On the Same Track? Comparing Verlander to the Ryan Express


In the eighth inning of last night’s 5-4 win over the Yankees Justin Verlander gave further evidence to what everyone already knows: He throws hard. Real hard. Eleven pitches over 100 mph in the seventh and eighth innings alone hard. With two outs in the eighth the Tiger ace blistered a 3-2 fastball that Alex Rodriguez fouled back. Rodriguez eventually drew a walk on the next pitch, but the 101 mile-per-hour offering he fouled back prior compelled TBS analyst Ron Darling to compare Verlander to another power flamethrower, former Angel Nolan Ryan.

"“Not since Nolan Ryan have I seen anything like this so late in the game.” –Ron Darling, TBS analyst"

Darling was referring to the increase in velocity as the game wears on that Verlander is able to achieve. Like Ryan, Verlander gets stronger later in the game, utilizing the power and conditioning necessary to hit triple digits on the radar gun in the seventh, eighth and ninth frames. According to ESPN Stats and Information, in the first three innings of last night’s outing Verlander averaged 94.9 mph on his fastball, hitting the century mark three times. The middle innings saw a a steady increase to 96.9 while touching 100 just once.In the seventh and eighth, however, Verlander showed why he is different than any other starter in the game. The big right-hander fired ELEVEN fastballs over 100 mph, averaging 98.9 through his final two innings of work. His 119th and final pitch of the night topped off at 99.

Comparisons to the Ryan Express are nothing new to Verlander. He is primarily a three-pitch artist displaying the same explosion on his fastball, buckle to his power curve and deception to his 89-90 mph changeup as his predecessor in power,  Ryan. Tiger radio analyst Jim Price gave the same comparison after Verlander was drafted second overall in 2004, “When we signed him, Dave Dombrowski asked me who Justin reminded me of,” Price said, recalling a conversation with the Detroit general manager. “I said Nolan Ryan because of his power fastball and power curve.” And earlier today ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted, “A talent evaluator on Verlander’s Game 3: ‘I’m guessing that’s what Nolan Ryan looked like on his best days.'”

Seven years into his professional career the comparisons to Ryan continue to follow Verlander. The physical makeup is there and the anecdotal evidence continues to mount.  Let’s take a closer look to see how the numbers match up for the pair of fireballers:

Using baseball-reference.com, I chose to compare the 25-28 age equivalent seasons for both pitchers. Twenty-five because that was Nolan’s age in his first season with the Angels (making it more appropriate for our Halo blog) and twenty-eight because Verlander reached that age this year. That gives us a four-year span of power-pitching data as both men entered their respective primes. For Ryan I looked at 1972-1975 and 2008-2011 for Verlander. At first glance, two things jump out. First, the counting stats skew in favor of Ryan. His ridiculously record-breaking strike-out year falls into this window (383 in 1973). The years before and after aren’t too bad either (329 in ’72, 367 in ’74). But because pitchers were used differently in this era with four-man rotations and starters going longer into games Nolan accrued some gaudy Games Started and Innings Pitched numbers, giving him more of an opportunity to rack up strikeouts. It should be noted that Tiger manager Jim Leyland is decidedly old-school and allows Verlander to pitch deep into games, but the advent of the five-man rotation puts a cap on the amount of games Verlander starts (roughly 34 per season as opposed to Ryan’s 40). Because of this, comparing the rate stats for each is a more apt comparison. Secondly, both men had what would be considered a “down year” in this time span. For Verlander, the 2008 season saw a drop in his strikeout rate (7.3 SO/9) while his walk rate nearly doubled (3.9 BB/9). His K/BB rate (1.87) was his worst output by far, proving he struggled with his command all season long. This probably was not injury related because he pitched the entire season, so his troubles must have been mechanical. Ryan’s worst season in this stretch came in 1975 where started “only” 28 games and pitched in “only” 198 innings. This 12 game/100 innings drop off his average was due, I’m guessing, to injury. (1975 injury data is hard to come by.) Five pitchers started over thirty games for the Angels in 1975, but if manager Dick Williams was experimenting with a five-man rotation that season, he scratched it the following year. Even amid apparent injury, Ryan finished among the league leaders in strikeouts.In their worst age-equivalent seasons, Ryan (1975) and Verlander (2008) were very similar. Both men had WHIPs over 1.4 and SO/BB rates under 2.0. Ryan’s ERA+ in ’75 was 102, right at league average while Verlander’s 93 in ’08 was worse than the league average. (By comparison Ryan’s best ERA+ in this span was 128 in 1972, or 28 percent better than the league average,that year, while Verlander’s best 170 this 2011 season was 70 percent better than leaue average.) When command disappears for a strikeout pitcher, batters tend to get on base and score runs. For whatever reason both Ryan and Verlander encountered this phenomenon for a full season in their prime.

At their best, both men were slightly different pitchers. Hitters had a difficult time reaching base and their WHIPs bear this out. Ryan’s three best during this span are fairly dominant (1.137, 1.227 and 1.272). Verlander has two that are as good (1.163 and 1.175) and this year’s 0.920 is not only historic, it is downright obscene. Keeping men off base is the primary role of any pitcher and both men do that well. Ryan, however was notorious for walking batters. Not only is he the all-time strikeout leader, he is also the BB king. Every one of his walk ratios during this time were worse than Verlander’s. Our study, however, is about the POWER pitching element and that is where Nolan Ryan shines.  Here is a list of the top strikeout per nine inning rates (SO/9) for the eight years contained in our study:

Ryan          10.6   1973
Ryan          10.4   1972
Verlander  10.1   2009
Ryan            9.9   1974
Verlander   9.0    2011
Verlander   8.8    2010
Ryan           8.5    1975
Verlander   7.3   2008

Upon first glance these numbers seem similar- and they are- but of the four seasons that approach 10 SO/9, Ryan has three of them. Factor an average of 80 extra inning per season over Verlander and you can see how he quickly became the undisputed strike out king. Now lets do the same for hits per nine innings (H/9):

Ryan          5.3   1972
Ryan          6.0   1974
Verlander  6.2   2011
Ryan           6.6   1973
Ryan           6.9   1975
Verlander  7.6   2010
Verlander  8.2   2009
Verlander  8.7   2008

Nolan Ryan may have walked his share of batters, but he simply did not give up hits. Over this four year stretch he threw four no-hitters to Verlander’s one. He gave up 6.6 H/9 for his career, best all-time. His 5.3 H/9 in 1972 is the best ever for that category. The fact that he could maintain this excellence for 27 years is boderline insane.

Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in game. At his current peak, he’s as good as Nolan Ryan. Maybe even a better pitcher. His in-game durability, velocity and stuff remind all that see him of The Ryan Express, and justifiably so. But he’s not a better POWER pitcher. Not yet anyway. Give him 20 more years of data. Then we’ll see.