SABR

Revisiting Nolan Ryan in 1973: The Quest for 400 Strikeouts

By Paul Hensler

This article was published in the Spring 2013 Baseball Research Journal.

The mission of the California Angels in 1973 was to find a way to wrest the American League West Division title from their in-state neighbors to the north, the World Series champion Oakland Athletics. The Angels were counting on improvements engineered by General Manager Harry Dalton after the 1972 season. Now in his second season as GM, Dalton had traded former 20-game winner Andy Messersmith and third baseman Ken McMullen to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a clutch of players that included future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and another past 20-game winner, Bill Singer. Joining Singer in the Angels’ rotation were holdovers Rudy May, Clyde Wright, and a young Texan named Nolan Ryan.

Nolan Ryan: Set a major league record with 383 strikeouts in 1973, along with two of his record seven no-hitters.Nolan Ryan: Set a major league record with 383 strikeouts in 1973, along with two of his record seven no-hitters.Ryan had been brought in by Dalton the previous year and had evinced the powerful pitching that became his trademark. He pitched as many innings (284) as he had in his previous two years combined with his former team, the New York Mets, taking the mound for 39 starts and leading the American League in shutouts (9), walks (157), and strikeouts (329). Ryan’s role as a workhorse now established, the 26-year-old hurler looked to improve on the 19–16 record he logged in the strike-shortened season of 1972.

For the 1973 season as a whole, the Angels’ high point came on June 27 when they briefly held first place atop the AL West on the strength of Singer’s 12–3 record. Thereafter, California took a slow, steady descent to fourth place with 79 wins and 83 losses, a full 15 games behind Oakland. But the year had moments of intrigue for Ryan, who lumbered along with a winning pace that was below .500 as September began.

The right-hander spun a pair of no-hit gems, the first coming against the Royals in Kansas City on May 15, the second in Detroit exactly two months later. On August 31 Ryan limited the opposition to one hit. Stellar as these accomplishments were, the number of strikeouts Ryan amassed in each succeeding contest quickly outshone them. Ryan’s first start of 1973 set the tone for the season. Already known as “The Express” thanks to his blazing fastball, Ryan fanned 12 Royals in his opening assignment, and over the course of the season fanned an average of 10.57 batters per nine innings pitched. As the season ground on and the strikeouts accumulated, Ryan edged ever closer to Dodgers great Sandy Koufax’s 382 strikeouts in 1965.

To be sure, Ryan encountered some missteps along the way, such as his May 11 start at home against the White Sox in which he failed to survive the first inning, and a rare but disastrous relief outing against the Yankees on August 14, when he yielded three straight hits, threw a wild pitch, and walked a batter before at last getting the final out of the eighth inning of a 7–2 loss. But by September 3, Ryan’s ascension on the strikeout leader board put him at 326, meaning that in his final five scheduled starts, he would have to fan 57 batters to eclipse Koufax.

At that point, manager Bobby Winkles and his charges were not much of a threat to division-leading Oakland, and with little to play for other than having a look at some new prospects—Frank Tanana among them—the former Arizona State head coach kept Ryan pitching every fourth day, save for one skipped start on September 7. The task before Ryan was not impossible, but the pitcher admitted, “Sandy [Koufax] said the last 100 [strikeouts] are the toughest and I believe it. My arm is getting tired.”1

Laboring through September, Ryan set down 12 White Sox on the 11th, 10 Royals on the 15th, seven Rangers four days later, and 12 Twins on the 23rd. An additional 16 strikeout victims were needed to reach 383. In his only remaining start—at home on September 27 versus Minnesota—Ryan produced the desired result. This finale had a great deal of drama, however. Ryan rang up three strikeouts in the 7th, giving him 14 Ks but still one shy of Koufax, and he tied the record in the 8th after fanning Steve Brye. The score was knotted at 4–4, and Ryan retired the Twins in the 9th but without a strikeout. Had the Angels scored in the home half of the 9th, Ryan would have remained even with Koufax at 382, but after a scoreless 10th inning for both teams, Ryan finally whiffed Rich Reese to end the 11th inning and set a modern record. The Angels plated a run in the bottom of that inning for the victory, and the book was closed on Ryan’s season as well as the strikeout record.

Writing in The Sporting News to commemorate the new mark, Dick Miller revealed that Ryan also had a bit of luck working in his favor on September 3. Oakland’s Deron Johnson hit a pop fly for an out in the 9th inning, but the play was nullified when third base umpire Art Franz insisted that he had called time because a ball had gotten loose from the Angels bullpen. Given a new life at the plate, Johnson then proceeded to strike out on a full count, thus making Ryan work a tad more but providing a propitious chance for him to increase his strikeout total. The final account of Nolan Ryan’s season showed 21 wins, 16 losses, one save, an ERA of 2.87 over 326 innings, the single-season mark of 383 strikeouts, and a second-place finish behind Baltimore’s Jim Palmer for the American League Cy Young Award. Ryan was also voted the recipient of his team’s Owner’s Trophy as the Angels’ Most Valuable Player.

Putting Ryan’s achievement in perspective nearly four decades later, one should note that the next closest whiff total in the intervening years has been Randy Johnson’s 372 for the National League’s Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. Johnson’s run at the record included strikeouts of poor-hitting National League pitchers, akin to Koufax initially setting the mark with the benefit of facing his own weak-hitting pitching brethren. Had Ryan been afforded the same luxury of facing his mound opponents—rather than the American League’s newly-introduced designated hitters in 1973—how many strikeouts might he have totaled? As the 40th anniversary of Nolan Ryan’s record-setting feat approaches, an analysis of his games pitched in 1973 is offered here to answer that question. Might Ryan have not only broken Koufax’s total but also surpassed the magical figure of 400 strikeouts?

This mythical 400-strikeout barrier that Ryan might have broken falls into the what-if category. The 17 strikeouts that he needed beyond 383 can be found only in theory. Using the array of data now easily available on the Internet, I formulated ground rules for reviewing his 1973 season appearances and assigned strikeouts on a case-by-case basis, predicting how many strikeouts he would have recorded had the designated hitter not been in effect.2

Setting the Ground Rules

Several factors must be taken into account to make this analysis as rational as possible. Simply substituting strikeouts for every plate appearance by designated hitters would not be acceptable, so I established criteria. The pitcher was always assumed to be the ninth-place hitter in the batting order with his number of plate appearances predicated on the actual number of innings he pitched, and accounting for the circumstances of his turn at bat. When a team is either trailing or threatening to score, many skippers pinch-hit for the pitcher, especially in the later innings, and these situations were noted. Of course, this works both ways, as Ryan himself might also have been removed for a pinch-hitter, taking away those strikeouts recorded after he would likely have been out of the game. In all cases, the remainder of the batting order was left intact because there was no way to recreate an entire game while re-adjusting the whole order. Therefore, all results of the other batters stand as they actually occurred.

In instances where a pinch-hitter most likely would have been used in place of the opposing pitcher, the result of the actual designated hitter’s first plate appearance was factored in. The reasoning here is that if the DH was deemed by his own manager to be worthy of starting against Ryan, then he was well-qualified to be the first pinch-hitter to come off the bench. Thus, if the designated hitter struck out in his initial plate appearance against Ryan, that strikeout was counted toward Ryan’s theoretical total. In keeping true to the spirit of the typical role of the pinch-hitter, this singular trip to the plate was also assumed to be his only appearance in the game, and the results of his other plate appearances have been ignored. Results of other players who pinch-hit are counted as they occurred.

By far, the most effort in this analysis was expended in figuring out what the opposing pitcher would have done during his hypothetical at-bats. This evaluation was also a multi-step process, with fairness paramount in forming an acceptable judgment. Since the 1972 season was the last year in which American League pitchers batted for themselves, those pitchers’ applicable season averages, strikeout-per-at-bat, and results if they had batted against Ryan were reviewed. Also employed in this assessment was Ryan’s own performance in a particular inning, so if a poor-hitting opposing pitcher came to bat when Ryan was pitching well, the assumption was made that said pitcher would have fanned.

Some detailed examples illustrate the methods described.

1. April 11, 1973, vs. Minnesota

Actual lineup     Adjusted lineup
(without DH)
Larry Hisle, cf     Larry Hisle, cf
Rod Carew, 2b     Rod Carew, 2b
Bobby Darwin, rf     Bobby Darwin, rf
Tony Oliva, dh     Joe Lis, 1b
Joe Lis, 1b     Steve Braun, 3b
Steve Braun, 3b     Danny Thompson, ss
Danny Thompson, ss     Phil Roof, c
Phil Roof, c     Jim Holt, lf
Jim Holt, lf     Bill Hands, p

For the Chicago Cubs in 1972, Hands batted—if that can even be the proper term—a pathetic .018, getting one hit in 57 at-bats while striking out 30 times. In this game, Hands lasted five innings, and the Twins’ ninth-place hitter came to bat twice—in the 3rd and 5th innings—during his time on the mound. Pitching a complete game, Ryan had a good outing, striking out a total of 11 Twins while allowing one run on five hits and five walks. With Ryan striking out one batter in the 3rd inning, two in the 4th, and another in the 5th, it is quite likely that a poor batter such as Hands would have fanned both of his hypothetical trips to the plate. As the designated hitter temporarily in absentia, Oliva would have pinch-hit in the 7th inning when the ninth-place batter was due up, but in his first actual time that he faced Ryan in this contest, Oliva lined out, therefore, no strikeout is credited. (In fact, Oliva did not strike out in any of his at-bats this day.) In the 7th inning, Minnesota did use Steve Brye as a pinch-hitter for Roof and struck out, so this strikeout was still credited to Ryan, as was the actual strikeout of George Mitterwald, who replaced Roof and batted in the 9th inning. Ryan’s real strikeout total for this game was 11, but with two hypothetical whiffs of Hands and the results of the reserves’ at-bats being static, his adjusted total is now 13, a gain of two strikeouts.

2. April 22, 1973, at Oakland

Ryan faced Catfish Hunter in this contest, and in 1972 the Oakland ace batted .219 (23 for 105 with 16 strikeouts) including two hits in three at-bats (and no strikeouts) against Ryan in the game of May 22, 1972. With Hunter showing a general tendency to hold his own at the plate as well as to hit capably against Ryan a year earlier, no theoretical strikeouts were assigned. This game was closely contested—the Athletics won 3–2 in ten innings—so the assumption was also made that Ryan would have batted for himself in the top of the 8th inning when he was scheduled to lead off, even though the Angels trailed 2–1 at that point. By remaining in the game, he still would have struck out two Oakland batters in the bottom of both the 8th and 9th innings. Ryan gains no adjusted strikeouts, so his game total stays at nine.

3. August 2, 1973, vs. Texas

On this day, Ryan was matched up against Sonny Siebert, who hit very well in 1972 (.236 on 17 for 72 with 21 strikeouts) but was only 1-for-6 with three strikeouts against Ryan that year. Had he batted in the 3rd and 5th innings as did the ninth-place Texas batter, Siebert would probably have struck out at least once and been lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 7th when the Rangers were down 3–1. Alex Johnson was the Rangers’ DH and theoretical first pinch-hitter, and after deducting his three actual strikeouts since no designated hitter would have been in effect, one whiff is added back because he actually struck out his first time up. In the Rangers’ 9th inning and now down 3–2, another pinch-hitter would have been used for the ninth-place batter who was scheduled to hit second. With no left-handed hitters on the Texas bench at the time, perhaps one of their top hitters available—Tom Grieve (.327), Ken Suarez (.285), or Jim Fregosi (.306), the last of which would have been an intriguing match-up of the two principals of the trade that landed Ryan in Anaheim—might have been called upon, but averages of this quality make the assumption of any of them striking out a tentative one. Therefore, for this game, Ryan gains one strikeout of Siebert, loses two of Johnson, and picks up none for any of the trio of potential pinch-hitters in the last inning. All told, Ryan ends with an adjusted total of 10 strikeouts, one less than his actual game total of 11.

Ryan’s Season

The above samples should be borne in mind while perusing the summaries of each of Ryan’s games in 1973. Ryan initially loses all 29 strikeouts that he recorded against the designated hitters in 1973, but he recoups a few of these by invocation of the “DH as the first pinch-hitter” rule, and Ryan nets even more as his rival pitchers step into the hypothetical batter’s box to face him.

What follows is a comprehensive chart of the analysis as well as synopses of Ryan’s appearances showing his projected performance.

 

Game 1—April 6 vs. Kansas City
Opposing pitchers: Steve Busby (4.1 innings), Bruce Dal Canton (2.2), Tom Burgmeier (1)
Opposing DH: Ed Kirkpatrick
Adjusted strikeouts: Add one

With the Royals in 1972, Busby hit .200 (3 for 15 with 3 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Busby would have batted twice (3rd, 5th). Ryan had two other strikeouts in the 3rd and struck out the 9th-place batter in the 5th, so Busby would have fanned at least one of these times. Kirkpatrick would have pinch-hit in the 8th but did not strike out in this game. Gail Hopkins was also used as a pinch-hitter but the ninth-place hitter may not have batted in 9th inning. Assume one strikeout of Busby.

Game 2—April 11 vs. Minnesota
Opposing pitchers:
Bill Hands (5.0), Joe Decker (3.0)
Opposing DH:
Tony Oliva
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add two

With the Cubs in 1972, Hands batted .018 (1 for 57 with 30 strikeouts). Hands would have batted twice (3rd, 5th). Ryan ended the 2nd with a strikeout, had another in the 3rd, two in the 4th, and opened the 5th with a K. Hands likely would have been no match either trip to the plate. Oliva would have pinch-hit in the 7th but did not strikeout. Steve Brye would have pinch-hit in the 9th, and he struck out in his actual pinch-hitting role, so his strikeout stands. Assume two strikeouts of Hands.

Game 3—April 18 at Minnesota
Opposing pitcher:
Bert Blyleven (9)
Opposing DH:
Tony Oliva
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

With the Twins in 1972, Blyleven hit .160 (15 for 94 with 36 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 9 innings, he would have batted three times (2nd, 4th, 7th). Ryan was shaky in the 1st inning but ended it with a K, had one strikeout in the 2nd, and had three strikeouts in the 4th and 7th. Blyleven would have struck out his last two times. Oliva would have pinch-hit in the bottom of the 9th if any of the sixth-, seventh-, or eighth-place hitters reached base, but his two strikeouts are removed since he would not have batted. Assume two strikeouts of Blyleven, deduct two strikeouts of Oliva.

Game 4—April 22 at Oakland
Opposing pitchers:
Catfish Hunter (7.2), Darold Knowles (0), Horacio Pina (2.1)
Opposing DHs: Jay Johnstone, Angel Mangual
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

In 1972, Hunter batted .219 (23 for 105 with 16 strikeouts). He pitched against Ryan on May 22, 1972, and was 2-for-3 against him with no strikeouts. Ryan could have been lifted in the 8th inning, as the Angels were down 2–1 and the ninth-place hitter was scheduled to lead off. Ryan had 2 strikeouts in both the 8th and 9th innings, for a potential loss of 4 strikeouts, but given the closeness of the game, Ryan was likely to have been left in; neither Johnstone nor Mangual struck out in this game. Assume no strikeouts of Hunter.

Game 5—April 27 vs. Cleveland
Opposing pitcher:
Milt Wilcox (9)
Opposing DH:
Oscar Gamble
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add two

In 1972, Wilcox batted .200 (9 for 45 with 12 strikeouts). He pitched against Ryan on June 14, 1972, but never made it out of the 1st inning and didn’t bat against Ryan. In a rematch on August 27, 1972, Wilcox was 0–2 with one K. In this game Wilcox would have batted four times (2nd, 4th, 7th, and 9th) and struck out in Cardenas’s ninth-place spot in the 2nd and the 4th, as Cardenas struck out both those same times. Gamble would not have batted since Wilcox pitched a complete game. Assume two strikeouts of Wilcox.

Game 6—May 2 at Detroit
Opposing pitchers:
Mickey Lolich (11), Lerrin LaGrow (1)
Opposing DH:
Gates Brown
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Lolich batted .067 (6 for 89 with 39 strikeouts). He pitched against Ryan on June 18, 1972, and went 0-for-2 with one strikeout against Ryan. He pitched against Ryan again on August 18 and went 0-for-1 with two walks. In this game he would have batted in the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th, striking out in the 2nd, perhaps in the 6th and 8th innings. Ryan had eight walks in this game versus seven strikeouts, fanning Ed Brinkman three times, but overall it was not an overpowering display by Ryan, who could have been lifted in the 10th when the ninth-place hitter was schedule to lead off. Brown would have pinch-hit in the 12th but did not strikeout in this game. Assume two strikeouts of Lolich; deduct one strikeout of Brinkman.

Game 7—May 6 at Baltimore
Opposing pitcher:
Jim Palmer (9)
Opposing DH:
Terry Crowley
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Palmer batted .224 (22 for 98 with 36 strikeouts). He pitched against Ryan on April 28, 1972, and went 0-for-1 with one strikeout against Ryan. in this game, Palmer would have batted in the 2nd, 5th, and 7th before Ryan flagged with two out in the 7th inning. Ryan was in command in the 2nd and 5th, retiring six of the seven batters he faced. Palmer had a good batting average but also a high strikeout ratio. Crowley would not have been used and had no strikeouts. Assume 1 strikeout of Palmer.

Game 8—May 11 vs. Chicago
Opposing pitchers:
Stan Bahnsen (8.1), Terry Forster (0.2)
Opposing DH:
Mike Andrews
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

This game was Ryan’s worst outing of the season. He lasted only one-third of an inning and had no strikeouts.

Game 9—May 12 vs. Chicago
Opposing pitchers:
Eddie Fisher (3.1), Steve Stone (3.1), Cy Acosta (1.1)
Opposing DH:
Rick Reichardt
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

This game was the first of Ryan’s two relief appearances in 1973. He pitched the last two innings, with four strikeouts. In 1972, Reichardt batted .251 (73 for 291 with 63 strikeouts). He faced Ryan on May 30, 1972, and went 0-for-1 (popup) against Ryan. On September 8, he went 0-for-3 (fielder’s choice, strikeout, flyout). On September 16 he was 0-for-3 (2 strikeouts, flyout). Ryan would have faced ninth-place pinch-hitter in the top of the 8th with the White Sox down 6–5, Rechardt would have flied out to lead off that inning. Assume no extra strikeouts.

Game 10—May 15 at Kansas City (Ryan’s first no-hitter)
Opposing pitchers:
Bruce Dal Canton (5.2), Gene Garber (3.1)
Opposing DH:
Ed Kirkpatrick
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

In 1972, Dal Canton batted .098 (4 for 41 with 14 strikeouts) and struck out all three times he faced Ryan. Dal Canton would have come to bat in the 3rd inning and would likely have struck out because Ryan fanned two other batters in this inning. Garber was with Pittsburgh in 1972 and did not face Ryan. Kirkpatrick did not strike out until the 8th, so his hypothetical pinch-hitting appearance in the 6th would have been a groundout. Gail Hopkins may have batted for Garber in the 8th but did not strike out. Assume one strikeout of Dal Canton; deduct one strikeout of Kirkpatrick.

Game 11—May 19 vs. Texas
Opposing pitchers:
Rich Hand (4), Charlie Hudson (3), Steve Foucault (1)
Opposing DH:
Alex Johnson
Adjusted strikeouts:
Deduct one

In 1972, Hand batted .154 (8 for 52 with 13 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Hand would have come to bat in the 3rd and the 5th, and would likely have struck out his first time because Ryan fanned two of the next three batters. Hudson would have been removed in the 7th inning because Texas was down seven runs. Johnson would have pinch-hit and and since he struck out his first time up, this strikeout stands. Rich Stelmaszek also pinch-hit and singled. Assume 1 strikeout of Hand, deduct 2 strikeouts of Johnson.

Game 12—May 24 at Chicago
Opposing pitchers:
Wilbur Wood (8.2), Cy Acosta (0.1)
Opposing DHs:
Carlos May, Mike Andrews
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Wood batted .136 (17 for 125 with 65 strikeouts). He faced Ryan on August 9, 1972, and went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts. In this game he would have come to bat in the 3rd, 4th, and 7th. The number-nine Angel batter was due to lead off the top of the 6th, but Ryan was scheduled to face the lower half of the White Sox order, so he likely would have stayed in. Ryan was shaky in the 3rd but would have struck out Wood in the 4th (he actually fanned 2 other White Sox) and the 7th (he actually struck out the side). Wood was not relieved until there were two out in the 9th, so no pinch-hitters would have been used. Andrews would not have come to bat to replace May since May would not have played to begin with. Assume two Ks of Wood; deduct one strikeout of Andrews.

Game 13—May 29 at Boston
Opposing pitchers:
Bill Lee (7.2), Bobby Bolin (1.1)
Opposing DH:
Orlando Cepeda
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

In 1972, Lee batted .188 (3 for 16 with 7 strikeouts). Lee and Ryan played in the same game June 11, 1972, but Ryan lasted only 1.2 innings and did not pitch to Lee. In this game Lee would have come to bat in the 3rd, 4th, and 6th, and may have struck out to end the 6th inning as did ninth-place hitter John Kennedy. Cepeda actually homered his first time up, so deduct one strikeout. Assume one strikeout of Lee; deduct one strikeout of Cepeda.

Game 14—June 2 at New York
Opposing pitchers:
Fritz Peterson (7), Sparky Lyle (2)
Opposing DH:
Jim Ray Hart
Adjusted strikeouts:
Deduct one

In 1972, Peterson batted .232 (19 for 82 with 14 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. In this game Peterson would have come to bat in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th, possibly striking out in the 3rd when Ryan fanned two others, or in the 7th when he also fanned two. Ryan might have been lifted with one out and a runner on second base in the 7th and the Angels down 2–0. The Angels did pinch-hit for the 9th-place hitter, so deduct 2 strikeouts. Assume one strikeout of Peterson; deduct strikeouts of Gene Michael and Horace Clarke.

Game 15—June 7 vs. Detroit
Opposing pitchers:
Woodie Fryman (5.2), Tom Timmermann (1.1), Fred Scherman (1)
Opposing DH:
Gates Brown
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Fryman batted .137 (10-for-73 with 13 strikeouts) for Philadelphia and Detroit. He faced Ryan once on August 31, 1972, and grounded out. In this game Fryman would have come to bat in the 3rd and 6th, probably striking out in the 3rd when Ryan struck out the side. Brown would have hit for Timmermann in the 8th, but the bottom of the order was not reached in the 9th, so Brown would have been the lone pinch-hitter used. Assume one strikeout of Fryman.

Game 16—June 12 vs. Boston
Opposing pitchers:
Luis Tiant (6), Bobby Bolin (3)
Opposing DH:
Orlando Cepeda
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Tiant batted .107 (6 for 56 with 18 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. In this game Tiant would have come to bat in the 2nd and 4th, possibly striking out in the 2nd after eighth-place hitter Luis Aparicio did likewise. Cepeda would have hit for Tiant in the 7th. In the 9th, Boston may have used Ben Oglivie as a left-handed pinch-hitter (on July 9, 1972, he struck out pinch-hitting vs. Ryan. in 1973, he was hitting .288 through June 9 (on 17 for 59, and was 2 for 10 as PH for the whole year). Oglivie also didn’t play in the first two weeks of June, so perhaps he was injured. It is inconclusive that Oglivie would have struck out. Assume 1 strikeout of Tiant, none of Oglivie.

Game 17—June 16 vs. New York
Opposing pitcher:
Pat Dobson (8)
Opposing DH:
Jim Ray Hart
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add two

In 1972, Dobson batted .141 (12 for 85 with 39 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. In this game Dobson would have come to bat in the 3rd and 5th, likely to be taken out in the 7th with the Yankees down 3–0. Hart would have batted for Dobson in the 7th and struck out as he actually did, so his strikeout stands. In the 9th, New York may have used Johnny Callison as a left-handed pinch-hitter since he was the only lefty on the bench (in 1972, he hit .258 on 71 for 275 with 34 strikeouts, 4 for 19 for .211 as a pinch-hitter. In 1973, he was hitting .122 through June 14 on 6-for-49, 2-for-7 as a PH for the whole year). Callison faced Ryan on July 22, 1972, and fanned once, going 0-for-2. In this game, Ryan struck out two in the 9th and may have also fanned Callison. Assume one strikeout of Dobson and one strikeout of Callison.

Game 18—June 20 at Chicago
Opposing pitchers:
Steve Stone (6.2), Cy Acosta (2.1)
Opposing DH:
Tony Muser
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Stone batted .118 (4 for 34 with 15 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. in this game Stone would have come to bat in the 3rd and 5th, likely to be taken out for a pinch-hitter in the 7th with the score tied 2–2 with two on and none out. Muser would have batted for Stone in the 7th but did not strike out. Ryan was not sharp in the beginning of the 3rd inning but had two strikeouts to end that frame. Assume one strikeout of Stone.

Game 19—June 25 vs. Kansas City
Opposing pitchers:
Ken Wright (4), Wayne Simpson (2), Doug Bird (2)
Opposing DH:
Gail Hopkins
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add two

In 1972, Wright batted .000 (0-for-2 with 2 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. In this game Wright would have come to bat in the 2nd and 4th, probably striking out both times as Ryan had two other strikeouts in the 2nd and also struck out the ninth-place batter (Fran Healy) to end the 4th. Simpson would not have come to bat in the 6th, as the Royals were down 4–2, with Hopkins pinch-hitting. Bird would not have batted in the 9th, Steve Hovley pinch-hitting, who did actually fan as a PH. Assume two strikeouts of Wright.

Game 20—June 29 vs. Minnesota
Opposing pitcher:
Bert Blyleven (9)
Opposing DH:
Tony Oliva
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

With the Twins in 1972, Blyleven hit .160 (15 for 94 with 36 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 9 innings, he would have batted four times (3rd, 6th, 8th, and 9th). Blyleven would have fanned in the 6th when Ryan retired the side in order and possibly in the 8th when he had one other strikeout. With the Angels down 4–0 going into the bottom of the 8th, Ryan would have been lifted, eliminating the strikeout of Joe Lis. Assume two strikeouts of Blyleven; deduct one strikeout of Lis.

Game 21—July 3 at Oakland
Opposing pitcher:
Ken Holtzman (9)
Opposing DH:
Deron Johnson
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

With the Athletics in 1972, Holtzman hit .178 (16 for 90 with 25 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 9 innings, he would have batted three times (3rd, 5th, and 7th). Holtzman would have fanned in the 3rd when Ryan had one other strikeout and possibly again in the 5th when Ryan had two other strikeouts. Ryan’s 7th inning was shaky, so as the potential fourth hitter in the top of the 8th, he may have been lifted, but because the Angels went down in order, the ninth-place hitter did not come to bat. Assume one strikeout of Holtzman.

Game 22—July 7 at Cleveland
Opposing pitcher:
Gaylord Perry (9)
Opposing DH:
Charlie Spikes
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

With the Indians in 1972, Perry hit .155 (17 for 110 with 43 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 9 innings, he would have batted three times (3rd, 5th, and 7th). Perry would have fanned in the 5th when Ryan also fanned the ninth-place hitter to end the inning. Ryan gave up three singles in the 7th, so he may not have struck out Perry again. Perry would have been lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 9th, and Spikes actually flied out his first time up. Assume one strikeout of Perry; deduct one strikeout of Spikes.

Game 23—July 11 at Baltimore
Opposing pitcher:
Mike Cuellar (9)
Opposing DH:
Tommy Davis
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add two

With the Orioles in 1972, Cuellar hit .126 (11 for 87 with 38 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 9 innings, he would have batted three times (2nd, 4th, and 5th) against Ryan, who pitched only six innings. Cuellar would have fanned in the 2nd when Ryan also struck out the eighth-place hitter and again in the 5th when Ryan struck out the seventh- and eighth-place hitters. With the Angels trailing 6–1, Ryan would have been lifted as the scheduled number-3 hitter in the top of the 7th. Davis had no strikeouts. Assume two strikeouts of Cuellar.

Game 24—July 15 at Detroit (Ryan’s second no-hitter)
Opposing pitchers:
Jim Perry (7.1), Fred Scherman (0.1), Bob Miller (0), Ed Farmer (1.1)
Opposing DH:
Gates Brown
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

With the Twins in 1972, Perry hit .155 (11 for 71 with 14 strikeouts) and faced Ryan, going 0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts. Pitching 7.1 innings in this game, he would have batted twice (3rd and 5th). Perry would have fanned both times when Ryan recorded two other strikeouts in both innings. Brown would have pinch-hit for Perry in the 8th and walked. Assume two strikeouts of Perry; deduct one strikeout of Brown.

Game 25—July 19 vs. Baltimore
Opposing pitcher:
Mike Cuellar
Opposing DH:
Tommy Davis
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add two

With the Orioles in 1972, Cuellar hit .126 (11 for 87 with 38 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 11 innings, he would have batted four times (3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th). Cuellar would have fanned in the 3rd when Ryan also fanned the first-place hitter, in the 5th as Ryan fanned the real ninth-place hitter (Mark Belanger), and possibly in the 8th when Ryan fanned the number-1 and number-2 batters. Ryan may have been taken out in the bottom of the ninth with two out and a man on first, but he had no strikeouts after the 9th inning anyway. Cuellar’s complete game means Davis would not have come to bat, but Davis had no strikeouts in this game. Assume two strikeouts of Cuellar.

Game 26—July 26 at Texas
Opposing pitcher:
Jim Bibby (9)
Opposing DH:
Alex Johnson
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

With the Cardinals in 1972, Bibby hit .122 (1 for 8 with 3 strikeouts). Pitching 9 innings, he would have batted twice (3rd and 6th) against Ryan, who lasted only 6.1 innings. Ryan had no strikeouts in either of these frames and fanned just three for the entire game. This was Ryan’s lowest strikeout total in any of his starts to date. Johnson did not strike out in this game. Assume no strikeouts of Bibby.

Game 27—July 29 at Kansas City
Opposing pitchers:
Dick Drago (6), Doug Bird (4.2), Joe Hoerner (0.1)
Opposing DH:
Rick Reichardt
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

With the Royals in 1972, Drago hit .059 (4 for 68 with 36 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 6 innings, he would have batted twice (3rd and 5th) against Ryan, who lasted only 5.2 innings. Ryan did strike out the ninth-place batter in the 5th and Drago likely would have fanned as well. Reichardt’s strikeout is removed since he would not have faced Ryan. This was Ryan’s second straight start with only 3 strikeouts. Assume one strikeout of Drago; deduct one strikeout for Reichardt.

Game 28—August 2 vs. Texas
Opposing pitchers:
Sonny Siebert (6), Don Durham (2)
Opposing DH:
Alex Johnson
Adjusted strikeouts:
Deduct one

With the Red Sox in 1972, Siebert hit .236 (17 for 72 with 21 strikeouts) and hit .167 (1 for 6 with 3 strikeouts) against Ryan. Pitching 6 innings, he would have batted twice (3rd and 5th) against Ryan. Ryan struck out the seventh- and eighth-place hitters in the 3rd and may have fanned Siebert then as well. With the Rangers down 3–1 in the bottom of the 7th, Johnson would then have pinch-hit, striking out as he did his first actual time up against Ryan. Another pinch-hitter would have been used in the bottom of the 9th, perhaps Jim Fregosi (.306, 19 for 62, but did not face Ryan, 31 strikeouts in 157 at-bats in AL for all of 1973), Tom Grieve (.327, 16 for 49, 0-for-2 against Ryan in 1973, no strikeouts), or Ken Suarez (.285, 53 for 186, 16 strikeouts in 278 at-bats for all of 1973, 0-for-3 with two walks against Ryan). These three batters were all right-handed, as Texas had no lefties on the bench, but it is not possible to know which of them would have been selected to pinch-hit. Assume 1 strikeout of Siebert; deduct 2 strikeouts of Johnson; assume no strikeouts for any choice of Fregosi, Grieve, or Suarez.

Game 29—August 7 at Milwaukee
Opposing pitchers:
Jerry Bell (7.1), Chris Short (2), Eduardo Rodriguez (0.2)
Opposing DH:
Ellie Rodriguez
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

With the Brewers in 1972, Bell hit .071 (1 for 14 with 10 strikeouts) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 7.1 innings, he would have batted three times (1st, 4th, and 6th). Ryan was not sharp in either the 1st or 6th but he struck out the side in the 4th. Bell had such a high strikeout percentage that he likely would have fanned at least twice. Rodriguez actually walked his first time up in the 1st, so his strikeout in the 4th is deducted. With the score 5–5 in the top of the 8th with a man on first and only one out, Ryan would have been lifted, so Bob Coluccio’s strikeout in the 9th is deducted. Assume two strikeouts of Bell; deduct one strikeout of Rodriguez; deduct one strikeout of Coluccio.

Game 30—August 11 at Boston
Opposing pitchers:
Roger Moret (7.1), Bobby Bolin (0.1), Bob Veale (1.1)
Opposing DH:
Orlando Cepeda
Adjusted strikeouts:
Deduct one

With the Red Sox in 1972, Moret hit .000 (0-for-1 with one K) but did not face Ryan. Pitching 7.1 innings, he would have batted three times (2nd, 4th, and 7th). The ninth-place hitting Ben Oglivie was Ryan’s first out (a strikeout) in the 2nd and Moret may have also fanned. Ryan also struck out two in the 4th, including Oglivie again, so this could be another strikeout of Moret. Ryan would have been lifted in the top of the 8th, when the ninth-place hitter was due to lead off with the Angels down 2-0, so Rico Petrocelli’s and Doug Griffin’s strikeouts in the 8th are deducted, as is Cepeda’s strikeout because the Red Sox would not have used a pinch-hitter in the 8th. Assume two strikeouts of Moret; deduct one strikeout of Petrocelli; deduct one strikeout of Griffin; deduct one strikeout of Cepeda.

Game 31—August 14 at New York
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

This was Ryan’s second relief outing, pitching only 0.1 innings with no strikeouts

Game 32—August 17 vs. Detroit
Opposing pitchers:
Woodie Fryman (1.1), Mike Strahler (4.2), Fred Scherman (1), Ed Farmer (1)
Opposing DH:
Gates Brown
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

In 1972, Fryman batted .137 (10-for-73 with 13 strikeouts) for Philadelphia and Detroit. He faced Ryan once on August 31, 1972, and grounded out. In this game Fryman would not have come to bat. Having just entered the game in the 2nd inning for what was a long relief outing, Strahler would have batted for himself in the 3rd inning. In 1972 for the Dodgers, Strahler was 2 for 11 with 6 strikeouts, and as Ryan had no strikeouts and gave up a hit and a walk in the third, he may not have fanned Strahler. Brown would have hit for Strahler in the 5th as the Tigers were now down 7–1. Brown struck out in his first at-bat, so his strikeout stands. Either Dick Sharon or Tom Veryzer could have pinch-hit in the top of the 7th (both came into the game in the bottom of the 7th), so their at-bats stand. Assume no strikeouts of Strahler.

Game 33—August 21 vs. Milwaukee
Opposing pitcher:
Jim Colborn (9)
Opposing DH:
Bob Coluccio
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

In 1972, Colborn batted .081 (3 for 37 with 17 strikeouts) for the Brewers. In this game Colborn would have faced Ryan twice (3rd and 5th) as Ryan pitched only 5.2 innings. Colborn would have struck out in the 3rd when Ryan fanned the side in order. Assume one strikeout of Colborn, deduct one strikeout of Coluccio.

Game 34—August 25 vs. Boston
Opposing pitcher:
John Curtis (9)
Opposing DH:
Orlando Cepeda
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Curtis batted .094 (5 for 53 with 23 strikeouts) for the Red Sox but did not face Ryan. in this game Curtis would have faced Ryan in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th, striking out in the 5th when Ryan fanned the eighth-place hitter and in the 7th when Ryan retired the side in order with one other K. No pinch-hitter would have been used, so deduct Cepeda’s strikeout. Assume two strikeouts for Curtis, deduct one strikeout for Cepeda.

Game 35—August 29 vs. New York
Opposing pitchers:
Doc Medich (7), Lindy McDaniel (1)
Opposing DH:
Ron Blomberg
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add two

In 1972, Medich batted .000 (0-for-1 with no strikeouts) for the Yankees but did not face Ryan. in this game Medich would have faced Ryan in the 3rd and 5th, striking out in the 3rd when Ryan fanned the first-place hitter in a 1-2-3 inning and in the 5th when Ryan also struck out the ninth-place batter. Medich was lifted after 7 innings, so Blomberg would have pinch-hit and struck out his actual first time up, so his strikeout stands. Assume two strikeouts of Medich.

Game 36—September 3 vs. Oakland
Opposing pitchers:
Blue Moon Odom (5), Darold Knowles (2), Horacio Pina (1)
Opposing DH:
Pat Bourque
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Odom batted .121 (8 for 66 with 29 strikeouts) for the Athletics and was 0-for-3 with one strikeout against Ryan. In this game Odom would have faced Ryan in the 3rd and 5th, striking out in the 3rd when Ryan struck out the side in order and in the 5th when Ryan also struck out the ninth-place batter. Odom was lifted after facing two batters in the 6th, so Bourque would pinch-hit in the 7th and drawn a walk as he did his actual first time up. Assume two strikeouts of Odom; deduct one strikeout of Bourque.

Game 37—September 11 vs. Chicago
Opposing pitcher:
Wilbur Wood (8)
Opposing DH:
Carlos May
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Wood batted .136 (17 for 125 with 65 strikeouts). He faced Ryan on August 9, 1972, and went 1-for-3 with two strikeouts. In this game he would have come to bat in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th. Wood may not have fanned in the 3rd but possibly in the 5th when Ryan had one other strikeout and also in the 7th. It is doubtful that Wood would have been lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 7th because there were already two out with nobody on and he had retired nine straight Angels, so he would have struck out as did the other two batters in the 7th. This means that May would not have pinch-hit. Assume two strikeouts of Wood; deduct one strikeout of May.

Game 38—September 15 vs. Kansas City
Opposing pitcher:
Gene Garber (8)
Opposing DH:
Amos Otis
Adjusted strikeouts:
None

In 1972, Garber batted .000 (0-for-1 with no strikeouts) playing for Pittsburgh. In this game he would have come to bat in the 3rd and 5th. Garber may have fanned in the 3rd when Ryan had one other strikeout but not in the 5th when Ryan was not sharp. Garber may have been lifted in the 7th for a pinch-hitter with the Royals down 3–1. Otis would have batted and struck out as he actually did his first time up in the 1st inning so his strikeout stands. Assume one strikeout of Garber; deduct 1 strikeout of Otis.

Game 39—September 19 at Texas
Opposing pitchers:
Pete Broberg (2.1), Jackie Brown (1.2), Don Durham (5)
Opposing DH:
Bill Sudakis
Adjusted strikeouts:
Deduct two

In 1972, Broberg batted .078 (4 for 51 with 24 strikeouts) playing for Texas but did not face Ryan. In this game he would have come to bat in the 2nd and struck out as there were two out with the ninth-place batter up. Brown was lifted in the bottom of the 4th for pinch-hitter Sudakis, who actually walked his first time up. Another pinch-hitter would have batted in the 7th with Texas down 5–1 and another pinch-hitter in the 9th with the Rangers losing 6–2. As with the earlier game against Texas on August 2, assume that any other pinch-hitter would not have struck out as Ryan retired the side in order in both the 7th and 9th innings but with no strikeouts. Assume one strikeout of Broberg; deduct three strikeouts of Sudakis.

Game 40—September 23 at Minnesota
Opposing pitchers:
Joe Decker (0.2), Eddie Bane (5.1), Vic Albury (2), Bill Campbell (1)
Opposing DH:
Tony Oliva
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Decker batted .000 for the Cubs but would never have come to the plate in this game. Bane, Albury, and Campbell were all rookies who would never become big league regulars. Bane would have been lifted for Oliva in the 3rd with the Twins down 7–0. Pinch-hitters would have been used in the 5th, 7th, and 9th innings with the score being so lopsided, coupled with the fact that rosters were expanded with extra players who could have been used to pinch-hit. However, it is impossible to guess who these three pinch-hitters would have been, but Ryan had two strikeouts in the 5th and one in the 7th, so he may have picked up one more in either of these frames but not in the 9th when he struggled. Assume one strikeout of one of the pinch-hitters.

Game 41—September 27 vs. Minnesota
Opposing pitchers:
Dave Goltz (2), Bill Hands (5), Bill Campbell (3.1)
Opposing DH:
Tony Oliva
Adjusted strikeouts:
Add one

In 1972, Goltz batted .103 for the Twins (3 for 29 with 17 strikeouts) and was 0-for-1 with one strikeout against Ryan. Goltz would have led off the top of the 2nd inning and may have struck out as Rod Carew and Oliva did later that inning. The score was tied 3–3 at this point. Hands (see stats of April 11) was allowed to remain for a long relief stint and had he batted, he almost surely would have fanned in the 4th when Ryan struck out the side in order. Oliva would have pinch-hit in the 6th (he actually singled his first time up). The ninth-place hitter came up in the 8th and 10th innings but as in Ryan’s previous game, there is no way to know who these two pinch-hitters might have been. Assume one strikeout of Goltz; assume one strikeout of Hands; deduct one strikeout of Oliva.

 

Summary

Even if the kudos are as imaginary as the fictitious whiffs, Nolan Ryan’s projected 1973 strikeout total would have gone beyond 400. An adjusted total of 406 strikeouts against lineups void of the designated hitter is certainly debatable, given the assumptions made in this study. But this exploration of the possible outcomes of each of Ryan’s games and their potential impact on his extant record runs a course similar to other hypothetical baseball studies.

Using the game summaries and accompanying statistics as a guide, several points should be noted. At the onset of the season, it is doubtful Ryan set a goal to best Koufax, but as the months passed and the strikeout total grew, the chance of establishing a record came within reach. As formidable as Ryan was throughout most of the year, he did endure several slumps that stalled his quest for the strikeout crown. In three starting assignments from May 2 to May 11, Ryan collected only a dozen whiffs before righting himself in his first relief appearance on May 12 when he fanned four batters in two innings of work. He followed his brief emergence from the bullpen with his first no-hitter on May 15, striking out 12 Royals in the process.

Ryan continued through June and early July by approaching double-digit totals in most of his starts, but as was reported in The Sporting News, he also was experiencing some discomfort in his back.3 While that pain was not evident on July 15 in his second no-hitter in Detroit, Ryan admitted that he wished he could have fanned 20 Tigers instead of settling for the 17 who did strike out that day. The Sporting News later presciently noted that based on his mid-season total, Ryan was on a pace to edge Koufax’s record by two strikeouts.4 Meanwhile, after following up the command performance in Detroit with a 13-strikeout appearance in Baltimore four days later, Ryan again slumped with a pair of starts in late July in which only three batters in each game fell victim.

From August through mid-September, Ryan hit his stride, fanning 10 or more batters in eight of ten starts. Winkles arranged the pitching rotation to accommodate Ryan. Ryan fanned 12 at Minnesota on September 23 and then four days later pitched 11 innings in Anaheim in a successful, all-out effort to fan 16 Twins for the standing record of 383 strikeouts.

In the Angels’ 1974 media guide, the organization praised its star pitcher and devoted much space to recapping Ryan’s 14 club and major league records tied or set in 1973. But while Ryan would have lost the 29 strikeouts of those DHs he faced plus some in games where he would have been removed for a pinch-hitter, by facing opposing pitchers he would have more than recovered those whiffs.

PAUL HENSLER received his M.A. in History from Trinity College in Hartford, CT, and has written for SABR’s "Baseball Research Journal" and "NINE." He is the author of "The American League in Transition, 1965–1975."

  • 1. The Sporting News, September 22, 1973, 20.
  • 2. I gratefully acknowledge the websites Baseball Almanac and Baseball-Reference.com for their respective troves of information.
  • 3. The Sporting News, July 21, 1973, 20.
  • 4. The Sporting News, August 4, 1973, 22.
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