What he did: I always thought Nolan Ryan got screwed playing nine seasons on the Houston Astros. That’s what I used to think at least, looking at years like 1987 when Ryan led the National League with a 2.76 ERA but finished 8-16. Certainly, those Astros went 76-86 and scored two runs or less in about half of Ryan’s starts with him going 1-13 in those games. But there’s a silver lining from 1987, Ryan’s 2.21 ERA at home. In fact, I doubt he’d have won the ERA title with a different home ballpark. Ryan benefited from good pitchers’ parks much of his career, going 59-44 with a 2.77 ERA in the Astrodome, 85-58 with a 2.36 ERA at Angel Stadium, and 180-190 with a 3.66 ERA elsewhere. And the Astros weren’t that bad while Ryan was in town: They had a record above .500 six of the years he played for them.
The Ryan Express has a reputation as one of the best pitchers in baseball history, though some of his success may have been due to luck — good home ballparks, a .269 opponents’ batting average on balls in play, and the fortune to play in an era that mostly favored pitchers. Take these things away, and Ryan may have faced a longer road to Cooperstown, nothing close to the coronation he received with 98.8 percent of the vote on his first ballot in 1999. Sure, he might still have the 5,000 lifetime strikeouts and seven no-hitters, but I doubt it’d be enough for some Hall voters, at least not his first few times on the ballot. I assume he’d be enshrined at some point, it just might take awhile. Look what happened to Bert Blyleven, who needed 14 ballots for his plaque.
So while Ryan’s combination of legendary power and durability makes him a rare pitcher I have no problem projecting across any number of different eras, finding him a point in baseball history where he could’ve boosted or at least maintained his case for Cooperstown is tricky. Put Ryan in Coors Field in the late 1990s and he’d be the second coming of Mike Hampton, Darryl Kile, or some other hapless free agent ace lured to Colorado. Put Ryan in the Baker Bowl, Fenway Park, or another offensive launching pad in the late 1920s or early ’30s, and I assume his ERA would wind up somewhere near 5.00, win-loss record equally garish. But I can think of at least one place where he might have shined.
Era he might have thrived in: The story of Ryan’s rise to greatness is well-told, detailing how he debuted as a wild young reliever with the New York Mets in 1967 before being traded to the Angels in December 1971 and finding command enough to become an ace (though he led his league in walks eight times.) So there are two options: Find Ryan a similar formative environment; or, place him in a free-swinging era where batters walked far less, where the few Hall of Fame pitchers were either fireballers or on great teams or both. I’m speaking of the 1930s. Playing then, on a ball club like the New York Giants, Ryan may have excelled.
Why: The Giants ballpark, the Polo Grounds was the Astrodome of its era, center field a place where home runs went to die. Pitching there, Ryan could make a more-than competent sidekick to Carl Hubbell, and with the ’30s Giants, he’d have the elite caliber of club he rarely found himself on in 27 seasons, a chance to go the World Series in his prime. And if his power translated to the era, Ryan could bring unprecedented strikeout totals, perhaps breaking the dry spell between 1912 and 1946 where no hurler had 300 K’s. Ryan could be the Bob Feller of the National League.
Could this help Ryan’s legacy? Consider that in 1962, Feller and Jackie Robinson were first-ballot inductees for Cooperstown, the first time any player earned a plaque without multiple tries since 1937. It’s not to say Ryan would’ve automatically been enshrined through acclimation, facing consideration in an era of Hall voting where dozens of future honorees generally got at least one vote. Hubbell needed three tries before he was inducted, Lefty Grove four, Dizzy Dean nine. And Rapid Robert was and maybe still is the greatest teenage player in baseball history and a war hero to boot. I don’t know what kind of comparable PR that Ryan might have generated with voters. Still, I assume he’d have had as good a chance as any to do so.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.