As affable as he is in interviews, Nolan Ryan is neither subdued nor calm; he’s a relentless competitor who was an ornery and conservative cuss as a pitcher and has transferred that competitiveness to the front office while still putting forth that veneer of someone you’d like to have a beer with…provided you don’t mess with him.
In contrast to the way the Yankees babied their young pitchers to middling/poor results (and presumably will continue to do so with Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances), the Rangers pushed their starters to go deeper into games as they did during Ryan’s day. It’s not as extreme as Ryan having thrown 200 pitches in a start, but they’re not automatically removed when they reach an arbitrary number of pitches. And if one happens to get hurt, the coaches can explain to Ryan exactly what happened and why and not worry about being fired to keep up appearances to the general public.
This belief—that pitchers can and should be made to do more than was considered “optimal”—is permeating the organization; the Rangers haven’t had the spate of arm injuries other clubs have had. Any perceived connection would have to be studied in depth, but they’re doing something different because Ryan has allowed them to do something different.
Ryan has the cachet to tell his baseball people to loosen up on the pitch counts; his baseball people are stat savvy and scouting-oriented to find players who are either going to make it in Texas as Rangers or be trade bait. Stats have met old-school. Ryan is in a unique position that Billy Beane—née “genius” in name and creative non-fiction only—isn’t. Ryan can say, “I’ve been here before so don’t try that big league stuff on me”, but can add the addendum that he was actually good at it, unlike Beane. In fact, Ryan was one of the best and most durable pitchers ever.
Ryan’s station as president of the club lays the blame or credit at his desk if it doesn’t work or if one of the pitchers get hurt. Part of the reason teams like the Nationals are so protective of Stephen Strasburg isn’t due to any random, layman silliness like “The Verducci Effect” by that noted pitching expert Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, but because they don’t want to be held responsible if and when an injury does occur due to deviating from the preconceived “norms”.
This is why you’re likely to see Neftali Feliz, currently one of the game’s best closers, shifted into the starting rotation once and for all in 2012 as they sign or trade for a relatively inexpensive and established closer along the lines of Heath Bell or take a chance on Francisco Rodriguez. They’ll do it because they can do it and because it makes sense to have an arm like Feliz starting rather than relieving; and now, after closing in big games, he won’t have the “deer in the headlights” gaze when he runs into trouble in the third inning of a game in June.
Ryan was an innovator with his proper use of mechanics; as one of the first pitchers to integrate weight training into his regimen; and was borderline vicious on the mound. If the man running the team understands what’s being done and will comprehend why an injury occurs, there won’t be any fear of trying something different as if some lower level staffer’s job is on the line.
The Red Sox circumstances are different from the Yankees, but would’ve been handled by Ryan as well. Their pitchers don’t generally suffer arm injuries if they follow the Red Sox prescriptions, but their off-field behavior was tolerated by the club and led to the rampant dysfunction and infighting that are now coming out as part of the collapse that prevented them from making the playoffs.
In the waning years of his career, Ryan himself had a special arrangement with the Rangers that he wouldn’t accompany the club on certain road trips when he wasn’t pitching; this led to friction between manager Bobby Valentine and other old-school veterans like Goose Gossage who chafed at the preferential treatment and said so. Pitchers like Steve Carlton were known to go into the clubhouse and sleep on days they weren’t pitching. Had the Red Sox been doing “man stuff” like messing around with groupies or simply napping, no one would’ve complained; instead, there was a shadow government feel to the starting rotation and a sense they could do things that could be deemed as blatantly disrespectful to the organization and tore at the fabric of clubhouse harmony by drinking beer, playing video games and eating fried chicken.
One would be a “boys will be boys” activity of chasing girls and keeping that within the realm of the man’s world of baseball clubhouses; the other is simply childish and destructive. Ryan would absolutely have put a stop to that nonsense, presumably by removing the video game apparatus and beer from the clubhouse. The disconnect between on-field management and ownership was as responsible for the Red Sox disaster and any individual.
When he was pitching, Ryan was the intimidator who stalked the mound and would throw at anyone for impropriety. (Bunting on Ryan and making him run were ill-advised.) That has incorporated itself into the way he’s run the Rangers.
There’s a continuity with the Rangers because of Ryan and they’re able to withstand such controversies off the field as Josh Hamilton falling off the wagon and drinking before the 2009 season and manager Ron Washington having failed a drug test in 2009. It may or may not be subservient to authority figures to say, “if Nolan says it’s okay, then it’s okay”, but it’s working. They’ve been aggressive in their trades to beef up the bullpen; they built up the farm system and signed players who fit into what they’ve tried to construct rather than the biggest names out there; and they’re doing it with a $92 million payroll.
They’ve won back-to-back pennants and beaten the Yankees and Red Sox at their own game by using techniques and strategies implemented and allowed by the president and CEO of the club (and also a Hall of Fame pitcher), Nolan Ryan.