Twenty Years Later, Two Pitchers Remind Us of the Express

Twenty years ago, baseball fans had the honor and privilege of watching the most dominating pitcher of the modern era. Simply put, Nolan Ryan was unhittable. His career strikeout record, 5,714, is a whopping 839 strikeouts more than Randy Johnson, who sits in second place. He also has three of the top 10 single-season strikeout performances of all time, including his 1973 season, where he struck out 383, an MLB record. Ryan leads the MLB in career no-hitters with seven, and was the last person before this year (more on that later) to throw two no-hitters in a single-season (1973). He also had a whopping 24 potential no-hitters broken up in the seventh inning or later.

But it wasn’t just his strikeouts that prove his domination. In a weird way, his place at the top of the all-time walks list (2,795, 962 more than second-place Steve Carlton) also proves his domination. Batters couldn’t hit Ryan, so they just stood there. Usually they struck out. Sometimes they walked. Either way, they never beat Ryan; he just sometimes beat himself. That’s o.k.: every genius has self-destructive tendencies. Just ask Vincent van Gogh, or Sigmund Freud.

Nearly twenty years after the Ryan era ended, two pitchers have baseball purists remembering the days of the only man to have his number retired by three teams (discounting Jackie Robinson, whose number was retired league-wide). And lucky for those purists, the two may yet face each other in the World Series. For the National League, there is Roy “Doc” Halladay. The similarities between the two are striking. Halladay is the first pitcher since Ryan to throw two no-hitters in one season (including the postseason). Like Ryan, Halladay has spent most of his career on mediocre teams. When Halladay played for the Blue Jays, who only finished better than third one time during his tenure, the Blue Jays were a .500 team, and he was a .660 pitcher. Ryan’s teams combined to win 47.7 percent of the time, whereas he won 52.5% of the time. In both cases, you have talent being wasted on mediocre teams. Their career ERAs (3.19 for Ryan, 3.32 for Halladay) are similar too, as are their first postseason ERAs (2.00 for Ryan, 2.25 for Halladay, both in two games).

But more than anything else, the same desperation, the same hunger that allowed Ryan to dominate for so long seems to fester in Halladay as well. His first postseason outing was a message to the rest of the league. He struggled when paired with uber-pitcher Tim Lincecum in his second outing, but he will likely come back with a vengeance for Game Five.

For the American League, there is Cliff Lee. Though statistically dissimilar to Ryan, he has inherited Ryan’s mantle as the Texas Rangers’ ace. Though his regular season record of 12-9 is nothing special, his postseason has been incredible, an exclamation mark on what is turning out to be a brilliant postseason career. Opponents bat just .172 off Lee, a postseason record. Teams average just 6.56 base runners per nine innings, another postseason record. His 5.6 hits per nine innings and 9.57 strikeouts per walk are both second-best all-time. In eight postseason starts, he is 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA (fourth all-time, third among pitchers with at least five postseason starts). He is the first pitcher ever to strike out 10 or more batters three times in one postseason.

Until Cliff Lee, the Rangers had never won a home playoff game, let alone a playoff series. They also had not enjoyed a pitching performance like Lee’s since the days of Ryan himself. Since Lee, who has already won twice at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay and once at Yankee Stadium, they have knocked off the best team in the American League and now sit just one win away from eliminating the 2009 World Series champions and punching their first ticket to the World Series.

In different ways, both Halladay and Lee carry semblances of the man who could throw over 100 m.p.h. even after he turned 40. Halladay has carved out the same niche: the talented pitcher brought down by the mediocre teams he played for. He is the newest member of the two no-hitter club, and his 2010 season carries the same quirkiness to it so common of Ryan’s years (first in innings pitched, most hits, second-most strikeouts, most wins, third-lowest ERA). In the postseason, Halladay is trying to seize the opportunity that Ryan never did. Lee, meanwhile, has inherited the symbolic crown from Ryan as the overpowering Rangers ace. His postseason has the same raw domination to it that Ryan’s regular seasons had.

With any luck, the two will face each other in the World Series. They each represent a side of Ryan’s legacy, and perhaps a battle between the two will determine which side of Ryan best characterized him: his inability to rise above the mediocrity of his teams (comparing his winning percentage against his teams’, it turns out that he only won 10% more of the time than they did),  or his capacity to overwhelm every batter he faced.

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