NolanRyan 1988 1500

what the hell’s a “waa” in baseball lingo?

SO YOU’RE NOT A BASEBALL FAN, but you agree to go to a game with your friend, the base­ball nut. You happen upon a game that turns out to be two pitchers throwing no-hitters at the same time. Which usu­ally means lots of strike­outs, no hits, few walks, few baserun­ners, and no runs. Ex­actly the kind of b-o-r-i-n-g game that makes a non-fan cry (“Waa, waa!”) and keeps him/her a non-fan—because nothing is hap­pening!

Then, to make mat­ters worse, after six score­less, un­eventful in­nings, your buddy turns to you with eyes gleaming and ex­claims, “I can’t be­lieve how lucky we are!!!”

Why?

Be­cause as Bob Dylan said, “Some­thing is hap­pening here but you don’t know what it is, do you?” It’s a fur­sh­lug­giner pitchers’ duel with not one but two no-hitters hap­pening at the same time, a truly rare event in the game.

 

Base­ball is the only game where the most pow­erful of­fen­sive weapon is part of the de­fense!

 

It helps to know that of all the major team sports, base­ball is the only game where the most pow­erful of­fen­sive weapon—the pitched ball—is part of the de­fense, not the of­fense. And the pitcher’s greatest weapon is the strikeout, in which he keeps the batter from even putting the ball in play!

And, with a few ex­cep­tions, the best pitchers tend to strike out the most bat­ters. Most pitchers with the ability to strike out lots of bat­ters have long, suc­cessful major league ca­reers, usu­ally win­ning lots of games. Most pitchers who rack up huge strikeout to­tals tend to rank among the very best pitchers in the game. 1

 

WAA: Topps 1987 bubblegum/trading card of Nolan Ryan.

Topps 1987 bub­blegum trading card.

No advanced knowledge necessary

It’s Au­gust, rather late into the 2017 base­ball season, and I haven’t said a thing about the (former) na­tional pas­time. So, here is a brief ar­ticle that doesn’t re­quire ad­vanced knowl­edge of the game’s more ar­cane stats. A few smarts and a little common sense is all you need to un­der­stand the lists below.

This ar­ticle was in­spired by a ques­tion that my cousin Michael Umphred asked on his Face­book page. He noted that pitcher Nolan Ryan had struck out 5,714 bat­ters (the all-time ca­reer record), and then asked how many father-son com­bi­na­tions did he strike out in his ca­reer. 2

This is truly a trivia ques­tion for those schooled in base­ball minu­tiae: there have been more than 100 father-son com­bi­na­tions that have played in the Major Leagues. I was clue­less as to how many even played during Ryan’s lengthy ca­reer and didn’t even hazard a guess. 3

 

The de­ter­mi­na­tion of great­ness should be the pitcher’s ef­fec­tive­ness in helping his team win games.

 

Mike’s ques­tion got me looking things up on the in­ternet about strike­outs and pitchers and walks and that led me to this list of the top ten pitchers in ca­reer strike­outs. All but one are from the post-WWII era; the only old pitcher on the list is di­nosaur Walter Johnson (#9). I didn’t in­clude him, as I wanted to keep the players and the sta­tis­tics “modern.”

  1.  Nolan Ryan                 5,714
  2.  Randy Johnson         4,875
  3.  Roger Clemens          4,672
  4.  Steve Carlton             4,136
  5.  Bert Blyleven             3,701
  6.  Tom Seaver                3,640
  7.  Don Sutton                 3,574
  8.  Gay­lord Perry            3,534
10.  Greg Maddux             3,371
11.   Phil Niekro                 3,342

These are raw num­bers and rep­re­sent hard-throwing pitchers with lengthy ca­reers. Nolan Ryan, one of the most dom­i­nating pitchers in the his­tory of the game, struck out 800 more bat­ters than his nearest com­petitor, Randy Johnson.

But Ryan ended up with a modest ca­reer win­ning per­centage of .526 (based on a won-lost record of 324-292). On the other hand, Johnson fin­ished at a much more im­pres­sive .646 (303-166).

Why?

 

WAA: Topps 1989 bubblegum/trading card of Randy Johnson.

Topps 1989 bub­blegum trading card.

That one extra baserunner

One reason is that Randy walked far fewer bat­ters than Nolan, both in raw num­bers (1,497-2,795) and in walks-per-innings-pitched. Ryan walked 4.4 bat­ters per 9 in­nings pitched, while Johnson only walked 3.3. That one extra baserunner per game over a course of hun­dreds of games took its toll. 4

This led me to the “Ca­reer Leaders for Strike­outs / Base on Balls” (or strikeout-to-walk ra­tios) on the Base­ball Ref­er­ence web­site. Here are the same ten pitchers from above with their ranking in the ca­reer leaders list (pre­ceding their name in brown type) fol­lowed by their strikeout-to-walk ratio (fol­lowing their name in bold black type):

  32.  Greg Maddux           3.37
  41.   Randy Johnson       3.26
  60.  Roger Clemens        2.96
  81.  Bert Blyleven            2.80
  97.  Tom Seaver               2.62
  90.  Don Sutton               2.66
 112.  Gay­lord Perry          2.56
218.  Steve Carlton            2.26
307.  Nolan Ryan              2.04
419.  Phil Niekro               1.85

First, Base­ball Ref­er­ence does not set a min­imum number of in­nings pitched to qualify for the list of ca­reer leaders, so nine of the top six­teen are all ac­tive pitchers. These guys all have pitched less than 2,000 in­nings, and will al­most cer­tainly see their ra­tios de­crease with time as they pitch more in­nings (and get older while doing so).

Second, if we use 2,500 in­nings pitched as a rea­son­able min­imum, the all-time leader is Curt Schilling (4.38), fol­lowed by Pedro Mar­tinez (4.15). If that 2,500 level was used across the board, each of the ten pitchers above would leap up the ladder in their ca­reer stand­ings!

As the list shows, Ryan “only” struck out two bat­ters for every one he walked. A 2-1 ratio is modest by the stan­dards of most of the game’s better pitchers. Johnson struck out more than three bat­ters for every one he walked, a much, much more im­pres­sive achieve­ment, es­pe­cially over so long a pe­riod of time and in­nings pitched.

 

WAA: Topps 2017 bubblegum/trading card of Chris Sale.

The pitcher with the best ca­reer strikeout-to-walk ratio is cur­rent phenom Chris Sale, who strikes out five bat­ters for each one he walks! But Sale is still young and en­tered the 2017 season with only 1,100 in­nings pitched. He still has most of his ca­reer in front of him (and he is having an­other phe­nom­enal season as I write this). (Topps 2017 trading card.)

Hanging around too long

Each of the ten pitchers had sig­nif­i­cantly better ra­tios during their best years; sev­eral of these men had their ra­tios hurt dra­mat­i­cally by hanging around too long and pitching past their prime. Steve Carlton is prob­ably the best ex­ample.

The point here is that ar­guing for a pitcher’s great­ness simply by giving his raw strikeout total, or his standing among ca­reer strikeout leaders, without showing other sta­tis­tics, does not make the case for the pitcher being “great.” In the end, the de­ter­mi­na­tion of great­ness is the pitcher’s ef­fec­tive­ness in helping his team win base­ball games.

So while we can easily argue that Nolan Ryan was “the greatest strikeout pitcher off all time,” it’s much more dif­fi­cult to argue that he was the greatest pitcher of all time! 5

 

WAA: posed publicity photo of Bob Dylan in 1965.

Ques­tion: “What the hell is a pic­ture of Bob Dylan doing in this ar­ticle?” An­swer: Be­cause I quoted lyrics from his song, Ballad Of A Thin Man above: “Be­cause some­thing is hap­pening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?” Alas, I couldn’t find a Topps trading card for Bob.

Show me the ‘waa’!

Oh, right, there’s the ‘waa’ in this ar­ti­cle’s title One of the ben­e­fits of saber­met­rics is the light that it shines on players who didn’t rack up big num­bers or glamour stats. For ex­ample, during his ca­reer, Bert Blyleven was con­sid­ered a good pitcher with a hel­luva curve—but not a great pitcher. In the glamour stats for starter pitchers, he only won 20 games once but never led the league in wins, and he only led the league in strike­outs once.

But Wins Above Av­erage (WAA) es­ti­mates how many wins a pitcher gave his teams above what a league-average pitcher would have done for the same teams. 6

 

While we can argue that Nolan Ryan was the greatest strikeout pitcher off all time, it’s dif­fi­cult to argue that he was the greatest pitcher of all time.

 

Ryan sup­porters al­ways ar­gued that his won-lost record was hurt by pitching for sub-par teams, and his WAA sup­ports this: it shows him win­ning 35 more games than an av­erage pitcher. But the same method shows Blyleven win­ning 52 games above av­erage! (Randy won 68.)

Yet Ryan was elected into the Hall of Fame on his first year of el­i­gi­bility while Bert had to sit through 14 years of being (shame­fully) passed over by the voters be­fore being in­ducted into the Base­ball Hall of Fame in 2011.

Where he be­longs. 

Bert Blyleven had to wait 14 years to get into the Hall of Fame—where he be­longs! Click To Tweet

NolanRyan 1988 1500

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is Nolan Ryan during the 1988 season pitching against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. In ca­reer strike­outs, Ryan is first with 5,714 (1st place); in ca­reer walks, 2,795 (1st place). In ca­reer wins, Ryan is 324 (14th place); in ca­reer losses, 292 (3rd place). While we can argue that Nolan Ryan was the greatest strikeout pitcher off all time, it’s dif­fi­cult to argue that he was the greatest pitcher of all time. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Im­ages)

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   There ex­cep­tions to this ob­ser­va­tion.

2   And God only knows why his par­ents chose me as God­fa­ther, a nearly sa­cred po­si­tion among Catholics.

3   So being the clever devil that I like to think I am, I wrote “All of them?” as my an­swer to Mike’s ques­tion.

4   I know, I know: this is a sim­plistic look at these two pitchers’ won-lost records; a saber­me­tri­cian could fi­nesse other sta­tis­tics to tell a truer story, but this is Base­ball Sta­tis­tics for Be­gin­ners!

5   I am not im­plying here that Cousin Mike was im­plying on his Face­book page any­thing about Nolan Ryan’s great­ness. He was just asking a base­ball trivia ques­tion of his Face­book friends.

6   WAA is sim­ilar to but not iden­tical to Wins-Above-Replacement (WAR).

 

 

 

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