When people think about the greatest pitcher of all time, there are a select few who come to mind. Koufax. Gibson. Feller. Clemens. Pedro. Seaver. A couple of Johnsons. But some people choose a different name: Nolan Ryan. And yet, he never won the pitcher’s highest annual honor in the Cy Young Award.
But before we try to find out why, we need to understand how great Nolan Ryan’s career was. So let’s compare him to one of the best pitchers of this generation in Max Scherzer.
A Basis of Comparison
Now Scherzer’s career isn’t over, but it is definitely past the halfway mark, and with his 2019 World Series championship, he’s pretty much done everything a pitcher can do in the span of his 13-year career. Let’s look at his career stats. He’s struck out 2,784 batters, kept a steady 3.21 ERA, thrown two no-hitters, won 175 games, thrown 11 complete games, has a WHIP of 1.10, and gone to 7 All-Star games. If Max Scherzer retired right now, he would probably be a Hall of Famer.
Nolan Ryan had a 27-year career, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison, but let’s ignore that for now. Ryan won a World Series championship back in 1969. He also won the ERA crown two more times than Scherzer’s total of zero. Over his career, he struck out a record 5,714 batters, which we’ll get to in a second. His career ERA is 3.19, he won 324 games, and while his WHIP of 1.24 is not as good as Scherzer’s 1.10, it’s still very strong. Ryan’s also been an All-Star 8 times and was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Looking at these two careers, they are very comparable in certain ways, with Ryan being even better in certain instances. And yet, Max Scherzer is a 3-time Cy Young winner. He still might win a 4th before his career ends.
Let’s go back to those strikeouts. Ryan’s the only pitcher to have even touched 5,000 career strikeouts, and despite Randy Johnson’s incredible 22-year career, he’s still more than 800 strikeouts behind Ryan.
Now to bring up Scherzer again. If we discount his rookie season and the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, we come to 11 full seasons of a total of 2,626 strikeouts. This is a pace of 238.73 strikeouts, but let’s round up to 239. Suppose Scherzer only needs the same amount of time to reach Ryan’s total– 27 years, meaning he needs about 14 years, starting in 2021. Remember, we’re still counting those first two seasons even if they don’t reflect his pace.
So, if Scherzer struck out about 239 batters a year for 14 more years, and, if we’re going by the same logic, he’d need to make about 32 starts a year to do so. If he did that, he’d finish his career with 6,130 strikeouts, just over 400 more than Ryan. But there’s one small problem with that.
Max Scherzer is currently 36 years old, meaning he would need to somehow keep this pace through age 48. Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez is now 49, and he averaged about 223 strikeouts in all his seasons where he started 20 games or more. What I’m trying to say is that asking Max Scherzer to start 32 games for around 240 strikeouts every year from now through 2037 is kind of like asking Pedro Martinez to go back out there and throw 225 strikeouts this season. It could happen, but it’s pretty unlikely.
How great was Nolan Ryan?
Next, I want to use casual and advanced stats to illustrate how great Ryan was. First, for the casual fan, let’s talk about how many no-hitters Nolan Ryan threw. According to this simple chart, Ryan threw 7 no-hitters, 3 more than anyone else. Only the great Sandy Koufax threw 4, and only immortals have thrown three– Bob Feller, Larry Corcoran, Justin Verlander, and Cy Young. Of those five, only Corcoran and Young have never won a Cy Young Award– because it hadn’t been invented yet.
Now onto appealing to the statheads, who you may not be surprised is a category that I fall into. Wins above Replacement is the best metric that straight-up measures a player’s value, and Ryan sits comfortably at number 20. At number 3 we’ve got Roger Clemens, who won 7 Cy Young awards due to talent and a balanced breakfast. At number 7 we’ve got Tom Seaver, who won 3 Cy Young awards, and right behind him sits Steve Carlton with 4. The point is, of the 20 pitchers with the highest career WAR, 9 played before the Cy Young award was invented. 8 of the other 11 won at least one award, with 7 of them winning at least two. Only three pitchers of the twenty have not won a Cy Young when they had the opportunity: Nolan Ryan, Phil Niekro, and Bert Blyleven.
But Ryan is miles better than both. Niekro and Blyleven combined have a worse ERA, less All-Star appearances, and less ERA titles. It’s clear now that Ryan is probably the best pitcher of all time to not win a Cy Young award since the award’s inception. So, why have I, with my zero career major league strikeouts, won as many Cy Young awards as Nolan Ryan?
The Eight Seasons
There were eight seasons in which Ryan finished in the top 10 of Cy Young voting. So, in order to try and understand why he never got an award, we have to look at the winners of the awards and compare. There were other years where Ryan made the All-Star game or even received an MVP vote but didn’t make the top 10. However, for our purposes, I’m going to ignore those and just focus on the nine seasons where he could have conceivably received one.
Let’s start with the years where you really can’t make an argument for Nolan Ryan to have won them. His 1972 campaign, in which he finished 8th, was simply not as good as winner Gaylord Perry. That’s whether we’re talking about WAR, wins, walks, or WHIP, among other stats that don’t fit this amazing alliteration. It makes sense that his 9th-place season in 1983 wasn’t even close to as good as winner John Denny. 1987 is a weird one, because while closer Steve Bedrosian may not have been the best pick for the Cy Young award, neither was Ryan.
Ryan’s 1989 fifth-place finish was plenty justified, as Bret Saberhagen had a brilliant season. You also can’t blame Ryan for losing to a 1981 group that included Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Fernando Valenzuela. That leaves us with just three years where Nolan Ryan could have won a Cy Young but didn’t.
In 1973, he finished 2nd to Jim Palmer, and if you– what’s that? He didn’t finish first in any meaningful category except strikeouts? Okay, but in 1974, where he finished 3rd to Catfish Hunter, who– again? Seriously? Okay, how about 1977, where he finished 3rd to Sparky Lyle, and– oh wow, his own teammate? Are you kidding me? There’s no way that he did all that he did and never even deserved a Cy Young award. Does the BBWAA realize who they are talking about?
It has come to my attention that Nolan Ryan was almost never the best at a meaningful stat category besides strikeouts. I took ERA, ERA+, WHIP, wins, and strikeouts to be the most meaningful categories. He led the league in shutouts in 1972 and complete games and hits per nine innings in 1977, but those categories don’t win you awards. He did take those two ERA crowns in 1981 and 1987, but other than strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings– which he won six times each– he never really had a compelling case for the Cy Young award. Looks like those 5,714 strikeouts were a little empty in certain ways.
When taken together, Nolan Ryan’s career is undoubtedly great. But maybe he was just never the undisputed best pitcher in the league. But you know what, that’s okay. Remember our buddy Bert Blyleven? He had a long career, and while not quite as prolific as Ryan he reached several major milestones and even won a couple World Series. It took nearly 20 years, but he finally reached the Hall of Fame in 2011.
The Hall of Fame rewards only those who are consistently great and with a large body of work. If you pitch for 20 years and finish second in Cy Young voting every time, I’m willing to bet that you would make the Hall of Fame. Sometimes being the best for a short period of time is not the answer. Simply being in that conversation for a long time is what makes you a legend. And, Cy Young or not, Nolan Ryan was great and stayed great for many years. That’s all that should matter.