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Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Updated: May 28, 6:09 PM ET
No mention of Ryan brings plenty of disbelief

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

In the wake of Roger Clemens' failure to register victory No. 300 and my recent article suggesting that Clemens should at least be considered as the greatest pitcher since World War II, a few follow-up notes ...

Nolan Ryan
Nolan Ryan threw hard, even if it wasn't always over the plate.

It's easy, now, to say that nobody knew Clemens would be this good, but that's true of almost every great player. Unless you draft a player with the very first pick, you just hope he can eventually reach the majors and contribute in a meaningful way; anything else is gravy. It's true that Clemens wasn't even considered, at least by some, the best pitcher on his University of Texas team, but 1) that was a real good team, 2) in two years at Texas, he struck out 241 hitters in 275 innings, and 3) he was the 19th player selected in the June 1983 amateur draft.

And you know, if Clemens were pitching for Texas today, he'd probably go a lot higher in the draft, because people are starting to figure out that college pitchers are better bets than high school pitchers. As for his minor-league career, Clemens barely had one. He started four games in Class A and posted a 1.24 ERA, then started seven games in Double-A and posted a 1.38 ERA, then started six games in Triple-A and posted a 1.93 ERA. And then, just 11 months after he was drafted, Clemens reached the majors for good.

As for pitchers we should be keeping our eyes on, nobody out there right now is doing quite what Clemens did. Two guys I'm watching, though, are Oakland's Rich Harden and Kansas City's Zack Greinke (and yes, I know there are probably a half-dozen others in the same class; forgive a man his biases).

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Early on, it was pretty obvious that Monday wasn't going to be the Rocket's day. He struck out Doug Mirabelli to end the top of the second, but strike three came on his 46th pitch. And 46 pitches in the first two innings doesn't generally for a long day make.

Not that Clemens generally goes the distance. He hasn't completed a start since 2000 -- his streak of 95 starts without a complete game is supposedly a Yankees record -- which might suggest that he's on a relatively low pitch count. But that's not really the case. Last Aug. 18, Clemens threw 117 pitches ... but went only seven innings. Last Sept. 8, Clemens threw 125 pitches ... but went only seven innings. This April 13, Clemens threw 115 pitches ... but went only seven innings. Last week against the Red Sox, Clemens threw 100 pitches ... but went only six innings. So Clemens' dearth of complete games isn't due to a lack of durability, but rather to a lack of economy.

This is one component of the Yankee Way: pick up quality veteran pitchers, and then ask them to go as hard as they can for as long as they can. If they can give us only six or seven innings, we'll happily turn things over to the bullpen. It worked with David Cone, and it's working with Roger Clemens.

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Basically, the complaints can be separated into four categories.

One is that I didn't give enough credit to Sandy Koufax. To which I would respond, that's fine if you think that five great seasons (Koufax) really can trump nearly two decades of high quality (Seaver, Spahn, Clemens, Maddux). It's an interesting argument, I suppose, more a matter of taste than anything. But it's not to my taste.

Another is that I didn't give enough credit to Steve Carlton. To which I would respond, Carlton certainly was a great pitcher, but he did mix in a lot of very good seasons with his truly great seasons (of which I count four). That's not a knock, it's just to explain why he doesn't rank among the five greatest pitchers since World War II. Which he pretty clearly does not.

Roger Clemens
Starting pitcher
New York Yankees
Profile
CAREER STATISTICS
G IP W L SO ERA
585 4137.1 299 154 3985 3.16

Another is that it's ridiculous to rank Clemens as high as I did, considering that he's spent his entire career in the American League, and thus very rarely had to bat. As a result, the gutless Clemens -- so the argument goes -- could pitch inside without worrying about getting plunked himself, which goes a long way toward explaining his success.

All of which is absolutely preposterous. Clemens, like most great pitchers, is somewhat bellicose in nature, and it's silly to think he'd have pitched any differently, any more than Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale pitched differently, knowing they had to bat after throwing fastballs at the chins of their opponents. Pitching is pitching, and Clemens would have been just as good in 1968 as he was in 1998.

And the most popular criticism, by far -- I lost count, but the number went well into three digits -- was that I somehow managed to completely ignore Nolan Ryan. Here's a very small sample of the messages that came in ...

Roger Clemens won six Cy Young Awards. Randy Johnson won five Cy Young Awards. Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton both won four Cy Young Awards. Jim Palmer and Sandy Koufax both won three Cy Young Awards. Nolan Ryan won -- not six, nor five, nor four, nor three, nor two Cy Young Awards. Nolan Ryan didn't even win one Cy Young Award. Nolan Ryan won zero Cy Young Awards.

Nolan Ryan isn't the greatest pitcher since World War II, and in fact he's not one of the 10 greatest pitchers since World War II. After the five pitchers -- Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, and Bob Gibson -- I mentioned in the article about Clemens, I would list the following (in no particular order): Randy Johnson, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Sandy Koufax, and Jim Palmer.

And Ryan? Obviously, he was a great pitcher. Among post-World War II pitchers, he might be placed in the next group of five, with Gaylord Perry, Juan Marichal, Whitey Ford, and Ferguson Jenkins. Then again, I'm not really so sure that Ryan was better than Phil Niekro, or Pedro Martinez. But Ryan's almost certainly one of the 20 best pitchers since World War II.

Among the very greatest, though?

Saying that Nolan Ryan is the greatest pitcher because he has the most strikeouts and the most no-hitters -- which is essentially the only argument I've seen -- is a little like saying that Pete Rose is the greatest hitter because he has the most hits, or that Mark McGwire is the greatest hitter because his home runs went the farthest, or that John Olerud is the greatest hitter because he's got the prettiest swing.

Seven no-hitters ... yeah, that's impressive. Bottom line, though, seven no-hitters is just a tiny better than seven one-hitters, and just a wee bit better than seven two-hitters. In each of those seven games, Ryan gave his team an overwhelming chance of winning, and his teams did win all seven games. But in a career that included 773 starts, seven games really isn't a huge number: 0.9 percent, to be moderately precise.

Five thousand, seven hundred and fourteen strikeouts ... yeah, that's impressive. It's also impressive that Ryan led his league in strikeouts 11 times. Nobody's ever struck out more batters, or led his league in strikeouts so many times. It's funny, though ... nobody seems to remember that Ryan also walked more hitters -- 2,795, to be absolutely precise -- than anybody else, and that he led his league in walks eight times. Nobody seems to remember that Ryan often had trouble throwing strikes, or that he wasn't any good at fielding his position.

Here are some other things that nobody seems to remember ... This great pitcher led his league in ERA only twice, and never led his league in victories. This great pitcher -- who some tell me was the greatest pitcher of the last half-century -- was never given the most prestigious award for the greatest pitcher of a single season. It's true: Nolan Ryan never won the Cy Young Award. He finished second in 1973, and seven other times he finished in the top 10. He was a very good pitcher for a very long time, he pitched in five All-Star Games, and he probably was the scariest pitcher of his time.

But the greatest? Roger Clemens won six Cy Young Awards. Randy Johnson won five Cy Young Awards. Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton both won four Cy Young Awards. Jim Palmer and Sandy Koufax both won three Cy Young Awards. Nolan Ryan won -- not six, nor five, nor four, nor three, nor two Cy Young Awards. Nolan Ryan didn't even win one Cy Young Award. Nolan Ryan won zero Cy Young Awards.

Is it possible that the baseball writers knew so little about baseball that they would unfairly ignore Nolan Ryan, the greatest pitcher in baseball, for so many years, and reward so many less-deserving pitchers so many times?

Sure, it's possible. But you'll have a hell of a time proving it.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.