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Nolan Ryan: The Ageless Wonder


photo by Chuck Andersen, 1990, CC 2.0

Nolan Ryan’s name is synonymous with strikeouts and no-hitters. The Hall of Fame pitcher is Major League Baseball’s all-time leader with 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters, and second place isn’t close.


Before becoming baseball’s most feared pitcher, the Texas native spent his first five seasons with the New York Mets, splitting time between the bullpen and starting rotation.


Ryan’s biggest moment with New York came in 1969 when the “Miracle Mets” defeated the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The powerful young righty made two successful appearances in the 1969 postseason, a 7-inning relief win in the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves, and a 2 1/3-inning save in the World Series.


After two solid but unspectacular seasons with the Mets in 1970 and 71, Ryan was traded to the California Angels, where he would become the dominant pitcher we know today.


 

In his first season with the Angels in 1972, Ryan went 19-16 with a 2.28 ERA, and led the American League with 329 strikeouts and nine shutouts. He also made his first All-Star appearance.


Ryan followed up on his success from the previous year by going 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA, 26 complete games and four shutouts in 1973. He also set a Major League record with 383 strikeouts, and earned his second straight All-Star selection.


The 1973 season also brought the first two no-hitters of his career. The first came on May 15 against the Royals in Kansas City, and the second came exactly two months later on July 15 versus the Tigers in Detroit. In the latter, Ryan struck out 17 batters, the most ever in a no-hitter.


 

In 1974, Ryan recorded his third straight 300-strikeout season with a league-leading 367 and his second straight 20-win season with a career-high 22. He also pitched his third no-hitter with a 15-strikeout gem at home versus the Minnesota Twins.


The year 1974 added another bit of lore to the growing Ryan legend. In a game against the Tigers on August 20, a Ryan pitch was clocked at 100.9 miles per hour in the ninth inning. At the time, radars measured pitches 10 feet in front of home plate. When adjusted to today’s standard of measuring the pitch at home plate, the real speed was actually 108.5 mph, making it the fastest recorded pitch in history.


While Ryan’s fastball was grabbing headlines and intimidating hitters, it was his development of a curveball that made him a more complete pitcher. Adding one of the league’s best curveballs to baseball’s most feared fastball made him virtually unhittable, and some days, literally unhittable. One of those days came in 1975.


In a season shortened by injury for one of the few times in his career, Ryan was still able to make history by no-hitting the Orioles in Anaheim on June 1. It was the fourth no-hitter of his career, tying Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax for the MLB record.


 

Ryan led the league in both strikeouts (327) and shutouts (7) in 1976. Surprisingly, he also led the league with 18 losses despite a 3.36 ERA. Ryan’s 17-18 record was indicative of his lack of run support with the Angels. In his first five years in California, the Angels were last in scoring four times and second-to-last once. The lack of runs and team wins also kept Ryan from winning a Cy Young award, despite being the game’s most dominant pitcher.


In 1977, Ryan struck out over 300 (341) for the fifth time in six years, while posting a 19-16 record and 2.77 ERA. He led the AL in strikeouts again in 1978 and 79, giving him the league lead in seven of the last eight seasons.


The 1979 season also marked Ryan’s first postseason appearance since 1969, and the Angels’ first playoff appearance in franchise history. Ryan pitched well in his lone ALCS start, giving up one earned run and striking out eight over seven innings, but the Angels lost the series to the Orioles.


 

After eight eventful seasons in California, Ryan was headed back home to Texas. The 33-year-old flamethrower became the first million-dollar-a-year player in MLB history after signing a 4-year, $4.5 million dollar contract with the Houston Astros.


Ryan enjoyed both team and individual success in his first two seasons in Houston. The Astros made the postseason both years, winning the NL West in 1980 and qualifying as a second half champion in the expanded playoffs of the strike-shortened 1981 season. Houston fell short of the World Series both years, but Ryan once again pitched well, posting a 3.49 ERA, 0.988 WHIP and 28 strikeouts over 28 1/3 innings in his four starts.


In 1981, he won his first ERA title at 1.69, and was named an All-Star for the sixth time. He also pitched his record fifth no-hitter, breaking the tie with Koufax in a 5-0 win over Koufax’s old team, the Dodgers, in Houston.


 

The milestones would keep coming for Ryan, as he passed Hall of Famer Walter Johnson for the all-time strikeout lead with his 3,510th on April 27, 1983 against the Montreal Expos. Two years later, he recorded his 4,000th career strikeout on July 11, 1985 against his former team, the Mets.


While most pitchers decline with age, Ryan continued to dominate hitters as he approached 40. In 1986, the 39-year-old led a strong pitching staff that carried the Astros to a division title. Houston lost to the eventual champion Mets in six games, but Ryan had a strong showing with a 3.86 ERA, 0.714 WHIP and 17 strikeouts over 14 innings in his two NLCS starts.


In 1987 at the age of 40, Ryan led the NL in ERA (2.87) and strikeouts (270). It was the first time a pitcher led the league in ERA and strikeouts and was not rewarded with a Cy Young award. The reason was once again a lack of run support, as Ryan had only an 8-16 record to show for his efforts.


The all-time strikeout king led the league in punchouts again in 1988 before moving to his fourth team in 1989. He didn’t have to go far this time, as he signed a free agent contract with the cross-state Texas Rangers.


 

Ryan’s first season with the Rangers was a historic one, as he struck out Oakland A’s All-Star and future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson in Oakland on August 22 for his 5,000th career strikeout. Ryan finished the season with an AL-leading 301 strikeouts, his sixth season with over 300 and his 10th season leading the league. The year also marked his eighth All-Star selection.


On July 11, 1990, Ryan became the oldest pitcher in Major League history to throw a no-hitter, as the 43-year-old struck out 14 in a 5-0 win over the defending champion A’s at Oakland Coliseum. The season also marked his fourth straight season leading the league in strikeouts (232), and the 11th of his career.


On July 31, Ryan recorded his 300th win against the Milwaukee Brewers at Milwaukee County Stadium. The accomplishment was especially satisfying given the lack of run support Ryan had suffered throughout his career.


 

The next season, Ryan extended his own records by pitching his seventh no-hitter on May 1, 1991, this time at the age of 44. The ageless wonder struck out 16 batters in the 3-0 home win over the Toronto Blue Jays. It marked the second-most strikeouts in a no-hitter, topped only by Ryan himself in 1973 and Max Scherzer in 2015, who both had 17.


The 1991 season was the ultimate example of a pitcher mastering his craft. As dominant as Ryan was earlier in his career, he was often plagued by a lack of control, leading the league in walks nine times from 1972-82. The walks decreased over the years, and in 1991, he led the AL in WHIP for the second straight season. He also led the league in fewest hits per innings for the 12th time.


While Ryan’s control improved later in his career, it didn’t hurt his power. He remained one of the game’s hardest throwers, leading the league in strikeouts per nine innings for the fifth year in a row, all after the age of 40, and for the 12th time in his career.


Ryan’s longevity can be attributed to an unrivaled work ethic and one of the most intense workout regimens the game has ever seen. His daily offseason workouts lasted up to five hours, and even after pitching a complete game he would ride a stationary bike for 45 minutes. Ryan was also one of the first pitchers to use weight training as part of his regimen.


 

The ageless icon played two more seasons with the Rangers before retiring after the 1993 season, his record 27th in the big leagues. His final win, the 324th of his career, came on August 15, 1993 in Cleveland, as the 46-year-old gave up two hits and one run in seven innings in the Rangers’ 4-1 victory over the Indians. Ryan’s last strikeout, his 5,714th, came on September 17 against the Angels’ Greg Myers at Anaheim Stadium.


In addition to his records for career strikeouts and no-hitters, Ryan is also the all-time leader with 215 double-digit strikeout games, 15 200-strikeout seasons and six 300-strikeout years. He also has 12 one-hitters, 18 two-hitters and 31 three-hitters, all Major League records. Perhaps most impressive of all, he is the all-time leader in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.555) and lowest batting average allowed (.204).


In 1999, Ryan was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with 98.79 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility, the second highest percentage in history at that point.

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