Nolan Ryan was a singular pitcher. He’s unique in baseball history, so distinct that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m going to begin with the obvious: strikeouts. Nolan Ryan struck out 5,714 batters, 17% more than second-place Randy Johnson. Only 16 pitchers in history recorded half as many strikeouts as Nolan Ryan. He led his league in strikeouts 11 times, the most since Walter Johnson (12).
Ryan also walked the most batters in history — 2,795. Steve Carlton is second on that list, with 1,833. Ryan averaged 4.67 BB/9 and 12.4 BB%. Both figures are higher than anyone else who pitched even half as many innings. Ryan led his league in walks eight times.
Ryan also threw 277 wild pitches, most since 1900. He allowed 757 stolen bases, almost 40% more than second-place Greg Maddux. Ryan led AL pitchers in errors four times, and retired with a ghastly .895 fielding percentage. Joe Posnanski summed up Ryan’s career, “He’s the most extraordinary pitcher who ever lived, I think. But I also think he’s not especially close to the best.”
Nolan Ryan is unique, and it makes him hard to evaluate. Casual fans and the old-school crowd have always worshiped Nolan Ryan. His uniform number was retired by three different teams, and he was the leading vote-getter, among pitchers, for the MLB All-Century Team. He got more than twice as many votes as Walter Johnson. But when you really look at his stats, Ryan doesn’t come off well.
Take wins. Yes, the pitcher win, because this is surprising. In a career that spanned 26 seasons (not including 1966, when he had only one decision), Ryan only led his team in wins 7 times. Actually, it’s 5 times outright — 7 counts two years he tied for the lead. In 11 of his 27 seasons (41%), Ryan had a lower winning percentage than the team. He lost more games (292) than anyone but Cy Young and Walter Johnson. What about ERA? Ryan led his league in ERA twice, but in one of those years, he went 8-16. The other year, strike-shortened 1981, he didn’t lead the league in strikeouts, but did lead the majors in wild pitches (16). His 1.25 WHIP ranks 278th all-time. Ryan never won a Cy Young Award and never finished among the top 10 in MVP voting.
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. When you look at stats like wins and ERA, Ryan looks more like a good pitcher than a great one. He’s almost a compiler, just a guy who played forever, rather than a true standout. Then you look at FIP. Ryan had a FIP of 2.97 (84 FIP-), and he pitched 5,386 innings, giving him 106.6 WAR. By FIP, Nolan Ryan is the 6th-most valuable pitcher of all time: Roger Clemens, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan.
I suspect the percentage of FanGraphs readers who believe Nolan Ryan was one of the six best pitchers ever is south of 5%, maybe less than 1%. He rates considerably worse by RA9-WAR, 89.5 instead of 106.6, 25th all-time. Even that would seem high to many stat-oriented fans. It’s better than Bob Feller, basically equal to Pedro Martinez. Ryan also ranks 20th in rWAR (83.8), again much lower than when judged by FIP.
I gave this post a stupid title, with an obvious answer. Is Nolan Ryan overrated by FIP? Yes, clearly. His ERA was 20 points higher — in a 28-year, 807-game, 5,400-inning career. I think the numbers stabilize before 5,000 innings. Ryan’s RA9-WAR is 17 points lower than his fWAR, the biggest deficit of any pitcher in history. Ryan is overrated by FIP. That’s not a major revelation. The interesting question is why Nolan Ryan is overrated by FIP — and whether he is underrated by RA and ERA.
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