Nolan Ryan retired in 1993. When the 46 year-old walked away from the game sports writers (and us fans) were muttering that the sport would never see another player like him. How wrong we were. The same season that saw Ryan don his cowboy hat and ride into the sunset was the one in which Randy Johnson emerged as a bigger, better version of the Ryan Express.
How can this be? Ryan pitched for an eternity, getting to the majors as a teenager and retiring only after an injury ended his record 27 years of MLB service. He is the all-time strikeout leader with nearly 1,000 more than the runner up. There are 7 no-hitters with his name on them and a dozen more one-hitters. He more or less holds the record for holding opposing batters to the lowest batting average of any starter with more than a few hundred innings of experience. He even took a recent expansion team all the way to a World Series Championship.
Randy Johnson saw all these things and looked up to Ryan as the ideal pitcher. Johnson didn’t get his first MLB start until the wrong side of his 25th birthday and had gone through nearly 100 pitching starts before he ever met his favorite pitcher. The pair’s paths crossed in a late 1992 game when Johnson made sure his pre-game jog took him alongside Ryan working near the bullpen. Ryan gave him some pointers and the rest was history. The torch had been passed. Johnson took the mound that evening and promptly struck out 18 Texas Rangers in just 8 innings of work.
The rest of The Big Unit’s career would be legendary. He won 300+ games, doing so with the fifth best W-L percentage of all time. He struck out 4,875 batters, second best in baseball history. There is a perfect game in his record to go along with a more run-of-the-mill no hitter and an immaculate inning. There are multiple ERA titles. Five Cy Young Awards sit in the trophy case and include examples from both the American and National Leagues. His career produced more than 100 wins above replacement, one of only 8 pitchers in baseball history to do so.
These numbers portray a dominant pitching presence, but on their own do not show a reincarnation of Nolan Ryan’s arm. To truly see Johnson as the southpaw version of the Ryan Express one needs to look at the sheer futility of those who faced them.
Nolan had the most strikeouts of any pitcher in the 1970s, as well as the 1980s. Leading one decade is impressive, but taking top honors had never happened before. Randy Johnson took the mantle of decade strikeout king from Ryan by fanning 2,538 batters in the 1990s. He repeated the feat in the 2000s, striking out another 2,182 and became the second player to lead multiple decades in strikeout totals. Two pitchers, two decades of strikeout dominance.
These weren’t the result of a couple of freakishly good seasons skewing the results. In any given year batters had trouble making contact against either pitcher. Ryan struck out at least 10 batters in 215 different games over the course of his career. Johnson did the same 212 times. Third place in the rankings of double digit strikeout generation is Roger Clemens with 110 to his credit. Johnson and Ryan essentially lapped the entire roster of everyone who ever played the game. They stand far apart from everyone else who ever picked up a ball.
Ryan and Johnson’s effectiveness continues to parallel each other even when focusing our resolution on increasingly granular levels. Ryan struck out 383 batters in 1973. Johnson recorded 372 in 2001. They both have a half dozen seasons of at least 300 strikeouts. In 1973 Ryan fanned 10+ batters in more than 20 different contests. Johnson likewise struck out double digit numbers in at least 20 games in 1998. He did it again in 1999. And 2000. And 2001.
Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan are both all about strikeouts, but the item that ties them so closely together in my mind is longevity. Ryan pitched until age 46 and left a trail of batters shaking their heads at how they could be made to look so foolish by someone old enough to be their dad. Johnson’s performance didn’t fall off as he aged, but rather followed the same trajectory as the ageless Ryan. Randy pitched his last game at age 46, the same as Ryan. Nearly half (51.3) of his wins above replacement came after age 35, a total higher than the WAR accumulation at any age of Bartolo Colon, Orel Hershiser, or Gerrit Cole.
In short, the retirement of the seemingly incomparable Nolan Ryan was met with the arrival of a pitcher who matched him in just about every category that was thought untouchable. Here’s the amazing part: Randy Johnson accomplished all this in five fewer seasons than Ryan. He faced 5,508 fewer batters than Ryan and struck out the ones he did face at a higher rate (28.6% to 25.3%). If Johnson were to face an equal number of batters, it is conceivable that he would have eclipsed Ryan’s career strikeout record by more than 700 K’s.
Every Giant in Baseball Lore Needs an Iconic Moment
Ask enough people what makes Ryan one of the most talked about pitchers of all time and a good number will point to a single moment that had no outcome on the box score. The image of Ryan putting Robin Ventura in a headlock is generally a favorite among the pitcher’s fans and used as some sort of expression of the intangibles of competitive drive and a bit of calculated mayhem that defined Ryan’s career.
Randy Johnson inadvertantly got his own moment in the game’s history when he destroyed a passing dove with a fastball. The incident took place in a March 2001 Spring Training game between Johnson’s Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants. Johnson unleashed a pitch only to have a passing bird fly between his arm and the catcher’s outstretched mitt. The ball passed through the bird and continued back to the screen behind the catcher. A briefly shaken catcher Rod Barajas looks around for the ball and the right-handed Calvin Murray simply steps back from the batters box to contemplate what would have happened if the pitch had gone through him instead.
The moment was captured perfectly in a 2021 baseball card issue from Topps. The company produced the card shown above as part of its Project 70 collection, a set in which each of the 935 cards is the work of one of a stable of 51 different artists. Jonas Never designed the card to resemble the box art of Nintendo’s classic NES game Duck Hunt.
The ‘sploding bird prompted Johnson to commission a little artwork of his own. His eponymous photography projects bear a logo with a bird lying on its back.
1993 Finest Refractor #154
One of the reasons why I collect 1993 Finest Refractor baseball cards is the period in which it is set. 1993 marked a point where a significant cohort of veterans were retiring and the next generation was rising to take their place. Ryan appears in his final season as one of the key cards in the set while Johnson is just getting started. This card finishes the Mariners team set for my collection and was one of those cards in the set that doesn’t stay listed for sale very long.
Both pictures show Johnson in one of those dark Seattle uniforms that show off color so well as a refractor. The lack of long sleeve undershirt on the front indicates this image was taken at a different time than the one appearing on the back. Johnson is shown having just launched a pitch from the mound. The ball is nowhere to be seen in the photo, having already passed through the camera lens’ field of vision.