The Runner Sports

Days Of Dominance, Pt. 2: 1986 Astros Rotation: Nolan Ryan, Bob Knepper

Nolan Ryan was used to being the ace on a pitching staff. But, on the 1986 Houston Astros, who won the National League Western Division that year, he not only wasn’t the ace, he was happy to be a member of a starting rotation that arguably boasted four.

Mike Scott was the stopper, and rounding out that remarkable staff were southpaws Jim Deshaies and Bob Knepper. Like most memorable team moments in baseball (the ’27 Yankees and the ’16 World Champ Cubs, for example), this ’86 Houston rotation, who led the Astros to the NL Championship Series, didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

Part 1 focuses on Mike Scott and Jim Deshaies, and how each came to be an Astro, culminating in a memorable 1986 season.

Part 2 dissects the career arcs of Nolan Ryan and Bob Knepper, and their contributions to the ’86 Astros:

Train Kept-a Rollin’

Nolan Ryan had already built a Hall of Fame resumé by the time he joined his third team, signing a 4-year, $4.5 million deal with Houston after the 1979 season, becoming the sport’s first million-dollar man, courtesy of GM Tal Smith, or rather, then-owner John McMullen, who ignored Smith’s reticence on this (Houston Press, July 10, 2015).

As described by biographer Kenny Hand, “McMullen didn’t know an RBI from a UFO when he bought the Astros in 1979, but he knew enough to know he wanted Nolan Ryan. At any price.” (Kenny Hand, Bill Shaikin, et al, Nolan Ryan: The Authorized Pictorial History, 1991)

Remarkably, and perhaps, fittingly, Ryan was the first free agent signing, ever, in the 17-year-old franchise’s history.

“I was always wanting to be an Astro and play in Houston, so when I got the opportunity, it was really special,” Ryan, 70, told the press recently. “I was able to live at home.”

In the August 1980 issue of Texas Monthly, Max Apple characterized the Ryan signing this way: “When Ryan rubs the shine off a new ball, those expensive fingers touching the dirt will be a source of continual wonder. Marketing this hero will be no problem.

“He may not win any pennants, but he’s the best investment in the history of the Dome. Not since 1965, when the Dome was new, have the Astros made big national sports news. The $1 million to Nolan Ryan was a stroke of genius. Just $600,000 or $700,000 might have been enough to sign him, but the extra money crossed all boundaries of prudence. It showed that the Astros, those foundlings of the credit corporations, can be as extravagant as the city they represent.”

Further, Apple offered this oddly accurate observation: “To the fans, Ryan’s vulnerability is his greatest strength. Being worth a million dollars is awesome. It will weigh down his arm; he will stumble, lose control, talk about retirement, sit for hours in the whirlpool, and brood in the midst of his family. And the fans will love every second of it.”

Ryan, though, was a native of the Houston area, having grown up in Alvin, just 26 miles south of the Astrodome.

Ryan signed up for Alvin Little League Baseball at the age of nine, and made their All-Star team when he was 11 and 12. Ryan pitched at Alvin High School for his entire high school career. He held the school’s single-game strikeout record (whiffing 21 in a nine-inning game as a junior) until eight years ago. The next year, he carried the Yellowjackets to the 3A championship game.

So, the signing of the Ryan Express energized the Astros’ fan base, while concurrently improving the Astros’ chances of making the playoffs in 1980…which they did.

Ryan had been the American League leader in strikeouts seven out of the previous eight seasons he was with the California Angels (1972-’79). In his six seasons with Houston, prior to the 1986 season, he ranked no lower than fifth in Ks in any given National League season, ranking 2nd with 200 in 1980.

In joining Mike Scott, Jim Deshaies, and Bob Knepper as the Astros’ 1986 starting rotation, Ryan contributed a 12-8 record, a 3.34 ERA, and a measly .188 BAA in 178 innings. So dominating was Mike Scott’s 1986, Ryan’s K/9 was 9.81, just a tick lower than Scott’s even 10. Ryan ended up ranking 6th in the NL in strikeouts, that year, with 194.

In the two games Ryan pitched against his former team in the ’86 NLCS, he logged 14 innings, with a 3.86 ERA, having suffered the loss in Game 2 (5-1, Mets), but struck out a series total of 17, for a just under 11 K/9: 10.93 for the series.

In Game 5, Nolan was pure Ryan, but was out-dueled by the youngster, Dwight Gooden, who even outlasted Ryan, in pitching 10 innings to the legend’s nine! Ryan struck out 12, and allowed just two hits and one run through his nine innings, but Gooden matched him pitch for pitch, as the game moved into the 10th, tied at one. New York prevailed, after 12, 2-1.

Napa Valley Knepper

While Robert Wesley Knepper was born in Akron, Ohio, his family moved to the Napa Valley when he was nine. Knepper attended (and played both baseball and football at) Calistoga High School in Calistoga, California, a town of 5,000, about 75 miles north of the Bay Area. The San Francisco Giants, a team the young Knepper must have seen a few times, sent no fewer than four scouts to observe the lefty’s high school games at various times.

Once, Hall of Fame southpaw Carl Hubbell was present when Knepper struck out 22 opponents in a nine-inning road game.

He was drafted by the Giants in the 2nd round of the 1972 draft (43rd overall), and made his MLB debut September 10, 1976, after three years toiling in the Giants’ farm system.

Knepper, 6’2″, 200 lbs, spent five years with the Giants, the last four (1977-’80) as a major contributor to San Francisco’s starting rotation. His 2.63 ERA in 1978 ranked 4th in the National League, while his 17 wins ranked 7th.

Winning records for two years, followed by two losing seasons, and a near 2-run increase in his ERA in 1979 and ’80, led to his being sent to Houston on December 8, 1980 (on the day, as it happens, of John Lennon’s assassination).

Knepper (along with OF prospect Chris Bourjos, who never played for Houston as a major leaguer) was traded to the Astros for popular and productive third baseman Enos Cabell (who would later return to Houston in 1984).

David E. Skelton (of SABR.org) offers this account of both teams’ universes at the time of the trade: “Houston’s success was built upon its trademark pitching, but the staff lacked a left-handed presence. The Astros were unconcerned about Knepper’s prior struggles: ‘Our scouting reports on Knepper were excellent,’ said Houston GM Al Rosen.

“‘Some of our people felt he may have had a [correctable] problem with his delivery.’ Frank Robinson, who was hired as the Giants’ skipper after the trade, stated he would not have sanctioned moving the lefty, whatsoever. Knepper welcomed the move. He was pleased to join a more positive and, as he perceived, strongly spiritual clubhouse.”

Five years of stalwart starting marked Knepper as a Houston mainstay, on rotations that also featured, for most years leading to ’86, Vern Ruhle, Don Sutton, and Joe Niekro.

Sutton was signed by Houston as a free agent just four days before the Astros acquired Knepper from the Giants (12/4/80), but was traded to Milwaukee in August 1982.

Houston received 23-year-old outfielder Kevin Bass, who cemented his career as a fan favorite and perennially productive member of the lineup for over seven years, cresting with his All-Star Team selection in 1986, his .311 BA and 20 homers a key reason for that year’s playoff run. The All-Star Game was held, that year, in the Astrodome. Bass was joined, on the NL roster, by reliever Dave Smith, 1B Glenn Davis, and Mike Scott.

Niekro’s 1985 numbers (9-12, 3.72 ERA) slipped from his ’84 16-12 and 3.04, so he was shipped off to New York for the Yankees’ Jim Deshaies (and two prospects who never saw big league time).

Knepper, in 1986, contributed 17 wins to the team, including five shutouts. His 3.14 ERA ranked 10th in the NL.

Hal Lanier was beginning his first year with the team, his rookie year as a big league manager, promising a more aggressive Astro attack. The architect of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the mid-’70s, Dick Wagner was brought in as GM. So, while there was optimism in the 1986 Houston camp, years of underachievement provided a palpable undercurrent of cynicism.

A handful of early days off gave Lanier the confidence to boldly proceed with a three-man rotation of Scott, Ryan, and Knepper, as the Astros bolted out of the gate into first place, taking seven of the eight on their initial road trip.

Knepper had actually won nine games by the end of May. Lanier’s plan was to gradually work the young Deshaies into the rotation.

The Dodgers’ skipper, Tommy Lasorda, was less than impressed by Houston’s hot early start, and proclaimed the Astros were merely “renting” first place. Squatters the ‘Stros may have been, but L.A. joined the rest of the Western Division as being completely unable to evict the Dome dwellers from the top spot, as their 96 wins were more than enough to pit them against the formidable 108-54 season record of the Metropolitans.

After a 7-of-8 September start, Astro fans’ cloak of disbelief began to lift. Deshaies’ 4-0 mastery of Lasorda’s flagging Dodgers on September 23 included a modern major league record: Deshaies struck out the first eight batters he faced, a delicious revenge for the fans insulted by Lasorda’s previous “rental” assertion.

Bob Knepper pitched NLCS Games 3 and 6, the latter turning into the classic 16-inning Mets clincher, as Knepper did his part, dominating for eight innings. His series ERA was 3.52, and he logged no decisions in his 15.1 innings.

 

Nolan Ryan is the only player to have his jersey number retired by three teams. He had his Houston jersey number (34) retired in 1996, the same year the Texas Rangers retired his number. The California Angels were the first team to retire his number, doing so four years earlier.

Current Astros Rotation News: “Astros Have Charlie Morton, and Don’t Need Quintana,” Said No One Ever. ‘Til Now.

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

At TRS, you'll get full Astros coverage, minor league peeks, player profiles, interviews, MLB historical perspective, and maybe a little rock'n'roll!
Brad Kyle