someone from "our" era. Maddux is still writing his script.
A career winning percentage of .619, 347 career wins, 12 Gold Gloves. With Roger Clemens having to explain himself, Maddux now stands out as the most complete pitcher of his generation.
12) Roger Clemens
Okay, he probably cheated. But I bet his years up until the late 90s were clean. His first four Cy Youngs were legit.
13) Whitey Ford
One of the greatest postseason pitchers in the history of the game, Ford's career winning percentage (.690) is second only to that of Pedro Martinez (.691).
14) Pedro Martinez
Sure, Ryan is more durable; Martinez will never come close to the Texan's 27 years. But Ryan was never close to being as dominant as Martinez, who won three Cy Youngs for the Boston Red Sox.
15) Jim Palmer
Palmer won 20 games a staggering eight times as the ace for those great Orioles teams of the 1960 and 70s.
16) Grover Cleveland Alexander
Among the first inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Alexander won 30 games three times and had 373 career wins. 'Nuff said.
17) Lefty Grove
The former Philadelphia Athletics ace won 300 games with a winning percentage of .680. Eight-time 20-game winner. Won 30 games once.
18) Ferguson Jenkins
Pitched in Wrigley and still won 20 games seven times. Never walked more than 90 batters in a season and had over 3,000 career strikeouts. Won one more Cy Young than Ryan. In a word: underrated.
19) Randy Johnson
Injuries will keep him from getting 300 wins, but Johnson's .654 winning percentage and his great strikeout numbers (which nearly compete with Ryan's) make him better.
20) Carl Hubbell
The second greatest pitcher in Giants' history won 20 games five times.
Ryan clearly belongs in the Hall of Fame and deserves credit for his accomplishments. In fairness, he didn't always play for good teams, but he never distinguished himself ahead of some of his contemporaries, aside from strikeouts and no-hitters.
Furthermore, those categories don't reflect consistent dominance and mastery in the craft of pitching.
True, the 1970s had many great pitchers, but Ryan's severe wildness hurts him. To me, he belongs with pitcher like Don Sutton, Joe Niekro, Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez.
Great, but not all-time elite. Sorry, Nolan.
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