Other than Mike Trout, there is probably no Angel who has impacted the Angels franchise more than Nolan Ryan.
In an eight-year span with the Angels in the 1970s, Ryan was one of baseball’s best and most unhittable pitchers. By fWAR, Ryan is the third-most valuable player in franchise history (45 fWAR) and the second-most valuable pitcher behind Chuck Finley (46.2 WAR). Ryan didn’t just put up the gaudy totals to eventually get him elected to the Hall of Fame but he did it in such a way that was unprecedented.
What brings me here to talk about Nolan Ryan isn’t just the fact that he was very good (that’s obvious) but just how extreme everything was about his career with the Angels. It’d be remiss to not start that conversation by talking about the four no-hitters he had in his eight seasons with the Angels. In that eight-year span, Ryan accounted for 4 of the 24 no-hitters across baseball. Those 4 no-hitters also account for more than a third of the 11 no-hitters in Angels franchise history.
Beyond just the no-hitters, Ryan was the strikeout king of his time, especially in his Angels tenure. Ryan’s 383 strikeouts in the 1973 season remain the highest single-season total post-1900, a record that probably won’t ever be broken. From 1972-1979, Ryan’s 2,416 strikeouts were by far the most in baseball. The next closest during that span was Tom Seaver’s 1,732 strikeouts.
From a historical perspective, Ryan’s strikeout propensity in that span was unheard of. Fangraphs rolled out a new stat in 2019 called “plus stats” (side note: go support Fangraphs). Essentially, these “plus stats” contextualize numbers by adjusting for the league-wide trends and compare them to the average numbers of that time. By looking at Ryan’s K%+, you gain a better understanding of just how dominant Ryan was in his Angels tenure. Below is a table showing Ryan’s K%+ in each season during his Angels career, along with his all-time seasonal ranks among qualified starters in MLB history.
What Ryan did wasn’t just historical for that time; it was historical as a whole. Six of Ryan’s seasons rank in the top-65 for strongest strikeout seasons when you contextualize it. Unsurprisingly, Ryan owned baseball’s best K+% (205) during his Angels tenure, literally striking out batters at twice the rate as the average pitcher. Ryan’s strikeout prowess came way before the onset of strikeouts in the 21st century.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Ryan is also one of the most unhittable pitchers in baseball history. Among starters with at least 1000 innings pitched in their career, Ryan’s .200 batting average against is the lowest of all-time. That number was even lower in his time with the Angels, when he had a .195 batting average against across 8 seasons. No other qualified starter was under .200. Just like his strikeout propensity, Ryan’s ability to limit hits was unprecedented from a historical level. Below is a table showing his AVG+, which compares his AVG against the league average. Anything below 100 is above-average. Just like with strikeouts, there is a historical seasonal rank included among any qualified starter.
As you can see, Ryan owns two of the top-10 best seasons in terms of batting average against and three of the top-20. Unlike strikeouts, there is a bit more luck and randomness involved in limiting hits but it’s clear that this was a real skill of Ryan’s. In the 8-year span with the Angels, Ryan owned the top-3 AVG+ seasons while all 8 of his seasons ranked in the top-26. Similarly to his strikeout totals, Ryan was an absolute force in simply not letting batters reach base via hits. It’s no surprise that Ryan threw four no-hitters and six one-hitters with the Angels.
Ryan’s stuff was literally unhittable throughout his career but with those gaudy whiff totals came a boatload of walks. Ryan is the owner of two rather impressive statistics: most walks in baseball history (2795) and most wild pitches (278). The next closest in walks is Steve Carlton at 1833 walks. Just for reference, that 962-walk gap between Ryan and the second-place Carlton is as large as the difference between Carlton and the 181st-ranked pitcher (Jesse Haines/Jeff Suppan at 871). 37.7 percent of Nolan Ryan’s plate appearances in his career ended in either a strikeout or a walk which, you guessed it, is the highest total of any qualified starting pitcher.
When you narrow that focus to his Angels tenure, it’s even more extreme. Ryan was never a control artist but he did trim his walk totals down as his career progressed, even dipping into single-digit percentages in a few years with the Rangers and Astros. With the Angels, he walked 14.2 percent of the hitters he faced, by far the most in that span. Once again, I’ll use a table with similar criteria showing Ryan’s individual seasons with his BB%+ and ranking them historically.
If you thought Ryan’s strikeouts and hit totals were extreme, his walk totals are on a whole different level. From a purely historical perspective, Ryan’s span with the Angels brought out some of the gaudiest walk totals in MLB history. Three of his seasons land in the top-10 and just one of those seasons landed outside of the top-100. At his peak, he was walking nearly twice the amount of hitters as the league-average pitcher. And he still dominated!
For those familiar with Nolan Ryan’s background, these numbers probably aren’t a huge surprise but rather a reinforcement of who he was. Ryan’s M.O. was simple: throw his fastball as hard as possible, spin the curve as hard as possible and be impossible to hit against. For Ryan, his gameplan was an effective one, most notably in his time with the Angels. The “Ryan Express” is not just one of the all-time great pitchers but one of the most extreme pitchers in the game’s history. When you limit that scope to the Angels, Ryan’s strikeouts, hits, and walks are historical.
Of Ryan’s 107.2 career Wins Above Replacement, 45.2 of those came in his time with the Angels, the most he produced with any team. From a pure numbers perspective, Ryan probably should have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame as an Angel but that’s an argument for another time. Regardless, Nolan Ryan was the most important pitcher in Angels franchise history, achieving his success in the most extreme manner.
I was born in ’82 and grew up in Diamond Bar, first city north of Orange County off the 57. On my street were two neighborhood boys, older one was named Ryan, younger one named Nolan. Thought Nolan was a weird name when I was a kid… Don’t anymore.
Side question… I feel like Nolan kinda hates the Angels. Or is it just that he’s a Texas man through and through? Did the org do anything to piss him off?
Buzzie Bavasi basically kicked him to the curb. He was the Angels GM in 80’ when Ryan walked. I guess Bavasi thought Nolan was done.
Ryan was a rare example of someone who could walk a ton and still be very successful. Those kind of guys don’t come around very often. Insane K total buts pretty pedestrian WHIP numbers.
Yep. The ability to strike guys out is key in getting out of jams. Bases loaded and one out is not really a problem for Nolan when it would be for other guys.
Randy Johnson early in his career was like that too
Ryan could throw a baseball over 100 mph when the average fastball was 91 mph. Dick Raditz and Sam McDowell were the only 2 in the sixties with Jim Mahoney close. But the sixties had Koufax and Gibson. The seventies had no one even close to Ryan. Plus he (Ryan) was crazy wild and could potentially hurt you. I saw many guys scared to death going to bat against Nolan. With that said Nolan Ryan could throw hard, but he could not harness his ability to become a dominant winning pitcher. In the seventies the Angels line up did not frighten anyone, so run support while weak should not have equated to having a little over .500 record. It took Ryan years to become ‘pitcher’. What was remarkable was that you could not stop him from taking the mound his whole career. Never had TJS and was the Energizer Bunny of Baseball for over twenty years. He just keep going and going and going. Ryan and Tanana were the best one – two punch we ever had. Attendance was around 10 thousand most nights but when Ryan pitched we could see 20 thousand or more.
It’s still difficult to believe Ryan didn’t win the 1973 Cy Young Award. He strikes out 383 (setting a record), tosses two no-hitters, and has a record of 21-16 with a 2.87 ERA for a team that only won 79 games. Ryan loses out to Jim Palmer, who finishes 22-9 with a 2.47 ERA for a team that has 97 wins.
Fast forward 25 years and I end up talking to Jim Palmer at a golf tournament. I mention that I’m still pissed he won over Nolan Ryan. We laugh and he buys me a beer.
i’m still pissed too – my first encounter with east coast bias.
and that’s why i make no apologies for Bart’ s Cy
We moved to Palm Springs when i was 11 in 1972 the same time Ryan joined the Angels. I was already an Angel fan and he was by far the biggest baseball hero of my youth. i can recall where i was for each of his 4 Angel no-nos.
Royals – it was a Tuesday night and i was playing LL game
Tigers – this was a Game of the Week on Saturday – we were visiting my sister in Pioneer, CA
Twins – luck would have it, my dad took me to this game – it was Fan Appreciation night as one of the last home games of the season. i remember Killibrew came up as a PH hitter in 9th and Ryan walked him
Orioles – a Sunday afternoon game and I listened to it on the radio. He struck out Booby Grich looking on a change-up for the last pitch
My dad and I would always make it a point to go to Ryan’s starts from the time I was 5 until I turned 12 and he left as a free agent. I was fortunate to see a lot of those games and score many of them. I scored the 1974 no-hitter against Minnesota. I scored many 1 and 2 hitters. My dad’s partner had seats right behind home so we saw a couple games a year from those – and then we would also just show up and buy tickets all over the stadium. Watching Ryan pitch from behind the plate was very special. None of the film that I see of him does justice to what it was like to see him pitch live. It was electric.
In 1992 I took my dad to Ryan’s last start at Angel Stadium. I still have those ticket stubs and the Legends program they handed out which had a ton of Ryan tribute baseball cards. At the time I did not realize how much being there and saying goodbye was like my saying a final goodbye to my childhood.
And here is an extreme reaction to having to step in the batter’s box and face Ryan.
Excellent article. Here’s one more example of Ryan’s extreme performance.
In 1974, shortly after the invention of the radar gun, it was used in August to see just how fast Ryan pitched. He was clocked at 100.9 mph. The movie Fastball, however, explains that this number needs adjusting because the gun was aimed ten feet in front of home plate, after the ball had lost some speed, Modern radar guns are aimed close to the mound to capture maximum speed. Using this method, Aroldis Chapman’s 105 mph is the fastest clocked in the radar age. However, the makers of Fastball hired some physicists to calculate how fast Ryan’s 100.9 would have been if the gun was aimed just in front of the mound as it is today, and they figured Ryan’s pitch should have read 108.5 mph.
Pitchers got “faster” a couple seasons ago in part because the radar gun clocked them sooner. It may have been at the beginning of ’17 or ’18.
Ryan also threw 12 one hitters (tied for the record) and 18 two-hitters.
yeah that’s what i came to say also – an overlooked and underappreciated feat
and a lot of those 1-hitters and 2-hitters were frustrating because they were so close to being a no-no.
Dick Allen will likely make the HOF this year – if that happens, Nolie would have lost 3 of his no-hitters in the 9th inning because of future HOFer.
(Reggie and Mike Schmidt also ruined things for him)
and oh, F*CK BUZZIE BAVASI!
I attended one of the frustrating one hitters. Lazy pop fly between shortstop and second. Both call for it and think the other will catch it. Ball lands between them.
i was in Houston for a bit on a temp assignment and saw one game there. it was the Schmidt game.
And oh so typical, like the Dick Allen game, he lost that one too.
That was my trip to the Astrodome
In the 1970s, Ryan was my favorite player. Unless you saw him pitch live, getting a true picture of his raw speed was tough. In June 1976, I sat two rows behind home plate with Ryan facing the Red Sux. You could hear his fastball and it sounded like an explosion when it hit Terry Humprhey’s glove. He struck out 15 that night.
While Ryan was known for his blazing fastball, he also had a great curveball. One at bat stands out. Jim Rice is hitting. Ryan unleashes this curveball and it’s heading straight at Rice’s noggin’. I’m thinking “oh crap, he’s gonna get beaned.” But the ball makes a hard break over the plate that buckles Rice’s knees for a called strike.
In August, I watched Ryan drill Thurman Munson in the helmet, and I think a piece of the helmet broke off. Munson drops to the dirt like a 250 lb sack of flour. Ryan only lasted two innings that night.
I probably saw Ryan pitch 40 times during his tenure with the Angels. When he threw his last game against the Angels in 1993, I bought tix to every Texass game so I wouldn’t miss seeing him pitch one last time. I did and the crowd gave him a very (very) long standing ovation. Ryan had to take two curtain calls to before the crowd calmed down.
He might have played for other teams, but to Angels’ fans, Nolan Ryan was always an Angel.