January 3, 2014
The Good Old Days: Nolan Ryan
During the 2012-13 offseason, I took some time to appreciate a few of the greatest pitchers of the previous generation. Some of these pitchers are due for Hall of Fame election in the next week, some are waiting on the doorstep while the voters decide how to handle an era tainted by steroids, and others are locks for enshrinement as soon as their eligibility clocks are sounded. It was not a coincidence that each of these legends had a mechanical profile that fully supported his prowess, but it was instructive to study how they had developed from the flawed hurlers of their youth into the out-generating machines that defined their respective peaks.
Fast-forward to this offseason, but rewind the tapes by another generation, to the elder statesmen who blazed the trail for the aces of the 1990s and 2000s. The 1980s are somewhat notorious for their lack of slam-dunk Hall of Famers, with debates surrounding the worthiness of players such as Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven. But there is one player who superseded the debate, despite the fact that he carried as many warts on his statistical record as he did accolades: Nolan Ryan, whose career spanned four decades with four organizations, and whose impact was unquestioned.
Readers will hopefully excuse any tinges of personal bias, given that I earned my pitching degree at the National Pitching Association while working with Tom House (who just happened to be Ryan's pitching coach in Texas), but I believe that it can be said without hyperbole that Nolan Ryan was the most intimidating presence to take the mound during the peaks of his career. My NPA gig did afford certain advantages in studying and learning about the intricate details of Ryan's greatness, from first-person stories via Tom House to numerical measurements that stemmed from the early versions of motion capture and analysis. One aspect that stood out was that House may have learned as much from Ryan as Ryan learned from House.
Ryan was a force to be reckoned with from the beginning of his pro career, and though we don’t have complete records of his minor-league journey, we do know that he struck out 53 batters with just 12 hits allowed across 26 innings between Double-A and Triple-A from 1966-67. Despite the precursors to stardom, his initial years with the New York Mets were unspectacular, with a severe lack of command leading to more than six walks per nine innings in his brief Mets career. He never pitched more than 152 innings in a season in New York, shuttling between the rotation and the bullpen, and he was traded to the California Angels at age 24 in the 1971-2 offseason.
Ryan pitched 284 innings in his first season with the Angels, besting his previous high by 132 innings (Verducci effect be damned). In that 1972 season, he accumulated the most strikeouts (329), walks (157), and wild pitches (18) in all of baseball, allowing an MLB-low 5.3 hits per nine innings while leading the game with 10.4 K's per nine. He would go on to post the best K-per-nine in baseball in six of the following seven seasons, with the game's lowest hit rate in four of those years. He played for the Angels for eight seasons and led the AL in strikeouts in seven of those campaigns, peaking at a league-record 383 strikeouts in 1973. He also led the AL in walks six times in his eight years with the Halos, and twice he surpassed the seemingly unfathomable total of 200 free passes in a season (his high was 204 walks in 1977).
By today's standards, it is ludicrous to imagine some of the pitch counts that Ryan endured during the 1970s. On June 14, 1974, Ryan pitched 13 innings with 19 strikeouts and 10 walks, facing a ridiculous total of 58 Red Sox that day. We don't have data for pitches per plate appearance prior to 1988, but even using the 4.00 pitches-per-batter that Nolan averaged during his final five years (which were comparatively more efficient), that would amount to a staggering 232 pitches.
Though the June 14th contest was an extreme case, Ryan was accustomed to high pitch counts. He registered a total of 18 or more walks-plus-strikeouts nine times in that 1974 season, and on four occasions he faced 40 or more batters; today's pitchers rarely top 30 batters faced in a ballgame. During his eight years with the Angels, Ryan faced 40 or more batters 26 times, and he threw more than 280 innings in four of his first five seasons in Anaheim. It's no wonder that he feels that today's pitchers are relatively soft.
My first memories of Ryan date from his time with the Astros, where he paired with Mike Scott to rule the Astrodome in rainbow-sherbet uniforms. Ryan spent nine seasons in Houston, and though his eye-popping strikeout numbers fell precipitously during his 30s, so too did his walk totals. From 1980-86, he tallied a modest (for him) 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings along with a walk rate of 3.9 free passes per nine. The walks sound high by today's standards, but he looked like the work of a control artist when compared to the 5.5 walks-per-nine that he posted in the nearly 2700 innings that preceded his time in Houston. He did not win any strikeout titles during the stretch from '80-86, and one could understand if the 39-year old was nearing the end of his rope, but something surprising happened when Ryan cleared the age-40 threshold: he rediscovered the strikeout pace of his twenties.
Ryan led the majors in strikeouts and K rate in his age-40 season of 1987, setting a new career-high with 11.5 K's per nine, and he went on to lead the NL in both categories the following year (his last in Houston). The Texas native remained close to home, signing with the Rangers prior to the 1989 season, and he went on to lead the majors with the highest strikeout rates and lowest frequencies of hits allowed in each season from '89-'91. Ryan went on to pitch two more seasons, and he finally showed signs of wear at age 46, posting the only ERA above 4.00 of his 27-year career and regressing to the walk rates of old before calling it quits with 5714 career K’s.
Mechanics Report Card
The above report card reflects Ryan's peak mechanics, which were on display during his Rangers resurgence of his early-to-mid 40's. It might be fair to accuse me of bias in this case, given the influence of Tom House's tutelage on both Ryan's career and my own as an evaluator of pitching, so I’ll defer to the man himself when branding this his period of peak physical performance. In his induction speech to the Hall of Fame on June 25, 1999, Ryan offered the following words:
As I mentioned in the introduction, the learning experience was a two-way street between Ryan and House, in which their combined knowledge and appreciation of pitching fueled much of the research that we spearheaded at the NPA. Ryan knew his craft as well as any pitcher of his time, and he was already aware of many aspects that would come to be appreciated years later, such as the times-through-order phenomenon that Mitchel Lichtman recently studied at Baseball Prospectus (Ryan's description can be heard at 2:28 into the video for no-no number seven). One of my favorite stories of Tom's was his description of the interaction between him and Ryan on the topic of leg lift, in which Ryan proclaimed, “Tom, when I lift my leg higher I throw the ball harder. Put that in your damn computer!”
Studying Ryan and other greats of the game using high-speed motion capture and analysis helped to overcome the bias of conventional wisdom and discover the links between what a player felt and what a coach saw. In the case of leg lift, Ryan utilized outstanding momentum throughout his delivery, and his initial thrust that was involved with leg lift helped him to not only generate tremendous kinetic energy with his lower half, but also to take an amazing stride that extended his release point. In fact, Ryan still holds the record in the NPA computers for stride length efficiency, which is a measure of stride length as a function of height, a trait that gave opposing hitters the feeling that Ryan was right on top of them. The reduced distance of the ball's flight path further increased the perceived velocity of his blazing fastball.
Ryan had unbelievable functional strength, especially for an athlete in his 40's, and he was able to sustain stable balance through his acrobatic leg lift and tremendous burst to the plate. His momentum earned plus-plus grades throughout his career, as can be seen in the above clip with the Angels, but his balance and athleticism did not hit peak until Ryan reached the Rangers. He featured spine-tilt as a young hurler, such as in the following clip from the 1969 World Series, but Ryan improved his posture throughout his career.
Ryan was a physical freak whose tremendous work ethic combined with elite functional strength and flexibility to contribute to his Herculean workloads, and when those attributes were paired with elite mechanical efficiency, he was able to defy age-related decline and enjoy some of the best performances of his career. His raw velocity stemmed from this functional strength combined with his outstanding momentum and unbelievable torque. As a general rule, MLB pitchers get between 40 and 60 degrees of hip-shoulder separation, but Ryan broke that mold with up to 65 degrees of separation, fueled by upper-body load and a heavy delay of rotation that allowed his hips to create separation after foot strike.
Ryan was a unique specimen, but that did not stop us from learning from his example and applying those lessons to future generations of pitchers.