If you want to sound like you know baseball, one of the fun facts you can drop is that Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young award. He was so good for so long, that sounds astounding. But if you look it up, it’s true. Here’s why Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young award.
The curse of second best
For much of his career, Nolan Ryan wasn’t even the best pitcher on his team, let alone in the league. I don’t mean any disrespect by saying that, because he was always the second or third best pitcher on his team, when he wasn’t the ace. But really, the reasons Nolan Ryan is in the Hall of Fame are because he was a dependable number two or number three pitcher for so long, not to mention he struck out more batters than anyone else who ever lived.
What’s remarkable about Nolan Ryan is he had a better career than most of the people who beat him out for Cy Young awards. They were better than he was that year, but they couldn’t keep up the pace. Nolan Ryan was an all-star at age 42. He led the league in strikeouts for the final time at age 43. At age 44 he didn’t leave the league in anything but he was still the second best pitcher on a third place team. He wasn’t great in his final two seasons, which he played at ages 45 and 46, but he wasn’t bad. His performances at that age would be acceptable for someone 10 years younger.
That’s not to say Nolan Ryan was never considered for a Cy Young award. He was considered several times. He just never quite won. Let’s take a look at his case each of the seasons he was considered.
In 1972, Nolan Ryan had his first great season. He won 19 games, had an ERA of 2.28, and struck out 329 batters. Some years, that’s enough to lead the league in all of those categories. He only led the league in strikeouts, however. He finished 8th in voting for the 1972 Cy Young award.
The winter that year was Gaylord Perry, another Hall of Famer, who had probably the best year of his career. He led the league in wins and had an ERA of 1.92. somehow that didn’t lead the league, because Louis Tiant had an ERA of 1.91. The best way to win a Cy Young award in the 1970s was to lead the league in wins and ERA. Perry tied for the league lead in wins and just barely missed out leading in ERA.
And according to advanced statistics, the voters got it right. Perry bled the league in WAR. Perry’s WAR was 10.8 versus 6.2 for Nolan Ryan. That meant having Nolan Ryan pitch in place of Gaylord Perry would have cost a team 4 and 1/2 wins over the course of the season. WAR suggests Ryan didn’t deserve to finish eighth in the voting, but Perry deserved the win.
Ryan had a great year in 1973. He won 21 games, had an ERA of 2.87, and struck out 383 batters. The problem was Jim Palmer, another Hall of Famer, had his best season in 1973. Palmer led the league with a 2.40 ERA and finished second in wins with 22. Ryan tied for third in wins.
Advanced statistics suggest that Ryan had a better year overall than Palmer. But Bert Blyleven had an even better year. He finished 7th.
Ryan’s 1974 season was a lot like his 1973 season. He won 22 games, had an ERA of 2.89, and struck out 367 batters. He finished third. Catfish Hunter won the award, because he won 25 games and had an ERA of 2.49.
Advanced metrics suggest the voters got it wrong again this year, but the best pitcher according to WAR was Gaylord Perry.
Notice a theme? During his best seasons, some other Hall of Famer also had one of his best, and Ryan didn’t lead the league in the statistics that voters valued the most.
In 1977, Ryan won 19 games, had an ERA of 2.77, and once again led the league in strikeouts with 341. He finished third in the voting. Sparky Lyle, the flamboyant relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, won the award. Advanced statistics suggest Ryan’s teammate, Frank Tanana, should have won. Jim Palmer was also in the running that year, and finished second, ahead of Ryan.
In 1981, Nolan Ryan led the league in ERA, and won 11 games in a strike shortened season. But he didn’t win the Cy Young award. The award went to Fernando Valenzuela, who won 13 games, finishing second in the league, had an ERA of 2.48, and struck out 180 batters to lead the league. The one year the Cy Young award winner led the league in strikeouts was the year Nolan Ryan didn’t lead the league in strikeouts.
By WAR, Steve Carlton deserved to win, but Fernando Valenzuela was slightly better than Nolan Ryan that year.
In 1983, Nolan Ryan was 36 years old. It had been a few years since he led the league in strikeouts, but he put together a good season, winning 14 games, ERA of 2.98, and striking out 183 batters.
But John Denny won 19 games, had an ERA of 2.37, and led his team to the World Series. They didn’t win, but leading the league in wins and taking your team to the World Series is a good formula for winning Cy Young awards.
Here’s a fun fact. John Denny was out of baseball at age 33.
In 1987, Nolan Ryan was 40 years old and he led the league in the ERA. He also led the league in strikeouts. But he had a losing record, and arguably, was the second best pitcher on his own team.
Steve Bedrosian led the league in saves, and won the award that year. Measured by WAR, the winner should have been Bob Welch of the Los Angeles dodgers. Welch retired at age 37 and so did Bedrosian, for what that’s worth. Seeing a pattern here?
In 1989 at the age of 42, Nolan Ryan had one last run at a Cy Young award. He led the league in strikeouts with 301, and that was pretty much the basis for his case. He won 16 games and had an ERA of 3.20. it was a remarkable season for a 42-year-old. It’s not enough to win a Cy Young award most seasons, but it got him considered. He finished 5th.
Brett Saberhagen had the best season of his career that year, winning 23 games to lead the league, a 2.16 ERA to lead the league, and he also led the league in several other categories.
The voters mostly got it right
The problem with Nolan Ryan and his Cy Young case was that the statistics that voters valued the most weren’t the ones that he tended to excel at. That’s not to say the voters always pick the best pitcher each year, but they were right that Nolan Ryan wasn’t quite the one. Every time he had an epic season, someone else had one that was just a touch better.
The remarkable thing was that he was able to be so good for so long. He lost out the pitchers like John Denny and Brett Saberhagen who retired in their 30s. Nolan Ryan was still pitching respectably at age 46. It was clear at 46 he had lost something, but he was better at 46 than Denny was at 33 or Saberhagen at 37.
That’s why he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first season of eligibility by a landslide. It feels weird to use the phrase slow and steady wins the race about a guy who could throw a hundred miles an hour, but the remarkable thing about Nolan Ryan was that he was able to throw that hard for 27 seasons. To throw that hard and not lose significant time to injury until the age of 46 and be as consistent as he was makes him remarkable. But it’s really the consistency that he’s known for, not individual great seasons.