Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Express Delivery

Justin Verlander pitched a no-hitter last night for the Detroit Tigers. It was the second no-hitter this season (Mark Burhle turned the trick for the White Sox earlier in the season). Before this season, it had been a couple of years since a pitcher had thrown a no-hitter in the majors. So today's article is just an appreciation of the pitcher who threw the most no-hitters in his career. Nolan Ryan not only threw seven no-hitters, but also 12 one-hitters (He took a no-hitter into the 9th inning in at least 3 of those games) in his amazing career. Ryan is also the career leader in strikeouts with an amazing total of 5,714. Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens are now in a virtual tie for second place but they are still more than 1,00 behind Ryan (He also happens to lead the all-time walks allowed list by almost a thousand as well, but no one ever said he was perfect).

The record for no-hitters before Ryan came along was held by Sandy Koufax, who threw four in his brilliant but all too brief career. Ryan, like Koufax before him, was a threat to throw a no-hitter every time he stepped on the mound. He threw perhaps the greatest pitch ever seen in the majors. The Nolan Ryan fastball is legendary. It really is hard to describe if you've never seen it. The Guinness world book of records used to have Nolan Ryan listed for having the fastest recorded pitch (I believe that it was just north of 100 mph). In last night's game Verlander's fastball was clocked at 102 mph by the radar gun. I saw the supposed 102 mph pitch last night and while their radar gun may have registered at that speed, I can assure you that his fastball was not the equal of Ryan's. I can't really say if he throws as hard or harder than Ryan did, but the pitches are not of the same quality. Just as Bert Blyleven threw the best curveball I've ever seen, Ryan threw the best fastball anyone has ever seen.

Ryan was basically a two pitch pitcher. He threw his all-world fastball and complemented that with a knee buckling curveball. That was about it. Every hitter who ever faced him went up guessing fastball, they got the pitch they were looking for and for the most part couldn't do anything with it. Ryan threw his first no-hitter in 1973 at the age of 26 and threw his last one in 1991 at the age of 44 (He struck out 16 hitters in the game). He first led the league in strikeouts in 1972 and for the last of his record 11 times in 1990. Ryan was really a marvel. He dominated hitters with his fastball until the day he stepped off the mound. His career came to end because of a series of leg injuries, but his arm was sound until the end. While Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens both used overpowering fastballs to record the majority of strikeouts in the earlier part of their careers, they have used pitches other than their fastballs to continue to rack up strikeouts as they've aged. Johnson relies on his slider as his out pitch and Clemens uses his splitter to record most of his strikeouts these days. Ryan's primary weapon throughout his career remained his overpowering fastball which he threw about 70% of the time.

Ryan no longer holds the single game strikeout record (Clemens, Kerry Wood and Johnson have all eclipsed it). He does however still hold the record for career strikeouts, single season strikeouts and the record for most no-hitters. The single season record may someday be eclipsed, but I can't imagine the others being broken. How good was the Ryan fastball? Good enough that at the age of 42 he struck out an amazing 301 batter. Only three pitchers have managed to reach the 300 strike out level since then. How hard is it to throw a no-hitter? Ask Roger Clemens, he's never been able to do it. No-hitters have been thrown by mediocre pitchers throughout the history of baseball, so there is clearly an element of luck in throwing one. A good pitcher on a given day can have his best stuff working and get a couple of great plays behind him and may be able to get through a game without giving up a hit. Ryan managed to do that seven times along with his 12 other almost no-hitters. Clearly it was more than luck in Ryan's case.

Major league baseball has started to put together DVD packages of complete world series games. It's a great way for people to remember the greatest moments in their teams history. I would hope that one day they put out a package of Nolan Ryan's no-hitters. Some of them may be lost to history (although I certainly hope that is not the case), but at least the last three should be available. I also seem to remember his almost no hitting the Yankees on Monday night baseball telecast. It would be a great thing if the younger fans of the game could get to experience "The Express" on a few of his most amazing nights. Come to think of it I wouldn't mind getting a chance to relive some of those moments myself.

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