Half an hour to first pitch at the Ballpark in Arlington, and here is Nolan Ryan, the most irascible and feared pitcher in Rangers history, in a suit and tie, sitting at a table in the press box dining room. Now the team president and the leader of a group that is close to buying the franchise, Ryan—63, silver-haired, thicker than he was as a player—doesn't look quite right as a buttoned-up executive, nor does he look particularly comfortable dressed up as one. He tugs his sleeves, adjusts his pant leg and pulls on his tie before he leans in and tells you everything that's wrong with pitchers today.
"For one thing, they don't learn to think for themselves anymore," he growls. "Coaches started calling all the pitches in high schools and colleges. How do they know, sitting on the bench, what the guy on the mound has confidence in? That's like going out there and telling the pitcher, 'Don't hang this curveball.' I call it robot baseball, and it drives me crazy."
Ryan leans back in his seat and stretches out his right leg above the floor, as if his body is still attuned to the rhythms of game day and it's nearing time for him to take the mound. But it's been 17 years since he retired, at age 46. Since then the game has seen many changes that stick in his craw. "Pitchers have been pampered," he says. "I'd go to spring training, and all they'd do was throw on the side. Now how in the world do you learn how a hitter's going to react to your pitches without a hitter in there? I always thought that was crazy." He rattles a plastic cup full of ice and returns to his sermon. "Our expectations of them have been lowered. There's no reason why kids today can't pitch as many innings as people did in my era. Today a quality start is six innings. What's quality about that?"
Nolan Ryan—first-ballot Hall of Famer and the alltime strikeout leader, winner of 324 games and author of a record seven no-hitters—is on a crusade, one that began when he took over the Rangers two years ago. The crusade is about turning a losing franchise into a winner, but it is also about taking the game back. It's about unshackling the modern-day pitcher and turning the clock back to the days before pitch counts and Pitcher Abuse Points and the general coddling of hurlers, who are working less yet being paid more than ever before.
Under the Ryan regime the Rangers are pushing their pitchers to throw deeper into games, to extend their arms further, to rethink the physical limits that they've been told over and over they have. Says Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, "This generation of players has become a creature of the pitch count. Their ceiling has been lowered. It's up to us to jack it back up."
Last season, after allowing the most runs in the American League in 2008, Texas allowed the fourth fewest in the league and had its lowest team ERA (4.38) since the team relocated in 1994 to the launching pad that is the Ballpark. The renaissance has continued this season: The starting staff—anchored by a journeyman who spent the last two seasons pitching for the Hiroshima Carp of Japan's Central League (righthander Colby Lewis) and a former reliever with six career starts entering this season (lefthander C.J. Wilson)—was, at week's end, fifth in the league in starters' ERA (4.00) and fifth in strikeouts. The Rangers were 20--18 and held a two-game lead over the second-place A's in the AL West. "Before it was try to put 10 runs on the board every game and hope for a win," says righthander Scott Feldman, another former reliever, who won 17 games last season, his fifth with Texas and second as a starter. "I think we're showing there can be another way to win games."
Rangers starters saw their innings per start rise from a league-low 5.4 in 2008 to 5.9 last season, tied for fourth in the AL. This year—with a rotation of Lewis, Wilson, Feldman, righthander Rich Harden, lefty Matt Harrison and, since his callup from the minors on May 12, lefthander Derek Holland—the Rangers were getting an average of 5.9 innings per start at week's end, and only the Red Sox' starters (104.8) had logged more pitches per game than the Rangers' (103.3). Texas hurlers have embraced Ryan's challenge to raise their expectations and take ownership over their starts. And yet Ryan still hears from critics who say the Rangers are pushing pitchers too far, that today's game has changed too much—the lineups are deeper, the ballparks and the strike zone smaller—for hurlers to be handled the way they were in Ryan's era. "You're always going to have people against you, and anytime you do something different, you're going to be criticized," says Ryan. "I know there are people out there waiting for one of our guys to come down with an arm injury and throw everything back at our face. But I know what we're doing here is the right thing."
Here's how far the ceiling has been lowered: In 2000 a manager allowed a pitcher to throw 120 pitches or more in a regular-season game 466 times. In 2004 that number was 186. Last season it was 92. Sometime in the last decade managers became programmed to pull their pitchers after they reached the 100-pitch limit. But why? In 2000 Baseball Prospectus authors Keith Woolner and Rany Jazayerli released what was, in sabermetric circles, a groundbreaking study. It analyzed Pitcher Abuse Points (which scores a pitcher's health risk based on his pitch counts) and concluded that "repeated outings that go beyond 100 pitches can, over time, cause the kind of chronic overuse injury which may render the pitcher incapacitated or ineffective." But there is far from a consensus on the topic. In the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, published in 2004, sabermetric guru Bill James argues, "Backing away from the pitcher's limits too far doesn't make a pitcher less vulnerable; it makes him more vulnerable. And pushing the envelope, while it may lead to a catastrophic event, is more likely to enhance the pitcher's durability than to destroy it."
Last year the Giants led the majors with 11 complete games. In his career Ryan surpassed that total by himself seven times. Ryan first heard of pitch counts in the late 1980s, around the time Stats Inc. began counting pitches and a few years before newspapers regularly published the totals in box scores. "I was put on a pitch count with the Astros when I had an arm problem in ['87]—and I hated it," Ryan says. "I'd get to that pitch count, they'd take me out with guys on base, but in my mind I knew I could get this out."
Ryan found a kindred spirit in Maddux, who pitched for 15 seasons before retiring in 2000. Ryan got to know Maddux that year, when Maddux took a job as pitching coach for the Round Rock (Texas) Express, a Triple A team owned by the Hall of Famer. Ryan wooed Maddux from the Brewers after the '08 season, and on the first day of spring training last year Maddux stood in front of his pitchers and said, "Pitch counts are limits. You have no limits." Contrary to some reports the Rangers aren't totally doing away with pitch counts, which they still have in place in the minor leagues (though with more liberal limits than most other organizations have). The Rangers instead believe that not all 100-pitch games are created equal. Some are more stressful on the arm than others, and if a pitcher is cruising late in a game, there's no reason to give him the hook. "What we're trying to get rid of is that thing in pitchers' heads of how many pitches they have," says Maddux. "I'd be out there asking how they feel, and they'd say, 'Well, how many pitches do I have?' And I'd say, 'Doesn't matter—how do you feel?'"