How would Nolan Ryan do against today's hitters?

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:

926 148 18 6 36 411 133 7 1066 0.160 0.234

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:

273 39 39 148 133 411 36 7 89 82 22 9 2.70

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:

291 41 39 206 79 419 21 18 81 76 26 7 2.35

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:

Player bbrefID retroID
Reggie Jackson jacksre01 jackr001
Dave Kingman kingmda01 kingd001
Willie Stargell stargwi01 starw101
Bobby Bonds bondsbo01 bondb101
Dick Allen allendi01 alled101
Darryl Strawberry strawda01 strad001
Gorman Thomas thomago01 thomg001
Tony Armas armasto01 armat001
Jose Canseco cansejo01 cansj001
Jesse Barfield barfije01 barfj001
Rick Monday mondari01 mondr001
Fred McGriff mcgrifr01 mcgrf001
Rob Deer deerro01 deerr001
Danny Tartabull tartada01 tartd001
Eric Davis daviser01 davie001
Cecil Fielder fieldce01 fielc001
Deron Johnson johnsde01 johnd103
Steve Balboni balbost01 balbs001
Ron Kittle kittlro01 kittr001
Nate Colbert colbena01 colbn101
Pete Incaviglia incavpe01 incap001
Mickey Tettleton tettlmi01 tettm001
Cory Snyder snydeco02 snydc001
Andres Galarraga galaran01 galaa001
Jim Presley preslji01 presj001
Juan Samuel samueju01 samuj001
Tommie Agee ageeto01 ageet101
Bo Jackson jacksbo01 jackb001
Ken Phelps phelpke01 phelk001
Nick Esasky esaskni01 esasn001
Dan Pasqua pasquda01 pasqd001
Donn Clendenon clenddo01 clend101
Jay Buhner buhneja01 buhnj001
Dave Duncan duncada01 duncd101
Franklin Stubbs stubbfr01 stubf001
Mack Jones jonesma01 jonem102
Jack Howell howelja02 howej002
Bobby Darwin darwibo01 darwb101
Tim Laudner laudnti01 laudt001
Leroy Stanton stantle01 stanl102
Dean Palmer palmede01 palmd002
Mike Young youngmi01 younm002
Sammy Sosa sosasa01 sosas001
Kevin Maas maaske01 maask001
Mickey Mantle mantlmi01 mantm101
Sam Horn hornsa01 horns001
Bill Schroeder schrobi01 schrb001
Ron Karkovice karkoro01 karkr001
Adolfo Phillips phillad01 phila101
Gary Alexander alexaga01 alexg101
Glenallen Hill hillgl01 hillg001
Phil Plantier plantph01 planp001
Tony Solaita solaito01 solat101
Eric Anthony anthoer01 anthe001
Paul Sorrento sorrepa01 sorrp001
Rick Wilkins wilkiri01 wilkr001
Ray Lankford lankfra01 lankr001
Frank Fernandez fernafr01 fernf101
Don Lock lockdo01 lockd101
Dave Hostetler hosteda01 hostd001
Brant Alyea alyeabr01 alyeb101
John Russell russejo02 russj002
Tim Salmon salmoti01 salmt001
Reggie Sanders sandere02 sandr002
Pedro Munoz munozpe01 munop001
Joe Lis lisjo01 lis-j101
Byron Browne brownby01 browb101
Danny Walton waltoda01 waltd101
Hal King kingha01 kingh102
Chad Kreuter kreutch01 kreuc001
Mike Blowers blowemi01 blowm001
Troy Neel neeltr01 neelt001
Orestes Destrade destror01 desto001
Bobby Mitchell mitchbo02 mitcb102
Doug Frobel frobedo01 frobd001
Ike Brown brownik01 browi101
Rick Renick renicri01 renir101
Earl Wilson wilsoea01 wilse102
Archi Cianfrocco cianfar01 ciana001
Al Martin martial03 marta001
Chito Martinez martich01 martc003
Joey Meyer meyerjo01 meyej001
Geronimo Pena penage01 penag001
Mike Laga lagami01 lagam001
Sean Berry berryse01 berrs001
Ryan Thompson thompry01 thomr004
Jeromy Burnitz burnije01 burnj001
Craig Paquette paquecr01 paquc001
Greg Goossen goossgr01 goosg101
Jim Fuller fulleji01 fullj102
Adrian Garrett garread01 garra101
Paul Ratliff ratlipa01 ratlp101
Jim Thome thomeji01 thomj002
Luis Medina medinlu01 medil001
Randy Kutcher kutchra01 kutcr001
Dave Nicholson nichoda01 nichd101
Chris Jones jonesch05 jonec002
Kevin Roberson roberke01 robek001
Rolando Roomes roomero01 roomr001
Bob Johnson johnsbo04 johnb101
Jim Gentile gentiji01 gentj101
Ralph Bryant bryanra01 bryar001
Alejandro Sanchez sanchal01 sanca001
Tim Lollar lollati01 lollt001
Jack Pierce piercja01 pierj101
Phil Hiatt hiattph01 hiatp001
Todd Pratt prattto02 pratt001
Steve Kiefer kiefest01 kiefs001
Jackie Warner warneja03 warnj102
Darren Reed reedda01 reedd001
Roric Harrison harriro01 harrr102
Charlie Sands sandsch01 sandc101
Randy Knorr knorrra01 knorr001
Roberto Mejia mejiaro02 mejir001
Tim Spehr spehrti01 speht001
Wayne Cage cagewa01 cagew101
Mike Corkins corkimi01 corkm101
Bobby Brooks brookbo01 broob101
Larry Elliot elliola01 ellil101
Willie Greene greenwi01 greew001
Harvey Pulliam pulliha01 pullh001
Jim Hicks hicksji01 hickj105
Bob Chance chancbo01 chanb101
Carlos Lezcano lezcaca01 lezcc101

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This page was last modified 1/17/2021

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