"You should treat the art of pitching as you would a Thanksgiving dinner. Families get together for the holidays and there's always a lot of good food to enjoy. You're not going to eat everything at once, of course; a satisfying meal is best appreciated one bite at a time. Pitching a ballgame is based on the same principle -- deal with one pitch at a time and make every one count."
-- From "Nolan Ryan's Pitcher's Bible"
There had never been a pitcher like Nolan Ryan, and there will never be a pitcher like Nolan Ryan, and if you had to sum up his singularity in one sentence, it would be this: He made every single pitch count.
No, it was more than that. He made every single pitch a duel, an affair of honor between pitcher and hitter. There was no surrender, not on his part. There were no concessions. Every pitcher, on his best days, hopes to throw a no-hitter. Ryan wanted to throw one every single night.
And because of this we start off our "Things you will never see again in baseball" series with two records Ryan holds that will never be broken, will never even be approached. Baseball, like life, evolves and revolves; trends dissolve and reappear; pitchers dominate, then hitters dominate, then back again. But you can be pretty sure of two things:
1. No pitcher will ever strike out as many batters as Ryan.
2. No pitcher will ever walk as many batters as Ryan.
To understand this, though, we first have to start with the simple fact that Ryan wasn't like other pitchers, even the great ones. Ryan idolized Sandy Koufax growing up, longed to be like him, and there are similarities between the two Hall of Famers. Koufax threw impossibly hard and had a breathtaking curveball. Koufax couldn't find the plate when he was young. Koufax developed into the most unhittable pitcher of his time.
Ryan threw even harder than Koufax -- harder than anybody, really. He too was wild. And he started to develop his own devastating curveball at 17 after watching Koufax pitch against the Houston Colt .45s in 1964. That was the day he realized that it would take more than a fastball. He famously kept his ticket stub from that game as a reminder. As it turned out, so did the girl he took to the game, Ruth. Ryan and Ruth have been married for more than 50 years.
But Ryan's destiny was different from Koufax's because Ryan was fundamentally different in makeup and purpose. Koufax came to beat you. Tom Seaver came to beat you. Bob Gibson and Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux came to beat you. Ryan came to strike you out. Period. Every game, every inning, every hitter for 25 seasons, Ryan went for the strikeout. And he got the strikeout more than any other pitcher ever did or ever will.
- Ryan: 5,714
- Randy Johnson: 4,875
- Roger Clemens: 4,672
- Steve Carlton: 4,136
- Bert Blyleven: 3,701
How crazy is that strikeout total? Well, the active leader in strikeouts is Carsten Sabathia with 2,846. Second on the list is Bartolo Colon with 2,454. Add them together and they are still 414 strikeouts -- roughly a Zach Britton -- shy of Ryan's incomprehensible total.
Let's put it another way: Clayton Kershaw is the pitcher of our generation. He has led the league in strikeouts three times. At the pace he's on, he would need to average 225 strikeouts per year (roughly his average for a full season) for another 16 years until he was 46 years old in order to catch Ryan.
Chris Sale had 300 strikeouts for the first time last season. He would have to average 300 strikeouts per year until he was 44 to catch Ryan.
No one will ever match Ryan's strikeout total because no one ever went after the strikeout with such unhittable stuff and with his unwavering sense of purpose. Ryan is baseball's all-time leader in perhaps a dozen categories, some obviously tied to his strikeout genius, others less so. Ryan gave up fewer hits per inning pitched than anyone with 1,000 or more innings -- 6.6 hits per nine innings. The league hit .204 against Ryan, that too is the record, at least since we have been able to keep the records. The league is currently hitting .206 against Kershaw.
Consider this -- since Deadball ended in 1920:
Most no-hitters: Ryan, 7
Most one-hitters: Ryan and Bob Feller, 12
Most two-hitters: Ryan, 18
Most three-hitters: Ryan, 31
"You know," Ryan said, "when I threw a fastball right and stayed with it and felt it come out of my hand right, I knew they weren't going to hit it."
These things are directly connected to strikeouts.
But what of this: Ryan gave up, by far, the most stolen bases in history at 757 -- that's 200 more than Greg Maddux allowed, 300 more than any other pitcher. Ryan never really tried to tighten up his big, glorious windup. He was more than willing -- especially in his early years -- to let runners steal bases. He was going for the whiff.
Nobody came close to throwing as many wild pitches as Ryan. He threw 277 of them, 50 more than second-place Phil Niekro, just about double the total of active wild pitch leader Felix Hernandez. Again, Ryan was going for the strikeout, and if that meant planting the pitch in the dirt, he would absolutely do that.
These are the side-effects of going for the strikeout every single time. And then there's the big side effect: As extraordinary as Ryan's strikeout record is, his walk record is perhaps even more unbreakable. Ryan walked 2,795 batters. No other pitcher in baseball history has even approached 2,000.
Remember what we did with strikeouts, adding together the top two active pitchers and showing they were still shy of Ryan's mark? Well, this is even crazier. Sabathia is first on the active walk list with 1,009. Colon is second at 923. Ubaldo Jimenez is third at 848.
Add all three together and you get 2,780 walks.
That is still short of Ryan's career walk total.
No pitcher has walked 150 batters in a season since 1991, when Johnson did it. Ryan walked 150 batters in a season five times. He walked 200 batters in a season twice. The only other pitcher to walk 200 batters in a season was a 19-year-old Bob Feller.
The strikeouts and walks went hand-in-hand. There was a common theory that Ryan walked a lot of people because he didn't have control, because he lacked the ability to throw strikes ... but that wasn't right. Ryan could have thrown a strike more or less every time. But to do that would have meant pulling back, not throwing his fastball 98 or 101 mph, not throwing his curveball so that it skidded in midair and dived for the dirt. That would have meant, in baseball lingo, "giving in" and "pitching to contact" and these were simply not things that Ryan did.
There is an amazing stat -- inning by inning, Ryan averaged at least a strikeout per inning. That is to say he averaged a strikeout per inning in the first inning, the second, the third inning all the way through the game. It didn't matter the situation. It didn't matter how many pitches he had already thrown. It didn't matter if it was early in the season or late, if his arm was hurting or if it felt great, if he was in the heart of a heated pennant race or in the midst of a lost summer.
And it's important to remember: Ryan did this at a time when hitters tried very hard not to strike out. In 1973, when Ryan struck out 383 batters, only 10 American Leaguers struck out 100 times that season, none of them more than Bobby Darwin's 137. Last year in the AL, 73 hitters struck out 100 times, 24 of them more than Darwin's total.
Ryan just kept coming, 150 pitches a night, 200 pitches a night, all of them insane fastballs and preposterous curveballs, always daring you to try, to just try and hit him. If you were willing to take the walk, if you were not up to the challenge, Ryan would grant you the walk. He'd just strike out the next guy.
In 1973, Chicago's Ralph Garr led off a game against Ryan. He struck out on three pitches that more than 30 years later he still claimed he did not see. He then walked back to the dugout and said the words that marked the one-of-a-kind career of Ryan.
"Boys," Garr said, "we got no shot today."