This annotated week in baseball history: April 25-May 1, 1983

On April 27, 1983, Nolan Ryan broke the all-time strikeout record previously held by Walter Johnson. Richard looks back on the Ryan Express and his career.

Today’s event took me by surprise, which doesn’t often happen with modern players. I knew, of course, that Nolan Ryan is the all-time strikeout king. There have been some pretty good strikeout pitchers lately—Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson—but no one has come close to Ryan, who is more than 1,000 strikeouts ahead of everyone but The Big Unit.

Despite this, I never imagined that Ryan had broken the strikeout record by 1983—the beginning of 1983, actually. Ryan has held the strikeout record for my entire life, and will hold it for the rest of my life barring an incredible turn of events. (Tim Lincecum has averaged 263 strikeouts the last two years; he would have to maintain that pace for an additional 19 years to beat Ryan.)

What this tells us, besides that I never lived under the reign of Walter Johnson, strikeout king, is that Nolan Ryan just struck out a huge number of batters. This is plainly obvious by even a perfunctory look at the single-season numbers of strikeouts. Ryan not only has the single-season record (383), two of the top five, three of the top 10 and five of the top 20. He led the league in strikeouts 11 times, even doing so at age 43.

Of course, the downside to all those strikeouts was that Ryan’s command often left much to be desired. The popular history of Ryan is that he suffered through poor control during his time with the Mets, but eventually got it straightened out and became an effective pitcher. That’s about half true; while Ryan’s control was never as bad as it was with the Mets—where he averaged an impressive 6.1 BB/9—he never really evolved into a consistent strike thrower either.

Nolan Ryan, not giving in to a hitter (Icon/SMI)

In addition to being the all-time leader in walks (2795, or 4.7 per nine innings), Ryan led the league in walks eight times—eight times!—and some of those must not even have been close; he also led the league in wild pitches six times.

All of which is combined to give the inevitable conclusion that Ryan, a player who debuted well into the 1960s, was sui generis in baseball history. Prior to Ryan, only Herb Score managed a season of greater than 200 innings while walking at least 4.5 and striking out at least 9.5 per nine innings. That is one season in the entire history of baseball. Ryan proceeded to do it five times in the 1970s. Since Ryan’s time, only two pitchers have accomplished the feat. J.R. Richard did it once and Randy Johnson twice.

The embodiment of this is Ryan’s 1977 season, which is basically unique in baseball history. Ryan pitched just shy of 300 innings, and in doing so walked 204 men. That remains the second-highest post-1900 total. But in contrast, he struck out 341 hitters and allowed only 198 hits. The low hit total and huge number of strikeouts allowed Ryan to post a 2.77 ERA, third in the league. He won 19 games and was named Sporting News Pitcher of the Year.

These numbers can be a little overwhelming, but they do the job of illustrating the core of Ryan’s pitching philosophy: The hitter was not going to beat him. No pitcher allowed fewer hits per nine innings than Ryan, and despite his huge inning totals he only once was in the top 10 in home runs allowed. Some of that is due to pitching for many years in the Astrodome, but most of it comes from how he looked at the interaction between a hitter and a pitcher.

Ryan’s control generally improved as his career went on, so he obviously paid some regard to the notion that he couldn’t continue to walk the ballpark, but it seems clear that his preference forever remained to give the batter a free base before he would allow him the pleasure of getting a hit.

This is reflected in Ryan’s record seven no-hitters. (In fact, it almost reflected too well. If one were creating a fictional character who pitched like Ryan, giving him all those no-hitters and no perfect games would probably be judged as a little “on the nose.”) I take nothing away from the no-hitters, which are amazing accomplishments. It is telling, nonetheless, that Ryan had just five games of nine or more innings in which he failed to walk a single batter, while managing to throw seven without giving up a hit.

Of course, another reason for Ryan’s remarkable success was his physical longevity. Only four pitchers threw more innings in their 40s than Ryan: two were knuckleballers and one threw a spitball. Past age 30, only three players (including the knuckleball-throwing Phil Niekro) pitched more than Ryan.

Looking at Ryan’s career, his unique style of pitching (or rather, his unique ability to have long-lasting success with his style of pitching) and his incredible physical longevity makes me wonder about current control of the Texas Rangers. Ryan has cited a desire to return to a four-man rotation and minimize the importance of pitch counts, and he told a reporter that “pitchers feel pain sometimes and think they’re hurt; a lot of times, they’re not.”

Ryan is not suggesting that such a plan be instituted blindly with no regard for a pitcher’s long-term health—he points out that the measure of a pitcher’s effort should be the game situation, rather than just looking at the pitch count. But it seems likely that Ryan, who threw just one fewer complete game at age 43 than the Rangers team did in 2008, is drawing on his own experience to create policy. Whether creating policy from such a one-of-a-kind example is a good idea remains to be seen.

Whatever the end result of Ryan’s time with the Rangers, whether world titles or ruined arms, it cannot dim the lights on a remarkable career. As long as there is baseball, Nolan Ryan is likely to be its strikeout king. The 27th anniversary of his reaching that position is worth remembering.

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  1. Richard Barbieri said...

    I did actually know that about Carlton ( butwould you believe that much of the Texas-based media coverage of Ryan’s anniversary didn’t mention it?) but I fudged it—only a little—for my purposes here.

  2. Dave Studeman said...

    The funny thing is that there were concerns about his ability to pitch a lot during his time with the Mets.  He developed blisters easily, and I remember one or two stories that dealt with proposed remedies—at one point, he was soaking his hand in pickle brine.  I think this perception was part of the reason the Mets traded him.

  3. Accent Shallow said...

    In that picture, it looks like Ryan is throwing a change, since he’s not gripping the ball with his index finger.  Funny, since he’s not exactly known for that.

  4. Mike said...

    Actually, Steve Carlton passed Ryan in career strikeouts during the 1983 season and after the completion of that season Carlton led Ryan 3,709 to 3,677. By the end of the 1984 season, Ryan led 3,874 to 3,872 and he was ahead to stay.

  5. Richard Barbieri said...

    I noticed that about Ryan. I have a copy of the pitching guide Ryan wrote, I can’t find the exact quote, but I think Ryan said he added the change-up during the time of the ‘81 strike and slowly incorporated it in into his repertoire thereafter.

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