We struck recently (just a glancing blow, fortunately) by an off-hand remark about Nolan Ryan. The utterer attributed it to Bill James, though we’ve not had time to verify the reference. (No matter: despite what might otherwise seem to be the case, there’s no intent in this essay to “bash” anyone…just making that clear in case someone erstwhile Jack Kruschen-type alerts Rob Neyer to the goings-on here.)
That remark, boiled down to its most prosaic formulation, suggested that when Ryan had his control he was unbeatable, and when he didn’t he wasn’t. Sounds like good advice (but that didn’t stop Linda Ronstadt from loving some sweet-talking heartbreaker in a what seemed like an endless series of lachrymose ballads…) as well as a large dollop of early sabermetric common sense.
There were numbers in the formulation that went something like this: 5+ walks in a game, struggle; 3 or less walks, unbeatable. But as with many of the binary formulations that informed early efforts (and that are still, how shall we say…“psychologically influential” even today) to deconstruct baseball statistics, this one doesn’t really stand up to a full sniff test.
But it does lead us into some interesting areas that aren’t quite as settled as the heterodox orthodoxy would have us believe. (Cue up the music, folks…it’s QMAX time again!)
It turns out that when we break out Ryan’s career starts (all 773 of them, available one by one at Forman et fil), the idea that he was unbeatable when he had better control is roughly three-fourths true.
...It’s amazing to find out that he had 232 starts in which he walked five or more batters; that he had only 27 starts (just 3%) where he didn’t walk anyone. And it’s very interesting to note that his ERA in games where he walked five batters isn’t all that different from his ERA in games where he walked only three.
In fact, it’s downright weird to discover that Ryan’s ERA in games where he walked five or more batters is lower than it is in games where he walks three or four batters.