I recently posed a question to six players, three coaches and a play-by-play broadcaster. It was a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Given the subjectivity involved, it may not even have a right answer.
The question was phrased exactly that way. It was up to the people responding to interpret the meaning of “better” and to elaborate accordingly. They were asked face-to-face, with no opportunity to reference statistical data on their phones or on their laptops. Their responses — listed below in alphabetical order — were both interesting and varied.
Mike Carp, Boston Red Sox outfielder: “The better pitcher was Pedro. As far as being a workhorse, and pure dominant stuff, you’d have to go with Nolan Ryan. I mean, 5,000-plus Ks and seven no-hitters speak for themselves. Even so, if I had to pick one, I’d have to go for Pedro. I think he was bigger. He had the World Series and playoffs.”
Rene Lachemann, Colorado Rockies first base coach: “I managed and coached against both of them, and they were both outstanding. They were different pitchers. Nolan Ryan was still throwing 95 mph when he was 40 years old. Pedro Martinez was outstanding, also, but Nolan Ryan had some special things about him.
“I think the biggest difference is that when Pedro went out there, you didn’t always get the feeling he had a chance to throw a no-hitter. Every time Ryan went out there, you thought there was a chance he might throw one. I was a bat boy for the Dodgers, and it was like that every time Sandy Koufax pitched; you thought he might throw a no-hitter. To me, Koufax the best there ever was. But if I had to pick between Pedro Martinez and Nolan Ryan, I’d take Nolan Ryan.”
Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox infielder: “How many no-hitters has Pedro thrown? Nolan Ryan has seven. But from everyone I’ve talked to, Pedro was the best, the smartest and he had unbelievable stuff. It’s hard, because Nolan had seven no-hitters, but I’d have to lean toward Pedro.”
Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins pitcher: “I’d go with Pedro. The more I look at it, it’s not even close. Pedro’s peak was significantly higher, putting up his best season in one of the best offensive environments in baseball history. The only argument to be made for Nolan Ryan is that of longevity; he was a really good pitcher for a really long time — however, pitching in the ’70s and ’80s was not like pitching from 1995 to 2005.
“Ryan ended up throwing nearly twice as many innings as Pedro, but my opinion is that Pedro was significantly more dominant during a time when pitching was much more difficult. For me, that outweighs the bulk Nolan Ryan has on Pedro Martinez.”
Luke Scott, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder: “That’s a tough one. Pedro Martinez, in his prime, was probably a little tougher because of his off-speed. Pedro threw 98 mph and Nolan Ryan threw 102. Both of them were very tough to hit, but Pedro would have an edge because of his changeup — he had a Bugs Bunny changeup — and his slider. He used those to keep people off his fastball. Nolan Ryan just overpowered people; it was, `Here it comes.’ But Pedro could overpower you, too.”
Matt Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder: “I didn’t face either one, but if I’m going Game 7 and have to pick one of those guys… man, that’s tough. I’m going with Nolan Ryan, I guess. People knew what he was throwing — he was coming at them with a fastball — and they still couldn’t hit it. I’ll take Ryan, but you couldn’t go wrong with either one.”
Ken Korach, Oakland A’s broadcaster: “We’re talking about completely different types of pitchers. Pedro’s career was much shorter, and he didn’t win nearly as many games, but I think he’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer. He was dominant in his era — a time when there was a huge increase in offensive numbers. Ryan won more games and had more strikeouts, and he had the no-hitters. But Pedro was sensational and I loved watching him pitch. I can’t really go with one or the other. I can tell you that Sandy Koufax was the greatest pitcher I ever saw.”
Dave Martinez, Tampa Bay Rays bench coach: “I faced Nolan when he was at the tail end, and he was still really good. I saw Pedro for a lot of years and he was unbelievable — and it wasn’t a comfortable at bat. But honestly, it would be hard to take one over the other. Thinking about all the at bats I had against each of them… they were just tough, tough at bats. They both threw in the mid-90s and they both had movement on their fastballs. Nolan Ryan, on occasion, would snap a curveball about as good as anybody. But again, I can’t pick. They were both too good.”
Mark Reynolds, Cleveland Indians infielder: “I’m biased, because Nolan Ryan was my favorite player growing up. I actually faced Pedro at the tail end of his career, when he was with the Phillies. I also remember watching him in the All Star Game, punching out all those guys. But with Ryan… how can you argue against seven no-nos? That’s unbelievable. They were both great, but if I had to pick one, I’d pick Nolan.”
Dave Trembley, Houston Astros third base coach: “As a pitcher, I’d say Pedro Martinez. He had better command. Guys who ‘pitch’ have better command and control, the ability to throw something off-speed when they’re even or behind in the count. Nolan Ryan is probably the epitome of what a power pitcher is — Bob Feller and those kind of guys. I’d have to go with Pedro.”
Pedro: Five votes (Carp, Middlebrooks, Perkins, Scott, Trembley)
Ryan: Three votes (Joyce, Lachemann, Reynolds)
Neutral: Two votes (Korach, Martinez)
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.