Nolan Ryan the most durable pitcher all-time? Not so fast

I was at an old-timers lunch recently in Sacramento, and a former big league scout named Ronnie King, who’s something of a baseball legend in my hometown, asked me who I thought the most durable pitcher all-time was. I thought for a moment and then answered Walter Johnson. He scoffed, said Nolan Ryan, and promptly turned to another conversation.

I can see how Ryan is a popular choice, being that the all-time strikeout leader pitched 27 seasons until lingering embarrassment over his all-time memorable fight with Robin Ventura drove him to leave the game (I’ll have to look that up, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.) Still, I consider Ryan overrated, even if a recent Sports Illustrated article said he’s got his Texas Rangers pitchers believing they can throw long innings. Though Ryan won 324 games, he also nearly lost 300 and had he not notched his 300th win or struck out so many batters, I doubt he’d be as remembered. Really, he’s a glorified Bert Blyleven (who, incidentally, will probably soon be selected to Cooperstown for being an underrated Ryan.)

I’ve pondered King’s question in the weeks since, and while it’s probably a draw between Johnson and Ryan who’s more durable, I know three pitchers I’d rank ahead of them.

They are:

  1. Satchel Paige: Estimated he won 2,000 games. Even if that’s an exaggeration, what are we left with? 500 wins? 700? More impressively, Paige made the big leagues in his forties after it finally desegregated and pitched as late as 1965, when he threw three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in a publicity stunt. Most impressive, though, Paige accomplished much of what he’s remembered for following a career-threatening arm injury in the 1930s. The title of his autobiography? Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.
  2. Cy Young: Pitched almost 2,000 more innings and won nearly 200 more games than Ryan in an era where pitchers routinely logged upwards of 40 starts and 400 innings in a season. Young pitched until he was 44, comparable to Ryan who bowed out at 46 and lasted well beyond most of the other great hurlers of his era like Christy Matthewson, Kid Nichols and Pud Galvin.
  3. Iron Man Joe McGinnity: Robert Downey Jr. has got nothing on this guy. McGinnity was the original Iron Man. After leaving the majors in 1908 with a 246-142 lifetime record, good for an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame, McGinnity proceeded to win another 207 games in the minors. In fact, in 1923 at the age of 52, McGinnity went 15-12 for Dubuque. Though it was the D League and McGinnity had a 3.93 ERA, it still may be among the most impressive minor league seasons for a former star.

There are many more pitchers whose longevity at least compares to Ryan, from Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander in the early days to Phil Niekro, Tommy John, Randy Johnson, and Jamie Moyer in recent years. To say the Ryan Express belongs in a class all his own seems inaccurate.

(Postscript: Read the follow-up post.)

12 Replies to “Nolan Ryan the most durable pitcher all-time? Not so fast”

    1. @Devon — McGinnity actually went a couple years beyond this, pitching until he was 54 and dying just four years later. In 23 of his 58 years of life, he pitched professionally in some capacity. Esoteric as this is going to sound, I’m guessing that’s the highest percentage of life years pitched for guys with at least 20 years experience.

  1. How about Early Wynn: 300 wins; 23 seasons; pitched to age 43; logged 4564 innings; or Warren Spahn: 363 wins; 21 seasons; 5245.2 innings; pitched to age 44; or Hoyt Wilhelm: 21 seasons, b. 1922, pitched last game 1972.

    1. @Rodak — Spahn compares for longevity to Ryan, Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Walter Johnson, or Randy Johnson. Wilhelm might be a worthy member of a potential offshoot to this post: the most durable relievers of all-time.

  2. Okay. As I remember, Hoyt Wilhelm sometimes worked as a starter; but point taken. How about Jim Kaat, then? Twenty-five seasons; 4530.1 innings pitched; 283 wins; last game at age 44.

    1. One of the big names no one has mentioned so far is Greg Maddux, who cracked the 5000 inning barrier his final season and probably could have pitched another few years (at least comparable to how Kaat fared at the end) if he’d chosen to. Frankly, a team like the Nationals could probably go to Maddux now, plug him in as their fifth starter, and it would be an upgrade.

  3. Hi, Ref. Iron Man Joe McGinnity. If I have my facts straight, they tell me that Joe pitched both sides of five double headers in one year (ten games) and won all ten. Also, he did not get the nick name Iron Man by being durable. Back in the day, ball players had to supplement their income by working in the off-season. McGinnity worked in a steel mill, thus the name Iron Man. Regards to all.

  4. Pitchers like Early Wynn, Warren Spahn, Walter Johnson to name a few, should rank as far more durable than the likes of Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, in that they completed a much greater percentage of their starts. Neither Ryan or Randy Johnson or any modern pitcher would have lasted as long had they been required to complete as many of their games as these other greats had to.
    Walter Johnson GS: 666 CG: 531
    Spahn GS: 665 CG: 382
    Early Wynn: GS: 612 CG: 290
    Gaylord Perry GS:690 CG: 303
    Nolan Ryan GS: 773 CG: 222
    Randy Johnson GS: 603 CG: 100
    Even Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal with much shorter careers completed more games than Ryan did and more than twice as much as R. Johnson. Even Sandy Koufax had more CG to his credit than R. Johnson.
    In these days where medical care, trainers, improved lifestyle, etc help a player stay healthy and in shape longer, they still are not as durable as those men who completed start after start. That has to be a factor in what durability means for a starting pitcher.

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