Sometimes I think watching modern baseball games must really get to Nolan Ryan. He's still the all-time strikeout king, and his record is not in any jeopardy. Ryan struck out 5,714 batters in his career. The closest active pitcher is Justin Verlander, who is barely more than half way there (3,013). Verlander will miss the 2021 season because of Tommy John surgery and will be 39 when the 2022 season starts. When it comes to strikeout rate, however, many have surpassed Ryan.
In 1987, Ryan struck out 11.48 batters per 9 innings to set a new single season record. Since then, 36 pitchers have passed him, with Shane Beiber sitting at the top of the list with 14.2 per 9 innings. This list is for starters, in other words pitchers who threw at least one inning per team game. Beiber set the record in the 60 game season of 2020, so his actual stat line with 122 strikeouts and 1.63 ERA in 77 innings doesn't look any different than modern relief aces. In 2012, Aroldis Chapman struck out 122 in 71 innings and had a 1.51 ERA. The leader for a full season is Gerrit Cole, who struck out 13.82 per 9 innings in 2019.
On the career list, Ryan's 9.55 strikeouts per 9 innings ranks 14th. When he retired, he was the top dog on the list with a minimum of 1000 innings, ahead of Koufax and Randy Johnson. He's now behind Johnson (he increased his strikeout rate between 1993 and his retirement), Kerry Wood, Pedro Martinez, and 10 pitchers who are still active. Yu Darvish (11.12) is in the top spot. Ryan must watch today's hitters, who don't care much about striking out and tweak their swings to try and hit every ball in the air, and think "I could really pile up the strikeouts if I was still pitching."
Looking at the total MLB batting stats for 2020 I see a total of 59,030 at bats. That is a convenient number, just divide by 100 and you get a total that looks like what an everyday player would put up in a normal full season. In 2020, batters hit .245. Per 590 at bats, they hit 23 homers, struck out 156 times, and walked 61 times. Batters during Ryan's career didn't hit for as much power, but they also didn't strike out nearly as much. In 1980, about the mid-point of Nolan's career, batters hit .265. They took 54 walks per 590 AB, not that much different, but the homers (13) and strikeouts (83) were a bit more than half of what we see today. What is truly scary is how much the average batting line of 2020 looks like Dave Kingman, Per 590 at bats Kong hit .236 with 39 homers, 54 walks, and 160 strikeouts. Baseball has not quite matched the extremes of all-or-nothing hitting like Kingman, but it's getting close. They need a bit more launch angle optimization to match his homerun rate, but they are a near match in the walk and strikeout rates.
So what would Ryan's stats look like if he could pitch against modern hitters? To answer this question I bought a 1985 DeLorean, drove it 88 miles per hour, picked at random a year from Ryan's prime (any season from age 25 to 44 will do) and travelled back in time to get him. Well, not really. I couldn't find a DeLorean, so I had to do the next best thing: Ask Retrosheet!
To estimate how Ryan might have fared in 2020 we can look at how he did against the small subset of batters who did hit like 2020 batters. To find players, I looked for those who had at least 100 career AB, struck out at least 23% of their AB, and had isolated power over .140 using a stathead search. 124 players meet this, looking at years 1966 to 1993. Per 590 AB this group hit .250 with 28 homers, struck out 155 times, and drew 67 walks. Those numbers are slightly better than the 2020 average batting line, but reasonably close and will partially account for the idea that hitters have improved over time.
I put this list of 124 players into a table in my Retrosheet database, found out how they fared against Nolan Ryan, and added them all up. Here's the total stat line:
They swung for the seats against Ryan and every now and then knocked one out of the park. These batters took an above average number of walks, and Ryan was wild (the all-time leader in walks allowed). He walked these batters less than his overall walk rate, however. Their at bats against Ryan ended in a strikeout 44% of the time.
Let's turn that into a pitching line:
Some assumptions here: Ryan's innings total is 5% higher than the AB - hits from his batting against line, this represents extra outs like caught stealing, double plays, and outs on bases. For his career he made 39 starts for every 273 innings and had 31 decisions, so I gave him those. The runs come from a baseruns formula (Google it if you don't know what that is). Earned runs are 92% of total runs. For the won lost record I assumed he received average 2020 run support for the best W-L record of his career. But with Ryan's luck, I would not be surprised if he put up that pitching line and still went 8-16.
The workload would not be extreme for Ryan, whether you go by innings or batters faced it would be only the 6th biggest of his career. Four hundred strikeouts would be a sort-of modern record, though it has been surpassed. In real life Ryan holds the single season strikeout record with 383. Seven pitchers have more than that, but all of them did it in either 1884 or 1886. At some point baseball historians drew a line to designate some records as modern, and they drew it, conveniently, at 1900. It's a nice round number but there is no reason that the game had to have changed from primitive to modern at precisely that moment. In any case though, the strikeout records of 1884 and 1886 are certainly earlier than any logical cutoff date of "modern". For example, one could make a strong case to look at 1893 as the beginning point for modern pitching records, since that is the year the pitching mound was set to 60 feet and 6 inches. I do sometimes wonder if future historians will decide the most recent century change to designate a new modern era. Certainly pitcher roles have greatly changed in the almost 30 years since Ryan left the mound.
There is actually one modern pitcher with a 400 strikeout season. Randy Johnson, in 2001, struck out 419 batters from opening day to the final inning of the world series. I don't remember anyone making a big deal about it or even noticing it. It is not common practice to add postseason and regular season stats, but they all take a toll on the arm and I think Johnson's season is worth appreciating:
Sandy Koufax, who held the modern single season strikeout record before Ryan passed him by 1, also struck out over 400 in the 1965 season. Sandy did not have the benefit of 3 playoff round like Johnson, but struck out 382 in the regular season and 29 in the world series for a total of 411. Curt Schilling struck out 293 with the 2001 Diamondbacks and 56 in the postseason. Gerrit Cole struck out 326 in 2019, plus another 47 in 3 postseason round for a total of 373.
Among this high strikeout, power hitting group Dick Allen had the most success against Ryan. Allen hit .364 in 44 at bats and drew 21 walks for a .569 on base average. He also hit 3 homers, 3 doubles and a triple for a .682 slugging percentage. Allen is the only one of the group to hit better than .300 against Ryan in more than 10 at bats. On the other side, Eric Davis went only 1 for 21 (the hit was a homer) and struck out 15 times. Jesse Barfield, Sammy Sosa, and Rob Deer combined for 42 at bats against Ryan without a single hit. He struck them out 28 times, or 67 percent.
A complete list of the batters used in this exercise is here:
The information used here was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by Retrosheet. Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at 20 Sunset Rd., Newark, DE 19711.
This page was last modified 1/17/2021