The talk of greatest Astros pitcher ever was part of the discussion when Roy Oswalt was traded last week. And it seemed that most of the Houston media were in agreement that Oswalt was, indeed, the greatest pitcher in Astros history. But as much of a Roy Oswalt fan as I am, and as much as I've supported him this season while others have piled on and called him a selfish diva, I've got to disagree with that "Greatest Ever" label.
As many of the others noted, it's hard to compare eras when it comes to these greatest-ever labels. A look at the stats just doesn't get the job done because the stats themselves don't take into account injuries, the team itself, the ballpark, or many, many other factors. If wins was the deciding number, then Joe Niekro would be the greatest pitcher in team history because, best efforts aside, Roy Oswalt finished one win short of the record set by Niekro.
Of course, part of the problem when it comes to discussing Astros history is that too many of the people talking about Astros history are people who didn't discover the Astros until they moved into Minute Maid Park. But a review of the history of the team would make it clear that Oswalt, though one of the greatest pitchers in team history, is not the greatest pitcher in team history.
The commentators are right, in some ways, in that it's unfair to compare eras. The Astrodome was not an offensive-oriented ballpark like Minute Maid Park, so for many pitchers, the numbers will be better. But most of the great pitchers who pitched for the Astros in the Dome pitched for teams best known for wearing some of the ugliest uniforms in baseball history than they were for their competence as players.
Take team icon Larry Dierker. Dierker played 14 seasons for the Astros, and actually pitched for the team when they were still just the Colt .45s and played at Colt Stadium. These Astros teams were rarely in contention past April, and though the Dome was a pitcher's park that probably helped Dierker, it also hurt him as the team behind him made the Astros offense this season look competent.
Before Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, the biggest name and greatest player ever associated with the Astros was Nolan Ryan. He pitched in the Dome for nine seasons, and the 1980, 1981, and 1986 teams were all playoff teams. Yet for all of the discussion about Oswalt's undeserved losing record this season, it's often forgotten that Ryan's 2.76 ERA led the NL in 1987 despite his 8-16 record brought about by no run support whatsoever.
And it should be remembered that Oswalt has pitched in an era where the starter is expected to go just six innings and where lots and lots of dollars are spent on bullpen arms expected to pitch the seventh and eighth innings while closing out the win the ninth. Ryan and Dierker played in an age when they were expected to go nine innings and where they had to fight through tiredness and exhaustion to nail down their own wins.
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Oswalt completed 19 games in the 10 seasons he spent with the Astros. Most of that time, he had Billy Wagner or Brad Lidge or Matt Lindstrom coming in to close out his wins after Octavio Dotel or Brandon Lyon or Scott Elarton had worked a few innings to get to the closer. Ryan had Dave Smith closing his games, and Smith was a very good reliever, but Ryan was expected to do most of the work on his own, and in his 10 years in Houston, he pitched 38 complete games. Dierker was in the pre-closer era, and even if he would have had a closer, the Astros were so damn bad they would have just blown the game, so in 13 years, he threw 106 complete games.
So it's not fair to compare eras, but it needs to be noted that Ryan and Dierker pitched without pitch counts, before the stat known as the quality start, and before the advent of the guy paid millions of dollars to get just three outs a game in the ninth inning.
But the actual greatest Astro pitcher of all time is, without a doubt, J.R. Richard. Richard was one of the dominant pitchers of the 1970s, and before nearly dying from a stroke in midseason in 1980, his record was 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA. He was 107-71 for his career, striking out 1,493 batters in 10 seasons, including 303 in 1978 and 313 in 1979. He threw 76 complete games, and at the time of his stroke, before he nearly died trying to prove to Tal Smith that he was not faking an injury, Richard was only getting better -- Ryan was only the third starter on that 1980 Astros team, and he couldn't touch Richard. Nobody could touch Richard, he was that good.
Make no doubt, Roy Oswalt was one of the greatest pitchers in Astros history. But he wasn't the greatest. And though the Astros continue to try and erase memories of J.R. Richard from all existence, he was, to anyone who got to watch him pitch, the best, most dominating, greatest pitcher in Astros history.