|Friday, May 17
Nolan Ryan: Why he's overrated
By Rob Neyer
The following column was originally posted on September 16, 1999.
The topic might not be "hot" any more, but now that the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are little more than a warm fuzzy memory, perhaps we can address an issue and check our emotions at the door ...
I enjoy your column and I have a question for you. With Nolan Ryan recently going into the Hall of Fame, I found out a lot about his career numbers which I never knew. But the one I can't understand is his winning percentage. He was a .525 pitcher for his career. He basically threw 95-100 mph with a great curveball for his entire career, he has the lowest BA against and the most strikeouts ever. It seems to me that someone with that kind of "stuff" should have had a better winning percentage. Is there such a thing as a pitcher's OPS, on-base plus slugging allowed? If so, how does Ryan's stack up? Or is there some other reason why he doesn't have a better winning percentage? I mean, Walter Johnson pitched on some pretty terrible teams and he still had a .600 winning percentage. I remember reading how all the teams combined that Tom Seaver played for had a .500 record, yet Seaver has a .603 winning percentage. What gives with Ryan?
Here's what gives, Joe: Nolan Ryan was a fine pitcher for a long time, but he doesn't belong in the same room with Walter Johnson and Tom Seaver.
Ryan's problem was a simple one. He didn't throw enough strikes. I know that seems like a strange thing to say about the all-time strikeout king, but consider:
Not to be too simplistic, but it's almost that simple. The truly great pitchers, the guys who belong on the all-time teams, were able to record great numbers of strikeouts and avoid issuing many walks. While Ryan's .204 batting average allowed is indeed the lowest in major-league history, his .309 on-base percentage allowed isn't really close to being in the top 100. The other problem was, Ryan didn't do any of the little things well, like fielding the ball and holding runners.
People like to defend Ryan by pointing to the quality of the teams for which he pitched, but you know, they really weren't all that bad. Not including 1966 -- he worked only three innings that year -- Ryan pitched for 26 seasons. I entered the winning percentages of his teams those 26 seasons, and then I added everything up. And you know what?
In those 26 seasons, Ryan's teams won 2,104 games, and they lost 2,048 games.
In those 26 seasons, Ryan's teams finished above .500 in 15 of them.
What's your definition of a truly awful team? Does 90 losses seem reasonable? Well, in 26 years Ryan played for one team, the 1974 California Angels, that lost 90 or more games.
All of which is to say, let's stop making excuses for Nolan Ryan. He was a very good pitcher. Total Baseball rates him as about 21 games better than a league-average pitcher over the course of his career. That's more than some Hall of Famers (Catfish Hunter, Early Wynn, Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning), but fewer than almost everybody else.
That said, I do believe Ryan belongs in the Hall of Fame, because he won 324 games and he did a lot of things that nobody else has done, or likely will do. A Hall of Fame without Ryan would be like a lake without water.
But to suggest that Ryan is, say, one of baseball's nine greatest pitchers is, in a word, indefensible.