The story behind Nolan Ryan's 235-pitch start

June 14th, 2019

It was 45 years ago Friday that pitched a game that, when compared to today’s baseball, feels more like it was from 100 years ago.

Taking the mound for the Angels on June 14, 1974, the future Hall of Famer struck out 19 Red Sox hitters over 13 innings in the California Angels' 4-3, 15-inning victory at the Big A. But the most eye-popping stat from Ryan’s outing might be his pitch count: 235, according to accounts from the game.

This was the second of Ryan’s three 19-strikeout performances in 1974 alone, a season in which he finished with 367 punchouts -- 16 shy of the all-time record he set the year before. Ryan finished with a no-decision and didn’t even log the most innings by any pitcher in Anaheim that day: His opponent, Luis Tiant, went 14 1/3 innings before surrendering Denny Doyle’s walk-off double in the bottom of the 15th. That kind of showdown was a more standard fare at the time; the Los Angeles Times’ recap that day stated simply that “Tiant and Ryan dueled tenaciously.”

The Times’ recap also did not list Ryan’s pitch count, but the legend told the newspaper in 2004 that he heard the number from his pitching coach, Tom Morgan, who kept track on a handheld clicker.

“I think he did it out of, I don't know if it was curiosity or what," said Ryan. But it’s a hard number to debate, seeing how Ryan faced 58 batters (10 of them reaching base via walk, including one with the bases loaded in the top of the fourth) over the course of the evening.

Full pitch count data dates to 1988, making Tim Wakefield’s 172-pitch, 10-plus-inning start for the Pirates against the Braves on April 27, 1993, the most exhaustive effort “on record.” Edwin Jackson’s 149-pitch no-hitter for the D-backs on June 25, 2010, ranks as the highest pitch count of this decade, and just six pitchers (Mike Fiers, Adam Wainwright, Trevor Bauer, Steven Matz, Max Scherzer and Lance Lynn) have even reached 120 this season.  Just 22 of the 2,042 Major League games this season have seen a starting pitcher complete a game.

But Ryan’s mammoth effort 45 years ago didn’t do him any worse for wear. He made his next start against the Yankees (six scoreless innings) on just three days’ rest and finished the season with 26 complete games -- which didn’t even pace the American League. Ryan went on to pitch 19 more Major League seasons, pitching past his 46th birthday and twirling his record seventh no-hitter at age 44. Indeed, the term “quality start” had a completely different definition in Ryan’s day. 

"Quality start? In those days, if I had pitched only six innings and gave up three runs, I had a bad outing and I was hacked off,” Ryan told the Times. “And I can tell you what: My manager and general manager weren't happy, either.

“In those days," Ryan added, "I was my own closer."