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.
Ryan struck out 25.3% of batters and walked 12.4% of batters. While that’s an appalling walk rate, 12.9% is an exceptional K-BB% for a player of Ryan’s era and longevity. Ryan also allowed very few home runs, 0.54 per 9 innings. He had a low-ish plunk rate, as well. Thus, a 2.97 FIP and 84 FIP-. FIP is a simple calculation, and it’s easy to understand why Ryan’s is good.
We know that some pitchers consistently out-perform — or less frequently, under-perform — their peripherals. Ryan is in the latter group. For most pitchers whose ERA and FIP differ significantly, we find the answer in BABIP. But Ryan allowed lower BABIP than the league average, and lower than other pitchers on his teams:
1966-71: NL .278, NYM .268, Ryan .252
1972-79: AL .277, CAL .277, Ryan .267
1980-88: NL .280, HOU .272, Ryan .271
1989-93: AL .285, TEX .288, Ryan .257
The LOB percentages come out about equal, but the BABIP figures are very strange. Ryan’s ERA was significantly worse than his FIP, but his batting average on balls in play was very low, .265 for his career. FG credits Ryan with +16.7 BIP-Wins in his career. Rather than explaining the discrepancy, BABIP adds to the mystery. We already know that Ryan, with his historic strikeout and walk rates, missed more bats than any pitcher in history, but we can also deduce from Ryan’s excellent BABIP and home run rates that he allowed very poor contact. Generating strikeouts and weak contact are perhaps a pitcher’s most important jobs. It’s time to examine the little things.
Some 95% of the time, the little things are little. They even out over time, the good balance the bad, and so forth. Nolan Ryan did all the little things badly, and he did them badly enough so that his ERA- was only 90, worse than contemporaries like Terry Forster, Darold Knowles, and Roger McDowell. Nolan Ryan rates far, far worse than his peripherals because of wild pitches, stolen bases, his own fielding, and sequencing.
Ryan threw 277 wild pitches in the major leagues. That’s about one every 20 innings, which is terrible, and combined with Ryan’s long career, it gives him by far the most wild pitches of the last 100 years, the most all-time depending on what you count as a major league. Phil Niekro is next among contemporary pitchers (226), and he has the knuckleball as an excuse. Ryan led his league in wild pitches six times and had 13 seasons with double-digit WP.
There are 54 post-war pitchers with at least 50 fWAR. Collectively, they average .025 WP/IP, one every 40 innings. Ryan more than doubled that rate (.051), the 2nd-worst mark in the group (Jack Morris, .054). An elite pitcher with Ryan’s workload would normally throw about 138 WP. With the value of a wild pitch set at .200 of a run, Ryan’s wildness cost his teams 28 runs.
Someone should tell Rick Vaughn that 139 WP only costs a team three wins.
Ryan threw a blazing fastball, and we tend to think of the fastball as a good pitch for limiting stolen bases. But Ryan yielded 757 stolen bases, light years more than 2nd-place Greg Maddux (547). Ryan allowed at least 40 steals (which is terrible) six times. He faced 22,575 batters and yielded .034 SB/BF, .141 SB/IP. That’s 24 stolen bases per 700 PA and 1.27 SB/9. This is against everyone, not just Rickey Henderson.
And it’s not only that runners attempted to steal against Ryan; they were phenomenally successful, 75%. Ryan permitted 757 SB with just 252 CS. From 1966-93, there were 74,946 stolen bases in MLB. That’s .018 SB/PA, about half of Ryan’s rate, for an average of a little more than 12 stolen bases per 700 PA. There were 38,853 CS during the same years, for a 65.9 SB%. An average pitcher of Ryan’s generation would have, over the course of 22,575 BF, 400 SB and 207 CS. Ryan’s actual numbers come out +357 SB and just +45 CS. That’s worth about 54 runs, or 5.5-6 wins (during Ryan’s career, about 9⅓ runs translated to an additional win).
Some pitchers benefit from the great defenses behind them — the Orioles in the ’70s, the Braves in the ’90s. On bad teams, it can go the other way. Ryan was the victim of his own atrocious fielding. He committed the most errors (90) of any pitcher since Cy Young. Ryan’s .895 fielding percentage is the 2nd-lowest since Deadball (Ray Sadecki, .878). The average FP by a pitcher of Ryan’s era was .954. He’s three standard deviations below that.
And it’s not just negative plays. Ryan ended his career with 220 putouts and 547 assists, a total of 767. That’s .14 plays per inning pitched. Matched up against his 90 errors, it’s 8.5 (PO+A)/E. League norms were .21 plays per inning pitched and 20.4 per error. Between 1966-93, 103 major leaguers pitched at least 2,000 innings. Among those 103, Ryan rates dead last in both (PO+A)/IP and (PO+A)/E. He was a disastrous fielder.
Traditional fielding stats leave a lot to be desired, but even a cursory glance at this list makes it obvious how awful Ryan’s fielding was. Without UZR and DRS data, it’s difficult to estimate how many runs his poor fielding allowed, but it was enough to cost his team several wins.
The toughest thing to sort out here is leverage and sequencing. Assessing clutch performance has been the hardest part of sabermetrics for ages. We know it’s never or almost never repeatable at a significant level. But something interesting shows up in Ryan’s context-dependent numbers.
This idea that will not sit well with some people: Nolan Ryan was a front-runner. He came onto the mound with his devastating fastball and a 12-to-6 curve, and he scared the bejeezus out of batters. That intimidation worked for him; he fed off his own dominance. Ryan allowed the fewest H/9 of any pitcher in history, but you wouldn’t predict seven no-hitters for him. Ryan also lost 24 no-hitters in the 7th inning or later, more than double Randy Johnson’s second-place mark (11). When Ryan had a good day, man, it was a really good day. He had 31 no-hitters through six innings; Unit is next with 13.
Probably no pitcher in history had as many great games as Ryan. He had a Game Score of at least 90 more than 30 times. This is another of those unbelievable records. Ryan had more 90+ Game Scores than Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling combined (26), more than Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale (26), more than Clemens and Pedro combined (25), more than the entire 1971 Orioles and 1997 Braves pitching rotations, all taken together for their whole careers (24). Ryan’s 100th-best Game Score was 82. By way of comparison, Greg Maddux had a Game Score of 82 or higher 28 times. Part of Ryan’s legend is that there were days he was almost literally unhittable. If you saw his 16-K no-hitter against the Blue Jays, for instance, you could be forgiven for assuming that Ryan was the greatest pitcher who ever lived.
But Ryan didn’t respond well to men on base. When that aura of invincibility cracked a little bit, either Ryan himself buckled, or the batters he was facing drew renewed confidence and improved their play. Among pitchers for whom we have the relevant data, Nolan Ryan has the lowest Clutch score of all time. His -8.21 ranks 476th among 476 pitchers with at least 1,000 IP.
We all know better than to make sweeping judgments about a player based on his “clutch” performance. The Clutch stat has limited utility, because it compares players against themselves, and thus holds great pitchers like Ryan to a very high standard. The question is whether Ryan’s wild pitches, and his shortcomings as a fielder, and his “preposterous inability to prevent runners from stealing bases” (Posnanski) are sufficient to explain the massive difference between his FIP profile and a runs-based evaluation, or whether his context-dependent performance trended strongly enough over a very long career to appreciably impact his results.
Keeping in mind that these stats don’t go back all that far (1974), and “all-time” is a misnomer … among pitchers, Ryan ranks 28th all-time in both RE24 and WPA. He’s 476th in Clutch. Ryan holds some very prestigious MLB records — strikeouts, no-hitters, H/9 — but also some pretty negative ones. We’ve mentioned walks, wild pitches, and stolen bases, but we haven’t talked about grand slams. Ryan gave up 10 grand slams, tied with Mike Jackson and Kenny Rogers for the most in history. Now, Ryan pitched more innings than Jackson and Rogers combined… but he also had a home run rate about 55% of theirs — meaning Ryan actually gave up more bases-loaded HR, relative to his career norms, than the other two. Was Nolan Ryan a choker?
Probably not. Splits data at Baseball Reference doesn’t show Ryan as a bases-loaded groove machine. In 243 plate appearances with two out and the based loaded, Ryan allowed a .553 OPS, and a 3.48 K/BB ratio that is his best in any of the 24 possible base-out situations. However, Ryan did not pitch well out of the stretch.
Below are the 10 pitchers with the most IP from 1966-93, plus Jim Palmer, whom I wanted to see because he consistently and dramatically outperformed his FIP. The chart shows their OPS allowed with the bases empty, OPS with men on base, the raw difference between the two, and the percentage difference.
That’s bad. With men on base, Ryan was a dramatically worse pitcher, about 11% worse. Again, I don’t believe Ryan was a choker. The available evidence doesn’t show that he was a choker. What it suggests, pretty clearly, is that Ryan was a less effective pitcher out of the stretch. Allowing a single with the bases empty isn’t necessarily a big deal. Allowing a single with a man on third is a problem. Walking the batter when no one’s on doesn’t have a huge impact on run expectancy. Walking the batter with men on first and second does. As the numbers above show, Ryan was the worst pitcher of his generation at maintaining effectiveness with men on base.
Compounding this issue, the problems we’ve already identified — wild pitches and stolen bases — come into play with men on base. Thus, we have in Ryan a player whose context-neutral stats are not reflective of his actual performance. FIP is a great model for most pitchers. It doesn’t work for Ryan, because he wasn’t the same pitcher in high leverage. When we talk about players who out-perform their FIP, we mention lefties and knuckleballers … but seldom players who pitch well out of the stretch. Our models assume that a pitcher will be about 3-4% less effective pitching out of the stretch. Ryan is a couple of magnitudes worse than that, with a real impact on his runs allowed. FanGraphs estimates that Ryan lost 34 wins to sequencing.
Ryan went 76-69 in one-run games (counting only those games in which he was credited with a decision). That .524 winning percentage is almost identical to Ryan’s .526 career winning percentage. This is about sequencing more than pressure. Ryan didn’t choke in close games or late innings, he just didn’t pitch as well with men on base. That’s why his Clutch score is so low.
Nolan Ryan is overrated by FIP. Obviously. But is he underrated by ERA? By wins and losses?
My answer has changed while writing this post, and that answer now is: no, I don’t think Ryan is underrated by ERA. His FIP is much better than his ERA, but it’s not because of bad fielding or bad luck. The gap between those two statistics is entirely or almost entirely of Ryan’s own making, deficiencies in his own game. Even ERA probably overrates him a touch, because earned run average makes allowances for some of Ryan’s weaknesses. You can’t use context-neutral stats to evaluate Ryan, because his own performance was highly context-dependent.
For most pitchers, the true picture of their effectiveness is somewhere in between FIP and RA, probably a little closer to the former. Ryan is an exception. On all the little things that FIP leaves out, Ryan is an outlier, and they all trend in the same (bad) direction. Ryan’s RA tells the true story of his contribution to the team, much moreso than his fielding-independent stats.
I think Ryan’s won-loss record is a fair representation of his career. Best I can tell from his game logs at Baseball Reference, Ryan’s teams averaged 3.80 runs per game. That’s his own actual run support, not just team stats. Ryan’s RA was 3.64. Plugging those numbers into pythagorean win expectancy, with 616 decisions, we’d expect Ryan to go 321-295, almost exactly his record. To the extent W/L stats are of any use at all, they’re in line with what we’d expect.
Part of what fascinates me about Ryan is how your impression of him changes as you acquire knowledge. Traditional analysis rated Ryan as a sensational pitcher, based on his strikeouts, H/9, BA allowed, and no-hitters. But when you learn a little more about stats and begin putting the numbers in context, you can almost convince yourself he was a pretty average pitcher. Then you start in on real sabermetrics, get a little defense-independent in this joint, and you understand what all the fuss was about. Finally, you consider all the little stats that FIP misses, things like pitcher fielding that usually aren’t a big deal, and you get a pitcher who becomes more and more extraordinary but who once again looks overrated. FIP misses a lot of important information about Nolan Ryan, but the contrast gives us one more way to appreciate how unusual a pitcher he was.
Brad Oremland is a columnist for Sports Central, where he writes mostly about the NFL. He roots for baseball teams named after birds, except the Blue Jays.