Blessed with one of the greatest fastballs in history and Cal Ripken Jr.-like durability for a pitcher, Nolan Ryan terrorized hitters for the better part of 27 years, retiring as the career leader in strikeouts (5714), fifth in innings pitched (5386), and tied for 14th in wins (324).
Ryan's competitiveness, intertwined with a well-known mean streak, became legendary, almost mythical, just like his ability to miss bats. Mike Hargrove, nicknamed the Human Rain Delay for the amount of time he spent getting ready between pitches, once tried to catch the defense sleeping by laying down a bunt against Ryan. It failed. And the next several pitches were of the high-and-tight variety, sending the lefty diving for safety. Finally, it clicked for Hargrove, who joked about yelling out toward the mound, "I'll never bunt again!"
But what if Ryan came up in today's baseball, a game of specialized bullpen roles with a high importance placed on closers? Would Ryan, who was plagued with control problems throughout the majority of his career, have been pushed into one of those one-inning roles long before he became a dominant starting pitcher?
Drafted in the 12th round by the Mets out of Alvin, Texas, in 1965, Ryan spent parts of three seasons developing in the minors. And while strikeout totals during this time are incomplete, one thing is certain: The man who would later earn the moniker The Ryan Express walked a lot of guys -- almost everyone, really.
In 291 innings split between rookie ball, Class A and Double-A, he offered up 200 free passes. Or 6.2 walks every nine innings. And his four-plus seasons with the Mets produced similar results.
Through the age of 24, Ryan tossed 510 innings, while striking out 493 (8.7 K/9) and walking a whopping 344 (6.1 BB/9). Forget command; it didn't exist. And his control was so poor that it regressed during each of his four seasons, going from 5.0 BB/9 to 5.3 to 6.6 to what would be a career high 6.9 in 1971, when he walked 116 batters in 152 innings.
Just to put that into context: the NL average during those years was 3.18 BB/9.
Faced with a situation in today’s era -- a 24-year-old flame-throwing hurler who's averaged 6.1 walks per nine innings through his entire career, spanning parts of seven professional seasons -- how many of the 30 clubs would continue to stick with him as a starting pitcher?
Add in the fact that sometime early in 1967 season, Ryan suffered an arm injury, one that led the Mets' team doctor to recommend surgery (he eventually rehabbed it by himself). Given that state, Ryan, the dominant starting pitcher, probably wouldn't exist in 2013.
Power arms plagued by ungodly control issues and a past arm injury don't occupy too many rotation spots in today’s game, not with the premium placed on back-end relievers. It just wasn't the case in the early '70s. Some teams -- including the Cincinnati Reds -- opt to keep potentially dominant pitchers in the bullpen as opposed to maximizing their potential value in the rotation.
But Aroldis Chapman is hardly the exception. Detroit moved a then 21-year-old Joel Zumaya, who averaged 11.8 punchouts and 4.5 walks per nine innings in 151.1 innings in the upper minors in 2005, to the bullpen the following year. Former big leaguer Bobby Jenks, a four-time member of Baseball America's top prospect lists, routinely put up huge strikeout and walk totals as a minor league starter before his conversion to the bullpen. And in 88 minor league appearances, 80 of which were starts, three-time All-Star closer Rob Nenn averaged 6.0 BB/9.
So would Ryan have become a modern-day reliever? Or would his incredible ability to maintain velocity deep into games be enough to keep scouts and front office personnel from moving him to a one-inning role?
The Mets, of course, famously gave up on Ryan, trading him to the Angels for veteran shortstop Jim Fregosi after that '71 season. It speaks to Ryan's incredible talent that he turned into a Hall of Famer. But it also speaks of the way teams handle pitchers. Instead of trading him, maybe the 2013 Mets would just put him in the bullpen.