The Joys of Dream Team Baseball Rankings Debate: Nolan Ryan
In looking over several Strat-o-matic baseball player cards years ago with some friends, we noted that the cards were based on stats from a particular season.
“But what if one of my players happened to be injured half of that season?” one of my friends inquired.
“That’s too bad,” I retorted, with some delight. If we’re simulating that particular season, then you’re going to have to live with it.”
“Even if it’s Mickey Mantle?” he insisted.
I didn’t express my true thoughts at that time, but, over the years, I’ve come to openly agree with my friend’s concern, and I have come to prefer dream team baseball simulation over particular seasons. That is, I prefer player cards that reflect a player’s overall, composite skill set. When I draft Mantle for my dream team, I want the Mantle we all know and love… the one who is in the HOF and on most lists as one of the greatest players of all time.
As many of you know, I have had the privilege of taking part in the founding and development of an exciting new addition to the world of baseball board games, Ultimate Baseball The Game, or “UBTG”. As UBTG’s chief historian and baseball strategy consultant, I have spent several years researching literally every player on record ever to have played in American major league baseball (from its obscure beginnings in the 1840s to the present), including Negro leagues. Our goal was to follow a sabermetric-esque philosophy: to adjust and rank every skill in such a way that any player could be placed on a list with any other player–on a level playing field–so that any player could be drafted and matched up true-to-form against any other player in history, without fear that the matchup would be corrupted by era-to-era, season-to-season, and team-to-team distortions. We wanted to be confident that our dream team baseball simulation truly consisted of the best baseball players of all time, so we needed to trust that our rankings were accurate and fair.
An obvious example is Carl Yastrzemski, who played much of his career during the high mound era. If we were to rank his skills up against every other player simply by the records, he would rank as a relatively weak hitter (his lifetime average is not quite .300). But if we were to account for the high mound era, and consider that he won 3 batting titles and a triple crown, we would surely deduce that he was one of the best hitters of his generation. We, therefore, would surely consider that his hitting skills (notwithstanding his actual numbers) were outstanding, and should be placed on a par with what we normally accept as great hitting (.300 or over). Fans might disagree over just how much his hitting rank should be adjusted, but few will insist it should not be adjusted at least a little.
Nolan Ryan: Is he among the best pitchers in baseball history?
Likewise, it is predictable that many fans believe baseball legends from the past, many of whom I have blogged about, simply were not as strong and talented as today’s players. But why should we assume that these vintage stars would be weaker? If they lived in today’s world with all the amenities, wouldn’t they be bigger, stronger, and quicker? If Delahanty and Cravath played with today’s lively ball, no telling how many home runs they would have hit! So it all depends on your perspective.
Which brings me to the recent piece I posted on UBTG’s site the other day on Nolan Ryan Records: Is He Among The Best Pitchers In Baseball History? The piece apparently started a firestorm on various game forums and via several passionate (!) emails. In Ryan’s case, many dream team baseball simulation fans seem willing to overlook some very troubling realities in favor of deifying him as perhaps among the top 10 pitchers of all time. As great as he was, when placed up against all other great pitchers (including ones I have researched from baseball’s obscure beginnings), I simply can’t rate him quite that high.
Nolan Ryan is a Texas icon. Indeed, Nolan Ryan is an international icon. Known as the “Ryan Express”, he holds numerous Major League baseball records. He has become one of the most popular players in history. He is one of the true legends of baseball. Yet baseball historians and analysts often find themselves defending their rankings of Ryan to the average, or even very knowledgeable, fan. Most analysts rank Ryan as one of the top 70-80 pitchers of all time–a lofty ranking and well-deserved. He is the owner of 7 no-hitters. No one else is even close to this total. He struck out 5,714 batters. Again, no one is even close to this record. But is he really in the top 10 or 20 all-time starting pitchers?
Ryan, with his many spectacular accomplishments, did not have a spectacular winning percentage. Ryan also did not possess a scintillating WHIP, nor a stunning ERA (nor adjusted ERA). There are many mixed results among his stats. And he is the career leader for walks allowed. Unlike Yaz’s case, we cannot appeal to some quirk in his era that should compel us to forgive these weaknesses. Many of his contemporaries did a good bit better in these categories. In my opinion, these (relatively) weak stats cannot be ignored if we are going to be true to a comprehensive, accurate, dream-team-style ranking of all major leaguers.
The Ryan Express has a very passionate following. There are the no-hitters, the strikeouts, and a singular strong presence on the mound (sort of like a Texas gunslinger) which captured the public’s imagination. For those who saw him pitch, he created an excitement for the game–unmatched since the days of Mickey Mantle. He will always be… The Ryan Express!
But we do him and the legacy of baseball history and even debates over rankings a disservice if we rank him too high, or too low, by ignoring important stats. Sure, we can debate the stats and their meanings, itself one of baseball’s great joys! And surely our margin of error will allow that we agree to disagree over precise rankings. But we should make every effort to let the stats and era-specific factors speak strongly and clearly, even if it means we must quell a small portion of our hero worship.
So who do I want on my dream team? You can check out UBTG’s player list page, which reveals UBTG’s list of the all-time best baseball players versus Strat-o-matic baseball cards (which are based on historical seasons). And you can check out our Official 2010-2012 UBTG Player Register, which lists the skills of over 4,000 of our top all-time picks (in order of overall ranking). While our evaluation of Nolan Ryan places him #104 in our starting pitchers category, he really is ranked around #75 (because of several ties above him), a ranking that is close to where many other analysts rank him. The Ryan Express might not make my number one, all-time dream team. But in a league with several dream team baseball rosters competing for supremacy, he certainly has to be in the conversation.
He may not be in my top ten. But, in my book, he still is one of the greatest pitchers of all time.