(Part One of Two)
I have asked that question to many a player and parent with, surprisingly, the same answer, “No.” So why would arguably one of the best pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball not reach the same pinnacle of performance he maintained from 1966 to 1993? I hope to offer some thought with regard to the why I believe it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Nolan Ryan to repeat the same level of success today as he did during his career.
Little League vs. Travel Ball
It is chronicled that Nolan Ryan began playing little league baseball in Alvin, Texas at the age of 9. It has also been written that Ryan played a multitude of positions other than pitcher. These two facts alone would lead me to believe that Ryan was limited in the amount of time, innings, games and pitches he threw during little league baseball. Also, little league baseball still plays a significantly shorter schedule than the average travel ball program does today.
If Ryan pitched once a week for a typical little league team, he probably pitched no more than 6 games a season for this little league team. Today, if Ryan were to have any sort of command of a better than average fastball, he would be appearing in as many as 6 games a month for the average travel ball team today. With a typical travel ball season lasting a minimum of 5 months, this would mean that Ryan would probably pitch in around 30 games during the typical travel ball season.
Would this increase in throwing have led to a higher probability of injury? I cannot say that an injury would have occurred, but I would definitely say that the chances would have increased.
High School and Select Baseball
Nolan Ryan was drafted directly out of Alvin High School following him graduating in the spring of 1965. There is no record of Ryan playing any organized baseball during his high school years other than for Alvin High School. With the typical high school baseball season being shorter in the 1960’s than today, Ryan was again limited in the number of innings he probably pitched in his high school career. Ryan did not play summer select baseball in the summer or the fall during his high school years.
The addition of 3 to 5 extra months of pitching, countless innings and pitches, would have led to an increased amount to wear to the support structures of the shoulder and elbow. Again, the likelihood of an overuse injury is greatly increased by pitching more than 8 months of the year, more than 80 innings a year, or 80 pitches per game. These benchmarks to overuse injury have been studied and adopted by USA Baseball in conjunction with Major league Baseball in the Pitch Smart Program.
Nolan Ryan only played one year of minor league baseball
Nolan Ryan was drafted in 1965 by the New York Mets and spent the 1965 season in Minor League ball with the Marion Mets in the Appalachian League. In 1966, Ryan made the roster of the Major League New York Mets. In 1967, Ryan only played in 7 minor league games because of the combination of a long-term illness, an arm injury and time serving with his National Guard military unit. In 1968, Ryan was back in the major leagues and stayed there for the remainder of his career (until 1993).
The piece of analytical data that makes the scenario of Ryan being a major leaguer for so long improbable today is that Ryan walked a lot of batters. So many in fact, that Ryan has more than double the number of walks in a career than the next closest pitcher. With today’s analytics and record keeping, a 95 to 100 mile per hour fastball arm is required to show an extremely high ability to not walk batters. I believe that Ryan would have been kept in the minor leagues and been subject to a pitching coach’s attempt to change his throwing mechanics to improve his control. The result would have probably been slower velocity and an injury because of the mechanics change.
You are probably asking why a performance coach would write about a topic such as this. I simply want parents and athletes to understand that the road to success for baseball athletes is full of “landmines”. These “landmines” come in the form of coaches and organizations that are more interested in winning and making money than the overall development of the athlete. I personally see hard throwing high school pitchers and work with many on a daily basis. I currently train more than 15 high school players who throw in excess of 90 miles per hour. The demands that are placed on them by coaches are frightening. For example, telling a 90 plus mile per hour pitcher that he needs to throw all year round to be seen by colleges is an absolute lie. This is the example I am most concerned about. Let us work together to shift a paradigm and consider the well-being of the athlete first. I don’t say this to deter anyone from pursuing his dreams of becoming a MLB star pitcher. I see this as an opportunity to show athletes a safer and possibly more effective path to lasting success at a higher level of performance.
Please catch part two of this blog to see how I believe as coaches, we can develop athletes like Nolan Ryan and insure they have a chance at success in sport.