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MLB History: What Nolan Ryan Brought to the Game

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From 1966 to 1993, Nolan Ryan accomplished some of the most remarkable feats in MLB history. He broke record after record, manifested the greatest fastball of all-time, and produced iconic moments that will pass on from generation to generation. Ryan needs no introduction, but it’s always fun to remind ourselves of just how dominant he was across his record-tying 27 seasons.

MLB History: The Ageless Wonder’s Greatest Achievements

Nolan Ryan did in his career what every professional athlete dreams of doing – he defied age. Ryan hung up his spikes at 46 years old. He received MVP consideration at age 43, was an All-Star at age 42, and finished fifth in Cy Young voting at age 40. He threw his seventh no-hitter in 1991 – two years before he retired – when he was 44 years old.

Ryan gave Major League Baseball many miraculous seasons. From 1972-1974, while pitching for the California Angels, he averaged a 2.70 ERA, 360 strikeouts, and 314 innings pitched. His 1.69 ERA in 1981 earned him the ERA title. And at age 42 in 1989, Ryan tallied 302 strikeouts and achieved his highest career strikeout-rate of 11.3.

His 5,714 career strikeouts are the most in MLB history; he’s 839 strikeouts ahead of Randy Johnson and 2,701 ahead of the active leader, Justin Verlander. His historic seven career no-hitters dwarf Sandy Koufax‘s four, which is an astounding total in itself. Ryan also holds the live-ball era record for strikeouts in a season (383) and partners with Randy Johnson as the only two players to have six 300+ strikeout campaigns. He ranks 14th all-time with 314 wins and was selected to eight All-Star teams.

When the conversation of MLB’s unbreakable records comes up, Nolan Ryan’s 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters exclusively make mention. As modern-day pitchers push for 200 innings and manage maybe one complete game per season, it’s hard to imagine any slinger ever coming close to matching his extraordinary body of work.

MLB History: Remembering Nolan Ryan’s Most Famous Moments

Across his illustrious 27-year career, Nolan Ryan reached milestones with all four teams he played for. In 1969, he pitched the final out of the NLCS, recording his initial postseason win and sending the New York Mets to their first World Series. After Ryan pitched 2.1 shutout innings to close out Game 3 of the World Series, the Mets finished off the Baltimore Orioles in five games, granting Ryan his first and only championship.

He threw his first no-hitter on May 15th, 1973, as a member of the California Angels. His line against the Kansas City Royals that day: 9.0 IP, 0 H, 3 BB, 12 K.

On September 26th, 1981, Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter, surpassing Los Angeles Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax for the most no-hitters in MLB history. Ironically, he held the Dodgers to zero hits that afternoon while pitching for the Houston Astros.

No-hitter number seven, the last of Nolan Ryan’s career, occurred on May 1st, 1991, against the Toronto Blue Jays. The future Hall of Famer fanned 16 Jays hitters en route to his newest feat; his final pitch was a painted fireball whiffed at by Roberto Alomar. Jubilation overcame a crowd of 33,439 as Ryan’s Texas Rangers teammates swarmed the mound in celebration. No one could fathom what the 44-year-old had just accomplished.

It was with the Rangers that “The Ryan Express” embarked on his tour of triumphs. The year before Nolan Ryan executed his 7th no-no, he etched his 300th career win, holding the Milwaukee Brewers to three runs over 7.2 innings pitched. The year before that, he got Rickey Henderson to swing and miss at a heater for his 5,000th career strikeout.

His final triumph as a starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers: putting Robin Ventura in a headlock. On August 4th, 1993, Ryan threw a fastball at the back of Ventura. Ventura began walking to first base, then suddenly took off toward the pitcher’s mound. Ryan waited patiently for Ventura to arrive, and when he did, Ryan put him immediately into a headlock and let his fist do the talking. His most effective throws that night came in the form of haymakers.

Just six years after he retired, Nolan Ryan was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

MLB History: Nolan Ryan’s Case for Greatest Pitcher of All-Time

Nolan Ryan floods the record books with first-place finishes and top-10 finishes. He ended his MLB career with a 3.19 ERA, 5,386 innings pitched, 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and a walk total that less than halved his total strikeouts.

Through some inexplicable anomaly, Ryan never won a Cy Young award. Cy Young voters placed far too much emphasis on pitcher win-loss records during that era. Having played on bad teams for the bulk of his career, Ryan never amassed a record that vastly favored the win category. He finished third in Cy Young voting in 1974 when he won 22 games, second in 1973 with 21 wins, and eighth in 1972 with 19 wins.

He conquered the league ERA title in 1987 with the Houston Astros, yet he went 8-16 on the year. He still came in fifth for the award, but there’s an example of how little help he received from the rest of his team.

Playing for bad teams also kept Nolan Ryan out of the playoffs in all but five seasons. In his limited postseason opportunities, he went 4-5 with a 3.07 ERA. In what turned out to be his last playoff game, Ryan got a no-decision after throwing nine innings, allowing two hits and one run, and striking out 12.

Had Nolan Ryan played for better teams, he’d likely be the consensus greatest pitcher in MLB history. Regardless, he gave the fans, and the game, more to admire and appreciate than any other mound dweller. He was the main attraction in his time, albeit while playing for inferior ball clubs.

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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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Travis Koch is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and a lifelong baseball fan. He's covered MLB for Overtime Heroics since January of 2021.