No One Catches the Ryan Express

This is a little post that I do maybe every ten years or so. The purpose is to point out that nobody – ever – is going to throw as many strikeouts as Nolan Ryan.

It’s the most unbreakable modern-day record in sports. (Nobody is ever going to win more games than Cy Young, but that was a different game in a different time.) Somebody eventually is going to hit in 57 straight games. Somebody is going to break Hack Wilson’s RBI record. Somebody is going to break Hank Aaron’s home run record. (Yeah, yeah, yeah.) But no one is going to catch the Ryan Express.

The way you figure it out is this. Take all the active pitchers with a minimum number of strikeouts. Project the rest of their career and determine how long they would have to pitch in order to catch Nolan Ryan. Because, you see, you can beat the Ryan record of 5714 strikeouts; you just have to keep pitching for as long as he did, as effectively as he did, for 27 years, in his age-46 season.

Methodology: The following table has the active strikeout leaders. I’ve calculated their average strikeouts per year, and assumed that they can keep throwing at that level indefinitely (which is not the way to bet) and calculated just how old they would be when they equaled Nolan Ryan.

Player SeasonsAgeStrikeoutsAverage strikeouts per yearStrikeouts behind RyanYears to RyanAge to Ryan
Clayton Kershaw 13322526194.3318816.448.4
Max Scherzer 13352784214.2293013.748.7
Chris Sale 10312007200.7370718.549.5
Justin Verlander 16373013188.3270114.351.3
Felix Hernandez 15342524168.3319019.053.0
Gerrit Cole 8291430178.8428424.053.0
Jacob deGrom 7321359194.1435522.454.4
Cole Hamels 15362560170.7315418.554.5
Zack Greinke 17362689158.2302519.155.1
Madison Bumgarner 12301824152.0389025.655.6
David Price 12341981165.1373322.656.6
Jon Lester 15362397159.8331720.856.8
Chris Archer 8311349168.6436525.956.9
Stephen Strasburg 11311697154.3401726.057.0
Yu Darvish 8331392174.0432224.857.8
Aaron Nola 627922153.7479231.258.2
Noah Syndergaard 527775155.0493931.958.9
Robbie Ray 7281042148.9467231.459.4
Trevor Bauer 9291279142.1443531.260.2
Patrick Corbin 8301195149.4451930.360.3
Lance Lynn 9331415157.2429927.360.3
Gio Gonzalez 13341860143.1385426.960.9
Jose Quintana 9311310145.6440430.361.3
Eduardo Rodriguez 527707141.4500735.462.4
Rick Porcello 12311561130.1415331.962.9
Corey Kluber 10341462146.2425229.163.1
Masahiro Tanaka 731991141.6472333.464.4
Sonny Gray 8301066133.3464834.964.9

I left off all the active pitchers who would have had to pitch past their 65-year-old retirement age. As funny as it might be to see Dallas Keuchel pitch until he’s 70 to try and catch Ryan, it’s not going to happen.

So what does this tell us? Is there a chance for the people at the top of the list? It certainly looks possible. Could Clayton Kershaw pitch until he’s 48? He might not want to, but he could try if he wanted to. A 48-year-old Clayton Kershaw pitching in a Rangers uniform is not, shall we say, unthinkable.

But here’s another way to think about it; Clayton Kershaw has been a strikeout machine for his entire career, has pitched at a Hall of Fame level, and he isn’t even halfway to Nolan Ryan’s record. Verlander is only barely halfway to Ryan and it took two unbelievable strikeout seasons in 2018 and 2019 to get there. He’s not going to keep pitching until he’s over fifty, he’s just not.

Of the people on this list, if I had to guess if any of them would even get close, I might pick Chris Sale. Maybe. He can pitch 300 strikeouts a year, if he can keep it up for ten years, coming back from Tommy John, I might say maybe. But I’m not seeing it.