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January 3, 2014

Raising Aces

The Good Old Days: Nolan Ryan

by Doug Thorburn

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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 But there is one player who superseded the debate, despite the fact that he carried as many warts on his statistical record as he did accolades: Nolan Ryan, whose career spanned four decades with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

Balance

70

Momentum

70

Torque

80

Posture

65

Release Distance

80

Repetition

65

For an explanation of the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

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:

While I was [with the Rangers] I was very fortunate to have a pitching coach by the name of Tom House. And Tom and I are of the same age and Tom is a coach that is always on the cutting edge. And I really enjoyed our association together and he would always come up with new training techniques that we would try and see how they work in to my routine. And because of our friendship and Tom pushing me, I think I got in the best shape of my life during the years that I was with the Rangers.

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.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Mechanics,  Nolan Ryan,  Tom House

9 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Brad Clark

Great article. I do have a question, though. I see that you gave Ryan a 70 balance, and to be fair you did qualify that the grades were based on his peak mechanics. I wanted to ask about this, though, because there appear to be strikingly different levels of balance depicted in the gifs that you provided.

In gif 1 (top), and gif 3, I totally see the 70 balance, no question. Ryan keeps his head very close to directly above his center of mass and ends his delivery/follow through in an athletic stance with his body and eyes facing home plate, ready to field his position.

Gif 2 provides the best example of the other end of the spectrum. I'm not sure where it happens--maybe just before foot strike--but it looks like Ryan's head leaves his center of mass toward the first base side and as a result he ends up looking as though he is keeping himself from falling as his right foot strikes the first base side of the mound with Ryan's head and body facing first. This delivery, to my eyes, looks much more like the Randall Delgado delivery that you used as an example of 40 balance than a Zach Greinke (60 example) or Matt Cain (80).

The rest of the gifs are in between, looking like 45-55's to me, but none are close (again, to my untrained eyes) to the balance shown in gifs 1 and 3.

This was a really long way to ask:

Am I looking at the right things, or am I putting too much weight on what the pitcher looks like after finishing his follow through? Can a pitcher's body facing first base (or third in the case of LHP's) at the end of his delivery be a sign of bad balance?

I try to focus on the head as much as I can, but I also find myself focusing on whether the pitcher "looks" balanced or like he is going to fall over, as well as whether or not he looks like he is ready to catch a ball, after follow through.

Again, great article, I love this series!

Jan 03, 2014 08:53 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Amazing question, and thank you for the specificity.

Keep in mind that balance grades typically cover everything from first movement through foot strike, as well as positioning into release point, but that posture is specific to his spine angle into release point. Poor posture is directly related to balance, but the grade for posture is constrained within a tighter timeframe while the balance grade covers the entire delivery.

You are absolutely right about gif 2 (Angels) - Nolan had rough balance in that particular gif, and his posture was nowhere near his peak. His balance in gif 1 would also fall far short of 70-grade, given the heavy lean back in his delivery with his head trailing his center-of-mass. The vids of him with the Mets, Angels, and Astros all fall short of the 70-grade balance that Ryan earned at peak.

Nolan didn't achieve his peak balance until his Rangers years, and the best gif's to see this are the first two that follow the report card (both with Texas). With those gif's you get two angles of his stable balance throughout the delivery, a trait made all the more impressive by his crazy leg lift.

Focusing on the head is the key indicator, but be careful with what happens after release point. There are plenty of pitchers who fall off to one side or appear to spin out after release, but the focus of the grades is too look at the functional aspects of the delivery prior to release point. This is why someone like K-Rod was able to have an above-average posture grade (at peak) despite his flailing body after release point. Post-release balance certainly matters, but it is not reflected on the report cards.

Thanks again for the thoughtful and insightful question.

Jan 03, 2014 11:11 AM
 
Brad Clark

Thanks for the compliments and thanks for the helpful answer!

I can't tell you how much--and I think I speak for most BP readers here--I appreciate that you and the rest of the BP staff take the time to read our questions and provide detailed answers that really help to educate us on the game. Out of all the subscriptions I have, BP is by far the most valuable.

Jan 03, 2014 11:44 AM
rating: 6
 
Llarry

I was thinking similarly, Brad, and I hope Doug will elaborate. My thought is that we normally can use "falling off" to the glove side as an indicator of lower Balance scores, but Ryan may break that shortcut. If you look at most of those Gifs, his balance up until foot strike is really good, and it just may be that with that extreme Torque, Momentum, and Release Point combination, a follow-through like that is practically inevitable. The energy has to go *somewhere* and there's plenty going with the ball already...

I also have a question about spine-tilt. It is clear that he had plenty of that in the earlier clips, and learned to eliminate it over time. But it looks to me like his was a straight single bend at the waist (or even down at the hips), while other (lesser) pitchers sometimes look like it's a more of a curve (or multi-segmented). Is there in fact a difference? Are not all spine-tilts the same? Maybe a difference that can be identified to indicate which pitchers can be more successful even before fixing it, and maybe which ones will have an easier time doing so?

Jan 03, 2014 10:36 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Thanks for the question, Larry.

Hopefully I answered some of the balance aspects in Brad's question, and you are absolutely right that I focus on elements into foot strike to make that assessment.

Spine tilt (posture) focuses on lateral movement, which is to the glove-side 99% of the time. If I understand your question correctly, then you are also referring to the spine as it bends forward from max external rotation (arm cocking phase) into release point. This is a transition from hyperextension of the spine into flexion, and the best pitchers have this trait during the final phases of delivering the baseball. However, I do not include a flexion grade in my standard assessments, and it does not impact the grades for posture.

But you are absolutely right that hyperextension-to-flexion is an aspect involved in the transfer of kinetic energy, and that not all pitchers involve this element in similar ways. As you noted, some pitchers appear to have multiple segments to their spine tilt, often related to the timing that the tilt comes into play - some guys begin tilting during the stride phase (especially those with open strides), some kick in the tilt immediately after foot strike, and still others will only start tilting once the upper-body rotational elements kick into gear (a short tick after foot strike). The older vids of Nolan fall into this last category.

Jan 03, 2014 11:19 AM
 
Llarry

Thanks for the reply, Doug. I actually hadn't been thinking about forward bending, but your explanation makes sense. I remember when Randy Johnson was having back troubles in his last stint in Arizona, there was a distinct lack of forward transfer, and it showed in his results.

I was just thinking about the glove-side bend. Looking at Ryan from behind, it appears to me (in the older clips) that at peak tilt you can come up his legs and around the waist/hips there's a single bend (20-30 degrees) and then pretty much straight out the top of his head. Other guys seem to me to have a curve or additional bend points in the torso and neck. Maybe I'm seeing something that's not really there, but I am curious about the possibility...

Jan 03, 2014 14:39 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Ok, that makes sense. Sorry I misunderstood the first time.

It's true that spine tilt takes on different forms. Some guys have an angular tilt at the waist, as you describe with early Ryan, and others form more of a "C" pattern of curvature when tracing the base of the spine to the head. There are a couple of reasons this can exist, from issues with functional strength to the timing of tilt. The curvature often happens slightly later in the delivery, after the upper-body rotational elements have come into play, and in some cases it looks as if a pitcher is moving his head out of the way to make room for the throwing arm into release point.

The angular tilt is typically an easier fix. On the other hand, the "C" pattern can involve multiple aspects of imbalance in addition to deficiencies in functional strength. When assessing the posture grade, I typically focus on the absolute displacement of the head from an ideal position above the center-of-mass, and "C" patterns will usually receive lower grades using this methodology. However, you have brought up an important detail that I rarely discuss in my reports, and perhaps I can place a greater emphasis on the specifics of spine-tilt in future evaluations.

Thanks for the head's up!

Jan 04, 2014 10:49 AM
 
Brad Clark

"If you look at most of those Gifs, his balance up until foot strike is really good, and it just may be that with that extreme Torque, Momentum, and Release Point combination, a follow-through like that is practically inevitable."

This is exactly what I was thinking as far as a refutation, that maybe he just has so much torque that if he were to try to stop it while facing the batter he would just shred all of his core muscles. I agree, as well, that the balance is near perfect until about a millisecond before foot strike. I watched those gifs over and over to slow it down in my head before I could even see the head falter at all.

I'm also interested in your spine tilt question, so I'm hoping Doug will have time to answer.

Jan 03, 2014 11:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Let me know if the above answers make sense with respect to your evaluations, Brad. I really appreciate the time and thought put into the question as well as the evaluation, and will be happy to dig deeper.

(I am about to head out for the day, so might not be until tonight!)

Thanks

Jan 03, 2014 11:20 AM
 
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