Normally it is easy to tell whether a pitcher has had a great season. He has formidable numbers in the popular statistics: won-lost record, E.R.A., shutouts, strikeouts, and so on. Not only is he regarded as one of the toughest pitchers in the league that year, but you can prove it with the numbers.
So what do we do with Nolan Ryan’s perplexing 1987 season with the Houston Astros? Ryan, as a 40-year-old, led the National League with a 2.76 E.R.A., the only starting pitcher in the league under 3. He also led in strikeouts with 270, with only teammate Mike Scott over 200. He gave up fewer hits per nine innings than anyone in the majors, only 6.55. In his 34 starts, he allowed more than three earned runs only three times.
Sounds like a great season, doesn’t it? Only one statistic marred that impression, and unfortunately for Ryan it was the only number that really matters. His won-lost record was a dismal 8-16. By that measure, he had a very poor season. What happened? Was he great or horrible? Let’s take a closer look.
Although Ryan often pitched just well enough to lose, it is fair to pin much of the blame on his teammates. He received paltry offensive support and was frequently betrayed by the Houston bullpen corps. In his 16 losses, he pitched 88 innings and got only 14 runs of support while in the game. Six times the Astros scored no runs for him, and eight times they scored only one run while he was pitching.
Five times in 1987, Ryan left the game with a lead, only to see the bullpen blow the victory for him. After he left games, his teammates scored only 13 runs, while the bullpen allowed 41. He had two other tough no-decisions: in April, he pitched eight shutout innings against the Reds, whose Ted Power shut out the Astros before the Reds won 3-0 in extra innings; in September, he dueled with Ed Whitson of the Padres, each man allowing only one run in nine innings before the Padres won it in the 14th.
After starting the season 2-2, Ryan managed to win only three of his next 22 starts despite carrying a solid 3.07 E.R.A. through that stretch. Instead of going 3-12, he could have gone, at the very least, 10-8, which would’ve given him a 15-12 record for the year. A closer look will reveal just what this four-month nightmare was like for Ryan.
May 6: Ryan trailed 2-1 at Philadelphia before leaving for a pinch-hitter in the 7th inning. The Astros rallied to win, but he did not get the decision.
May 11: Ryan pitched seven innings of 4-hit ball and left with a 5-3 lead. Reliever Larry Andersen promptly gave up four runs and took the 7-6 loss.
May 16: Ryan held the Cubs to two runs in six innings, striking out nine. But he lost 2-1 as Jamie Moyer outpitched him and Ryne Sandberg hit the game-winning home run.
May 22: Ryan dueled Tim Conroy of the Cardinals in a game that was tied 1-1 after six innings. Ryan gave up two runs in the 7th and was relieved, with the bullpen contributing heavily to a 7-5 loss. It was the last of Conroy’s 18 victories in the majors.
May 27: Ryan allowed only two hits in six innings, but left for a pinch-hitter trailing 2-1. The Astros rallied to win 7-2, but he got a no-decision.
June 2: Ryan got knocked out in the 3rd inning at Wrigley Field, allowing five runs. Andre Dawson drove in seven runs as the Cubs won 13-2.
June 7: In one of his best outings of the year, Ryan shut out the Giants for seven innings, striking out 12 and walking nobody. The game was scoreless to the 6th inning, and the Astros won 3-0 as Ryan raised his record to 3-5.
June 12: At Dodger Stadium, it again took the Astros six innings to score a run behind Ryan, who led 1-0 after seven. The Astros got four more runs in the 8th, and Ryan exited after allowing an unearned run. He fanned 11 and didn’t walk anybody for the second start in a row, a rarity for him.
June 17: Ryan began a disastrous eight-game losing streak by losing to the Reds. He gave up three runs in five innings before the bullpen collapsed in a 9-1 drubbing.
June 23: Ryan allowed four runs, three earned, but it didn’t matter as the Astros got only two hits off Ed Whitson of the Padres in a 4-1 defeat.
June 28: Ryan fanned 11 Giants in five innings of work, but took the loss as the Giants broke a 4-4 tie with four runs in the 5th, three on a Harry Spilman home run.
July 3: In the first of two duels with Bruce Ruffin of the Phillies, Ryan held the Phillies to two runs in seven innings, striking out 10. It wasn’t good enough, as Ruffin and Cy Young Award-winner Steve Bedrosian combined to beat the Astros 2-1.
July 8: Ryan gave the Expos only one run in seven innings, but during that time the Astros couldn’t even get a hit off Floyd Youmans. Youmans, who won only 30 games in his major-league career, pitched a one-hitter to beat Ryan 1-0, Ryan’s fifth loss in a row.
July 19: Following the All-Star Game break, Ryan gave up single, a wild pitch, and a walk in the 3rd inning to the Phillies and then left the game. The bullpen did the rest, and the one run charged to Ryan made him a loser again to Bruce Ruffin, 4-1.
July 24: In New York, Ryan was tied 1-1 in the 5th inning when Lenny Dykstra singled in the go-ahead run. That was all it took for Ryan to lose again, as Sid Fernandez won 5-2.
July 29: Ryan allowed only two hits before leaving in the 6th inning, but the Astros committed four errors that led to three unearned runs as he lost in Atlanta 5-3.
August 3: Ryan struck out 12 Giants but left after seven innings with the game tied 3-3. The Astros won 5-3 in thirteen innings, the first of three straight extra-inning no-decisions for him.
August 8: At San Diego, Ryan led 3-0 after six innings and left after allowing a leadoff home run to John Kruk in the 7th. The bullpen gave up the tying runs in the bottom of the 9th and lost the game in the 10th.
August 13: Ryan led 5-3 in San Francisco, but walked the leadoff batter in the bottom of the 7th inning. After a strikeout, manager Hal Lanier replaced Ryan and soon regretted it. An error prolonged the inning, and Kevin Mitchell drilled a three-run home run. The Astros sent the game to extra innings before losing in the 11th.
August 18: Ryan finally broke his losing streak with seven innings of 3-hit shutout ball against the Cardinals. The Astros won 4-0, his first victory since June 12.
August 23: In another heartbreaker, Ryan took a 2-0 lead and a two-hitter to the bottom of the 6th inning at Wrigley Field. After a one-out walk, his first of the game, Lanier removed him. Reliever Rocky Childress allowed a two-run home run to Andre Dawson that cost Ryan his chance at a win.
August 29: Ryan left after six innings at Pittsburgh, trailing 2-0, and didn’t get much help as the Astros lost to Mike Bielecki 8-2, moving his record to 5-14.
At this point, Ryan rallied to win three starts in a row, including a 16-strikeout gem against the Giants. Then came his nine-inning no-decision against Ed Whitson, a game in Atlanta where the bullpen blew a 7-3 for him, and two more losses to end the season. Fittingly, his final start saw him pitch seven strong innings against the Reds, striking out 10, but running into another hot pitcher as Tom Browning beat him 2-1.
So there you have it. In his autobiography, Throwing Heat, Ryan revealed that Astros General Manager had put him on a 115-pitch limit for 1987 after he experienced elbow problems in 1986. He didn’t blame Lanier for following orders and removing him many times when he felt strong and could have kept pitching. “It was the strangest season I’ve ever spent,” Ryan wrote. It’s hard to imagine a pitcher having a stranger one, though in 1909 Walter Johnson had a 13-25 record for the last-place Senators despite a 2.21 E.R.A. But that’s another story.