November 23, 2003

Interesting Seasons in Baseball History: Nolan Ryan, 1987

Nolan Ryan had one of the best seasons of his 27-year career for the Houston Astros in 1987. At 40 years old, he pitched 211.2 innings in 34 starts and led the National League in ERA (2.76), fewest hits per nine innings (6.55), adjusted ERA+ (142) and strikeouts (270). His 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings not only led the National League, it was the best strikeout-rate of his entire career.

So, what exactly is so interesting about Nolan Ryan's 1987 season? His record: 8-16.

Since 1920, no pitcher who has thrown at least 180 innings has had a better ERA than Ryan's 2.76 while winning fewer games or having a worse winning percentage.

There have been 157 times in baseball history when a pitcher has recorded at least 250 strikeouts in a season. Nolan Ryan in 1987 is the only one of the 157 when the pitcher didn't win at least 10 games.

While Nolan Ryan was going 8-16 with a league-leading ERA, the other pitchers on the 1987 Astros were doing quite a bit better, at least in the wins department.

                     ERA     Win%

Nolan Ryan          2.76     .333

Other Astros        4.02     .493

Despite a combined ERA that was 45.6% higher than Ryan's, the other Houston pitchers went 68-70, good for a .493 winning percentage, 160 points higher than Ryan's.

The reason for Ryan's horrible record is pretty obvious. Ryan was much better at preventing the other team from scoring than his teammates, but when he was on the mound the Houston hitters just didn't score any runs of their own.

Take a look at how Houston's hitters performed with Ryan on the mound, compared to other pitchers:


Ryan's starts       3.35

Other games         4.17

Certainly Houston's offense was not very good in 1987. They ranked 11th in the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and, the most important stat for an offense, runs scored.

Still, as bad as Houston's hitters were in 1987, they were even worse when Nolan Ryan was on the mound. They scored an average of just 3.35 runs per game in Ryan's 34 starts, 24.4% fewer runs than they scored in the 128 games Ryan didn't start.

Overall, here is the run-support Ryan got in 1987:

Runs     Starts

  0        3

  1        8

  2        5

  3        4

  4        4

  5        3

  6        2

  7        3

  8        2

  9        0

 10+       1

The 1987 Astros averaged exactly 4.0 runs per game. Nolan Ryan made 34 starts. They scored him more than four runs in 10 of them (29.4%), fewer than four runs in 20 of them (58.9%) and exactly four runs in four of them (11.7%).

In the 14 games in which Ryan received at least four runs of run-support, he went 6-2. In the other 20 games, he went 2-14. In the 16 games Ryan lost, the Astros scored him a grand-total of 27 runs, or 1.68 runs per game.

It is really amazing the degree to which Ryan had to "take things into his own hands" in order to get a win in 1987. In four of his eight total wins, Ryan allowed zero earned runs. Overall in those eight starts he won, he had an ERA of 1.10 in 57 innings pitched.

In the 26 starts he made when he didn't get a win, Ryan had an ERA of 3.37, which would have ranked eighth in the National League. Ryan's "stat-line" for those 26 starts is rather amusing:

GS        IP      ERA     W      L

26     152.2     3.37     0     16

Amazingly, Nolan Ryan won his first start of the year. He was also 2-2 after five starts (with a 2.23 ERA). After that, he went 6-14 for the rest of the year, including one stretch, from the middle of June until the middle of August, in which he made 11 starts and went 0-8, with eight losses in a row.

Ryan made five starts in July with a 2.62 ERA. He went 0-5.

Despite winning just eight games the whole year, Ryan won back-to-back starts in early June and then won three straight starts in September. Aside from those five starts, he was 3-16 in his other 29 starts.

Just in case you weren't yet convinced that life isn't fair...

There were 96 different pitchers who won more games than Nolan Ryan in 1987. Exactly one of them, a reliever named Ken Dayley who won nine games in 61 innings as a reliever for St. Louis, had a lower ERA (2.66) than Ryan (2.76).

Eight different pitchers with an ERA of at least 5.00 won more games than Ryan, including one, Dan Petry, who had an ERA (5.61) that was more than twice as high as Ryan's.

18 pitchers won at least twice as many games as Ryan in 1987. Dave Stewart won 20 games with an ERA (3.68) that was 33.3% higher than Ryan's. In fact, of the 18 guys who won at least twice as many games as Ryan, 10 of them had an ERA that was at least 25% higher. Walt Terrell and Shane Rawley each won 17 games, with ERAs that were 46.7% and 59.0% higher than Ryan's.

Mike Scott, who was Ryan's teammate on the Astros, won 16 games with an ERA 17% higher. Another one of Ryan's teammates, Jim Deshaies, won 11 games despite pitching in 59.2 fewer innings than Ryan, with an ERA (4.62) that was 67.4% higher.

Yet another of Ryan's Houston teammates, Bob Knepper, pitched horribly in 1987. He appeared in 33 games, making 31 starts, and had an ERA of 5.27. He struck out just 3.8 batters per nine innings, had a strikeout/walk ratio of just 1.4/1 and served up 26 homers in 177.2 innings. Opposing batters hit .313 off him with a .502 slugging percentage.

Nolan Ryan went 8-16 for the Houston Astros in 1987. Bob Knepper went 8-17.

"Statistically, wins mean the most to me.

Fans tend to value ERA as the most important statistic for a pitcher. But ERA is like a batting average; it's a personal number. Pitchers can have low ERAs and not win many games.

If a pitcher has a low ERA and consistently loses low-scoring games, like 2-1 or 3-2, it means the opposing pitchers are outpitching him. That is not a criticism; the pitcher may be pitching great. But he is pitching well enough to lose, not to win."


--- Joe Morgan, Hall of Fame second baseman and ESPN baseball expert

Sure Joe, whatever you say.
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