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Nolan Ryan: History's Greatest .500 Pitcher

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
April 17, 1988

Going into the 1988 season, Nolan Ryan had pitched 2,182 innings in the American League and 2,145 in the senior circuit. Authors of the Elias Baseball Analyst maintain that the only question about the durable right-hander was, "Which cap will he wear on his Cooperstown plaque."

Listening to Ryan speak, there's little doubt the fireballer has read his press notices over the years while racking up some of the most remarkable strikeout records in baseball history. He may at this very moment be having that slightly swelled head measured for the inevitable bronze cap.

A sampling of those records are, indeed, impressive: most career strikeouts, 4,547; most seasons, 300 or more strikeouts, 5; most strikeouts, three consecutive games (including extra innings -- 27.3), 47; and perhaps the most telling record, most strikeouts by a losing pitcher, extra-inning game, 19.

It's a telling statistic because, despite his many accomplishments, Nolan Ryan is merely a .500 pitcher. Maybe the most dominating .500 pitcher in baseball, but a .500 pitcher nonetheless. And until 1980, when he reeled off six straight winning seasons, he looked like he wouldn't even be that.

If you want an exciting pitcher on the mound, hand the ball to Ryan. If you want to win, call in any of the 30 or so active pitchers with better career won-loss records.

For years, the media and Ryan himself have defended his bland won-loss record (career 261-242 going into this year) by whining about the weak hitting support he's received as a member of the New York Mets, the California Angels and the Houston Astros. Precisely the opposite is true.

Some of those teams hit very well, and almost none hit as badly as their statistics would seem to indicate. But you'd never know it because their home stadiums disguise their hitting.

It's been only the last few years that SABRmetricians (baseball statistics freaks) have turned their attention to the effect ballparks have on performance. Instead of studying ballpark dimensions, field surfaces, prevailing winds, off-field background, lighting, etc., they try to measure the influence of these factors. And while, as usual, the number crunchers don't agree on a precise way to measure that influence, they do agree that it is substantial and knowable in a general way.

The Baseball Analyst, using one of the more digestible ways of measuring ballpark effect, simply compares the number of runs scored in a ballpark with that home team's games on the road. The results hold a few surprises. Both Tiger and Yankee stadiums, commonly thought of as hitters' parks, apparently aren't. And what kind of handicap are Canseco, McGwire and company operating under in Oakland?

'87'83-'87
HomeRoadPctHomeRoadPct

Cubs 7707513.83,8843,35316.4
Braves 87170522.03,7543,24215.8
Reds 7977388.03,6843,35010.0
White Sox 80868617.83,7253,4338.8
Twins 759833-8.93,9493,5898.4
Phillies 7586939.43,5963,3886.1
Red Sox 819848-1.03,9623,7885.1
Expos 744756-1.63,7563,6005.1
Indians 89280710.54,0703,9074.7
Rangers 8737999.33,6563,5503.8
Mariners 8037585.93,7903,6153.3
Pirates 7677009.63,3323,2632.4
Royals 7246826.23,4773,4041.4
Brewers 8608195.03,6483,771-3.0
Angels 782791-1.13,6163,756-3.3
Padres 695736-5.63,2903,418-4.0
Orioles 807802-1.83,6473,811-4.1
Cards 726765-5.13,2843,424-4.3
Blue Jays 77268912.03,2033,353-4.5
Yankees 747799-6.53,6113,879-6.2
Mets 742779-4.73,2623,466-6.3
Tigers 780851-8.33,6393,861-6.4
Giants 685767-10.73,3123,559-6.9
Dodgers 586724-19.12,9903,341-9.8
Astros 602724-16.93,0623,496-12.8
Athletics 714881-19.03,5364,118-14.1

One classic study of the stadium factor by Pete Palmer posed the question: What kind of careers would Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio have had if Williams had played for New York and DiMaggio for Boston? Using a formula that filled three pages, this is what he concluded:

AveHR

Joe DiMaggio (NY).325361
Joe DiMaggio (Bos).340417
Ted Williams (Bos).344521
Ted Williams (NY).328497

I must confess to not having studied every nuance of the Palmer formula (or Bill Carr's study that runs hundreds of pages), but a big part of it has to do with comparing the number of runs scored in a park by the home team with the number it scores on the road.

A simplified version of the formula is used by the people who put together the Baseball Encyclopedia, and their findings help put Nolan Ryan's career in a much more realistic perspective. When you take into consideration that historically, home teams score five percent more often at home than on the road (the home-cooking factor?) a team with a +5 percent Home Factor is probably an average hitting team. This is what Ryan's teams look like through 1984 with the 5 percent factor subtracted:

HomeHome
TeamFactorTeamFactor

'68 Mets -16.1 '77 Angels-14.8
'69 Mets -9.8 '78 Angels 10.9
'70 Mets 8.6 '79 Angels-15.9
'71 Mets -13.4 '80 Astros 3.1
'72 Angels-16.0 '81 Astros-20.7
'73 Angels -4.1 '82 Astros -1.1
'74 Angels-14.9 '83 Astros-22.8
'75 Angels-18.0 '84 Astros-24.5
'76 Angels-22.2

In 14 of his first 17 full seasons in the majors, Ryan pitched in a home ballpark that made wimps out of his team's hitters. And its effect on other teams was even more devastating. From 1969 to '84 the league as a whole scored worse in Ryan's home park than the average stadium; five times it was the league's toughest park to score in.

He might not be getting much hitting support at home, but neither are his mound opponents.

In one typical three-year period between 1984 and 1986, Ryan was 21-12 at home with an ERA of 2.71, while on the road he was 13-19 with a 4.28 ERA. Ryan doesn't just benefit from the home park advantage; he batters his opponents into submission with it. Rather than being the victim of anemic batting support, he's the beneficiary of hard-to-hit-in ballparks.

On a less analytical note, I find it curious that as dominating a pitcher as Ryan is, he has been the undisputed No. 1 pitcher on his staff only once in a long career, 1974, when he was 22-16 with an ERA of 2.89. Unless you want to count 1983, when he was 14-9 (2.98). There was always a Clyde Wright, Bill Singer, Frank Tanana, Joe Niekro or Mike Scott to play second fiddle to.

When you compare Ryan's career stats with those of his teammates, you find a better-than-average pitcher, but not a great one. He's one of the rarities of the game whose accomplishments make him a standout player, but not a big winner.

And all that talk of giving him the Cy Young Award last year (he actually garnered 12 points) was malarky. It was just a typical Nolan Ryan year. Weird and distorted.

WonLossPctEra

Nolan Ryan (career) 261 242 .519 3.13
Ryan teams 1,356 1,347 .502 3.41

But if you really want to talk about weird and distorted, take a look at the most underrated hitter of the '70s and '80s -- Jose Cruz. This poor guy had the misfortune of playing most of his career under the dome and it doomed him. We're not talking about a good player here; we're talking great. In a class with Brett, Mattingly, Murphy and Schmidt. Check out the road records for Murphy and Cruz in '83 through '85. Remember, this is Murphy in his prime and Cruz, who's nine years older, near the end of his career.

ABHits2B3BHRAveSlg

Cruz 899 289 49 10 31 .321 .502
Murphy 919 259 39 8 55 .282 .521

Murphy has tended to walk about 20 more times than Cruz a season, and Cruz used to steal about 10 to 20 more bases. Both are very good outfielders and durable; Cruz is in his 18th season and now playing in Yankee Stadium -- about 10 years too late.