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.)