Nolan Ryan had a long career, setting numerous record and easily earning Hall of Fame recognition. Amazingly, despite all that success it actually took him a while to get his career going. It wasn’t until his second team that “The Ryan Express” got on track.
Ryan earned that name for his ability to powerfully motor through opponents with his legendary fastball. He might not have been the most successful pitchers in terms of wins and losses, but he was the ultimate power pitcher of his generation, and probably of all time.
Early Days with the Mets
Nolan Ryan made his MLB debut with the New York Mets in 1966 when he was just 19. It was just three innings but he did record his first strikeout. Even though he was a top prospect, he did not pitch in the Majors in the next season due to illness, injury and even service in the Army reserves. Over the next few seasons, he was a member of the Mets starting rotation and bullpen, but never really carved out a role for himself.
He was a member of the 1969 Mets team that won the World Series, but it looked like was never going to become a star, so the Mets traded him to the Angels, with other players, for Jim Fregosi. In hindsight, this is considered one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history for the success that Ryan had on the West Coast.
His first season with the Angels was a major breakthrough. He won 19 games that season, had a miniscule ERA of 2.28, and led the Majors in strikeouts with 329 (he also led the league in walks). The next season he won even more games (21) and set a Major League record for strikeouts in a season with 383. This record, given the way the game has changed, is unlikely to be broken. Pitchers just don’t pitch as many innings as they are used to.
Ryan’s California years were eerily similar. Over 8 seasons with the Angels he led the Majors in strikeouts seven times and walks six. He was the hardest pitcher to hit in the Majors over this stretch.
Back Home to Texas
As a free agent, Ryan chose to go home to Texas, signing with the Houston Astros in 1979. Perhaps he lost a tick from his fastball, or some other pitchers emerged, because he only won two strikeout titles with Houston, in his last two seasons with the club. That showed there was still life in that arm, so when he was a free agent again he moved over to the Texas Rangers to close his career, ultimately becoming an executive with the club.
In his first season with the Rangers, he led the Majors with 301 Ks, amazing at any age, but especially so at the age of 42. Another strikeout title followed and then a slow decline over his last season and a half. He pitched until he was 46, an amazing feat of longevity.
Hall of Famer
When thinking about Nolan Ryan, you have to start with the strikeouts. He finished his career as the all time leader in Ks with 5714. Nobody else has more than 4900, so that record seems pretty secure. Yes, he has also yielded the most walks.
All told, Ryan holds 51 MLB records. Here are a few that stand out:
• Most career no hitters – 7
• Most 200K+ seasons – 15
• Most 300K+ seasons – 6
Perhaps the one that nobody talks about enough though, is that he has the lowest batting average against at just .204. Thanks to all of those numbers, and many more, Ryan was a natural for the Hall of Fame in 1999, with 3B George Brett and OF Robin Yount.
Team success eluded Ryan for most of his career, as those 1969 Mets were the only championship team he played for. Nevertheless, he was a dominant force in the game for more than 20 years, and one of the all time greats.