Nolan Ryan: The Greatest Pitcher Ever

Perry ArnoldSenior Analyst INovember 5, 2008

Nolan Ryan pitched his first game for the New York Mets in 1966.  He pitched his last game for the Texas Rangers in 1993.  He broke into the bigs at age 19 and pitched until he was 46 years old. Over the course of those 27 years in the bigs (he had no major league games in 1967) he compiled a win-loss record of 324-292.

Ryan pitched in 807 games, threw 222 complete games, and had 61 shutouts.  He threw an incredible 5,386 innings and struck out 5,714 batters—an average of more than one an inning.  Maybe even more incredible when compared to his strikeouts is that he only walked 2,795 hitters in all those innings—meaning that he struck out more than twice as many batters as earned walks against him. 

His lifetime ERA was 3.19.  In 1981 he had an ERA of only 1.69, but that may be somewhat misleading because that year he only pitched in 21 games with a record of 11-5.  But if his first and last years are thrown out he never had an ERA above 4.00, and he had eight seasons in which his ERA was below 3.00.

But all these stats don't tell the real story of Nolan Ryan.  The real story is found in the fact that he only appeared in the postseason five times.  He was almost always on teams which were mediocre at best and usually very, very bad.  In his time in the two leagues his team’s win-loss percentage was .500. 

He played in only one World Series, the miracle season of 1969 for the Amazin' Mets.  In that season Ryan was only 6-3 in 25 appearances. But in the postseason, first against the Atlanta Braves and then against Baltimore, he was 2-0.

Besides the futile years with the Mets, both before and after '69, Ryan was stuck in California when the Angels were terrible.  In his eight seasons in Anaheim, the Angels had winning records in only four years and they made the postseason only one year when they lost to Baltimore in 1979.

Ryan then went to Houston where again he pitched eight years for teams that won barely more than they lost.  The Astros did manage to make the postseason three times while Ryan pitched for them, but never made it to the World Series.

From Houston, Ryan went back to the American League with Texas where once again he was with a team that barely managed to win and never made the playoffs with the “Express.”

With the Mets, Ryan pitched for six years for a team that had a combined batting average of .240.  With the Angels his team's offensive production increased all the way to .253.  With the Astros it was almost identical at .254 and with the Rangers he had a little more production as they managed a batting average of .260 while he was there.

Was Nolan Ryan the greatest pitcher ever?  That will always be argued.  There can be little question that he was the most dominant pitcher of his time period—maybe of any period.  He simply overpowered hitters with a fastball without equal and a curve that seemed to disappear.

The fact that he played with the four teams he did, four teams that for the most part were just not good, makes his production even more remarkable.  If he had pitched for Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, or the Yankees of the late ‘70s, or the A's of the early ‘70s, or the Orioles, his record would unquestionably have been much better. 

The fact that he achieved 324 wins with these teams has to give one pause to consider that Nolan Ryan is the greatest pitcher who ever toed a big league rubber.