Battle of the Nolan Ryans redux


In Bill James's Gold Mine 2008, he talks at length about Nolan Ryan. In short, he finds Ryan to be a fascinatingly unique pitcher - unique in his approach, and in the results he got by going about his work that way. Ryan, as he tells it, simply refused to get a batter out any way but by striking him out. And to a degree, it worked - he is the all-time leader in strikeouts. He also didn't give up a lot of hits - see his record seven no-hitters - because he'd hardly ever throw something a batter could make solid contact on. But he also walked a lot of guys, too, which would lead to probably just as many base runners as it would have had he occasionally pitched to contact, sacrificing some of those strikeouts for more efficient ground- or flyouts. Without consulting a pile of retrosheet data, I'm also going to assume that this meant he threw a lot of pitches in his career.

James - a Red Sox employee, I remind you all - implies that usually the Nolan Ryan model is not one that leads to a lot of success as a Major-League pitcher. Yet, obviously, it worked for Ryan - although he also was the losing pitcher in nearly as many games as he won (not that a starter's W-L record is much of an indicator of anything). And others have followed in his footsteps. James created a fictional award for pitchers who follow Ryan's lead and find success in doing so. It's based on the convergence of wins, losses, strikeouts, and walks. Last year's winner was Carlos Zambrano - who, incidentally, pitched his first no-hitter last night. This year, Big Z has cut down on the walks, so he's likely safe in 2008. But two of his possible successors for the award match up tonight in Tampa with first place in the AL East at stake, just as they did last week in Fenway - Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Dice is second in the AL in walks and he missed a few starts with injury. Kazmir is just outside of the top ten. He, too, has missed time with injuries. Kazmir has about 15 more strikeouts to his name, but they're both in the top twenty in the AL. On the anecdotal tip, most Red Sox fans I talk to say things like "I can't stand watching him pitch" when discussing Matsuzaka, yet he keeps on winning. Somehow, the two have only been on the losing end eight games, though, perhaps a testament to the Red Sox and Rays offense on days when the two pitch, or perhaps it's that the two are adept at keeping batted balls from becoming hits - Dice's BABIP is .272 and Kazmir's is .276, in other words, both on the lucky side, but not glaringly flukish. But they both throw a lot of pitches, so tonight's game might resemble last week's, when both starters had thrown over 100 pitches and exited the game by the sixth inning.

Also, there's a more likely candidate for James's "Nolan Ryan Award" this year - A. J. Burnett, who's 18-10, leads the AL in strikeouts, and is third in walks. Burnett can become a free agent after this year, and rumors have had the Red Sox interested in making a run at acquiring him. One imagines James advising against it.

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