Hartnett: Ryan will never be passed
Brian Hartnett | Monday, October 27, 2014
Few sports offer the opportunity for career longevity that baseball does.
Sure, there might be some older winners of golf tournaments — Jack Nicklaus’s victory at The Masters at the age of 46 comes to mind — or in NASCAR races.
If we liberally expand the definition of sports to things televised by ESPN, such as poker and bass fishing, we probably find a greater number of older champions — age and wisdom are likely major pluses in these competitions.
But as far as the big four sports go, baseball offers by far the best opportunity to play into your 40s. Plenty of players have been key contributors at ages when they start facing graying hairs and a slowing metabolism — Tim Wakefield, Mariano Rivera, Bartolo Colon and Derek Jeter are some of the recent players to come to mind. Heck, Jamie Moyer and Julio Franco played until they were mere months shy of 50.
But in MLB’s extensive history, no player exemplified longevity as much as Nolan Ryan did.
Ryan played a total of 27 seasons, beginning his career with the Mets in 1966 and ending it with the Rangers in 1993. He pitched in four different decades and played from his late teens to his mid-40s.
To put it in perspective, he entered the majors in Sandy Koufax’s last season and exited it in the year of Chipper Jones’ MLB debut.
Along the way, he accumulated some incredible statistics — 324 wins (along with 292 losses), a career 3.19 ERA, 222 complete games, 61 shutouts, eight All-Star Game appearances and seven career no-hitters, which is still the most all-time (Koufax is next with four).
Ryan essentially did everything but throw a perfect game and strangely enough, win a Cy Young Award, as he even won a World Series title with the 1969 Amazin’ Mets.
Yet there is one Ryan statistic that stands out from all the rest.
It’s a number as large and as looming as his home state and his longtime playing home of Texas and as his place in baseball lore.
That’s the number of strikeouts Ryan amassed over his quarter-century-plus in the game. And that’s the one Ryan record that will remain unbreakable, even more so than his no-hitters record — no-hitters are a function of chance, as seen by the number of Hall of Famers who lack one and number of one-hit wonders who have one.
Ryan’s record will remain unreachable for two reasons.
The first is the longevity mentioned above. Ryan played the most seasons in baseball history. Few starting pitchers today break into the league early enough to have 15, let alone 20, productive years, and the ones that do either rely on a specialty pitch — see Wakefield and Gaylord Perry — or are precision pitchers — see the great Braves duo of Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. It is doubtful that a pitcher in these above groups will contend for a strikeout title anytime soon.
Even the fireballers, such as Randy Johnson, who remain the league long enough to challenge Ryan’s longevity fall short of Ryan’s mark — even after a 22-year career, Johnson was still 839 strikeouts behind Ryan.
Ryan’s longevity belies the fact that he was worked at a rate most pitchers today wouldn’t come near, due to fears of arm injuries. Ryan averaged 232 innings and 33 starts per season — only four pitchers in all of baseball pitched more than 232 innings this season. I can’t even imagine the reactions that would ensue in a front office if a team dared to send its star pitcher out for 332 innings, as the then-California Angels did with Ryan in 1974.
The second factor that renders Ryan’s record unreachable is his incredible productivity across his entire career. Make no mistake, Ryan didn’t stop fooling hitters as he got older. He won 11 total league-wide strikeout crowns, but his final four came in four consecutive seasons between the ages of 40 and 43. A 42-year-old Ryan struck out 301 batters in 1989 — for comparison, this year’s league strikeout king, David Price, struck out 271 hitters.
He produced at such a level that any run at his strikeout record would require incredible productivity. A player who pitches for 20 seasons would have to average 286 strikeouts per season. Even a pitcher who spends 25 seasons in the league would have to average 229 strikeouts per year to pass Ryan.
Although baseball allows for the longevity to match Ryan, there has yet to be and will never be a player who can outsmart and out-pitch hitters as well as he did for as long as he did.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.