When Nolan reached the majors as a 19-year-old fireballer in 1967, he went 14-8 with a 2.58 ERA (fourth in the NL) and 206 strikeouts (also fourth) and led the league in strikeouts per nine innings (8.2). He finished a distant second to Tom Seaver (16-13, 2.76, 170 strikeouts) in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, and thereafter his achievements were reduced by frequent injuries.
Arm problems reduced Nolan’s playing time in 1968 and 1969, although he didn’t go on the DL. He lost a bit off his fastball but was still one of the league’s hardest throwers, and he began to improve his control. In 1970 he was 18-7 with a 3.26 ERA as the Reds won the NL pennant, and he pitched nine innings of shutout ball in Game One of the LCS against Pittsburgh, winning after the Reds scored three in the top of the tenth inning. He was hit hard by the Orioles in both his World Series starts and took the loss in the opener.
Nolan dropped off to 12-15 in 1971 despite a 3.16 ERA, but won 13 before the 1972 All-Star break to earn a spot on the NL squad. He was suffering neck and shoulder problems by that point, however, skipped the All-Star Game, and finished the year at 15-5, 1.99. He led the NL in winning percentage and was second to Steve Carlton in ERA. In the LCS, against Pittsburgh once again, he had to leave Game Three with a 2-1 lead after six innings when his arm tightened, and the Reds’ bullpen lost the game. In the World Series against Oakland, he lost Game One 3-2 and couldn’t last five innings in Game Six despite a big lead (the Reds won 8-1).
More arm problems forced him to miss most of 1973 and all of the 1974 campaign, but he made yet another comeback in 1975. He had become the consummate control pitcher, leading the NL in fewest walks per nine innings (1.24) while going 15-9 with a 3.16 ERA. The postseason was another disappointment, as he was hit hard by the Red Sox in the WS.
Nolan’s 1976 season was a virtual duplicate of 1975: he went 15-9 again, with a 3.46 ERA, and once again paced the NL in fewest walks per nine innings with an amazing 1.02, just 27 bases on balls in 239 innings. He also won his first WS game, beating the Yankees 7-2 in the finale of a four-game sweep. Arm miseries struck again in 1977, finally ending his career. He finished with a .611 lifetime winning percentage.