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On Friday morning, word leaked out that Kerry Wood would be announcing his retirement but remain available to pitch for the Chicago Cubs during their weekend series against the Chicago White Sox. This announcement brought about reminiscing about Wood’s career and the Chicago Cubs, and much consternation regarding Dusty Baker.
The career of Kerry Wood began before the Cubs drafted him in 1995, with Wood’s senior season at South Grand Prairie High School in Grand Prairie, Texas. Wood posted a sparkling 14-0 record with a 0.77 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 81.1 innings, routinely packing the stands with scouts and baseball fans. Wood verbally committed to nearby Texas Christian University, ratcheting up the stress of baseball teams, warning that he may go to college instead of entering professional baseball.
Viewed as a top prospect, scouts from many of the top teams watched Wood’s final start before the draft. Wood’s ended up throwing 175 pitches in a doubleheader, putting the professional baseball scouting community in an uproar. Wood, his father Garry, and Coach Mike McGilvray defended the pitch count, pointing out that this was not the first time Wood had thrown this much on a single day. The Chicago Cubs drafted Wood with the 4th pick of the 1995 Rule IV draft behind Darin Erstad (#1/California Angels), Ben Davis (#2/San Diego Padres), and Jose Cruz, Jr. (#3/Seattle Mariners). Despite the concerns over being overworked while in high school, the Cubs gave Wood a $1.2 million signing bonus and assigned Wood to the Rookie Level GCL Cubs in the Gulf Coast League. Wood started one game and pitched three innings, walking one and striking out two, while not allowing a hit. After the game, Wood was sent to the Short Season A Williamsport Cubs of the New York Penn League. In Williamsport, Wood struggled, starting two games and allowing eight runs (five earned) over 4.1 innings, walking five, striking out five, and allowing five hits.
After the season, the accolades rolled in. Baseball America ranked Wood the #16 prospect in all of baseball (between Bartolo Colon and Rey Ordonez) and the third-best prospect from the 1995 draft (Erstad #4, Davis #10, with Cruz #23). In 1996, Wood was assigned to the Daytona Cubs of the High A Florida State League, where he dominated his opponents with a 2.91 ERA across 114.1 innings, striking out 136 and allowing only 72 hits. On the flip side, Wood walked 70 batters, hit 14 more, balked 7 times, and threw 10 wild pitches, displaying wavering command that would often plague him throughout his career. Unconcerned, Baseball America rated Wood the #3 prospect in all of baseball after the 1996 season, behind only Andruw Jones and Vladimir Guerrero, and ahead of Matt White and Travis Lee (as a side note the #100 prospect was Livan Hernandez, who would have the most impact on the 1997 season of all of the prospects). Wood was selected as the Chicago Cubs Minor League Player of the Year.
In 1997, Wood began the season with the AA Orlando Rays, putting up a 4.50 ERA across 19 starts and 94 innings, striking out 106 (10.1/9), but walking 79 (7.6/9) while hitting 10 more batters. Despite the mediocre numbers, Wood’s pure stuff impressed sufficiently to earn him a promotion to the AAA Iowa Cubs of the American Association, where he put up a 4.68 ERA across 10 starts and 57.2 innings, striking out 80 (12.5/9), but walking 52 (8.1/9) while hitting six batters. For the season, Wood put up a 4.57 ERA across 29 starts and 151.2 innings, striking out 186 (11.0/9) while walking 131 (7.8/9), while hitting 16 batters, balking six times, and throwing 18 wild pitches. Despite the scary walk numbers and high ERA, Wood’s season earned rave reviews as he struck out 186 batters despite turning 20 during the season. Baseball America ranked Wood the #4 prospect in baseball, behind Ben Grieve, Paul Konerko, and Adrian Beltre.
In 1998, Wood made one start for the Iowa Cubs (now of the Pacific Coast League, as the old AA folded), striking out 11 in five innings, walking two and allowing one hit and zero runs. On April 12, Wood made his debut for the Chicago Cubs, striking out seven, walking three, allowing four hits and four runs over 4.2 innings while picking up the loss. In his second start, Wood again struck out seven, walked three, and allowed four hits, but did not allow a run over five innings, picking up his first major league win. Wood got shelled in his third start, allowing seven runs in 1.2 innings, but bounced back in his fourth start, striking out nine across seven innings while picking up his second win.
Wood’s fifth major league start has become the thing of legends. On May 6, Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros, a team led by Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Moises Alou, while allowing only one hit and hitting one batter (shockingly, it was Craig Biggio). This was only the third time a pitcher had struck out 20 in a single game, after Roger Clemens did it in 1986 and 1996, and the first time a National League pitcher struck out 20, breaking the record of 19 held by Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and David Cone. Wood threw 84 strikes and 38 balls while dominating the Astros (lost in the story is the complete game loss by Shane Reynolds, who struck out an impressive 10). How dominating was Wood that day?
With the sudden attention, Wood pitched well through August. After throwing 133 pitches on August 26 and 116 pitches on August 31, Wood woke up on September 1 with his elbow throbbing. Despite being in the middle of a pennant race, Wood did not pitch again until game 3 of the National League Division Series, going 5 innings and allowing only one run, against the Atlanta Braves.
For the season, Wood put up an impressive 3.40 ERA (129 ERA+) across 26 starts and 166.2 innings, striking out 233 batters. Wood led the Major Leagues by allowing only 6.3 hits per 9 innings pitched and 12.6 strike outs per 9 innings pitched. Wood won the NL Rookie of the Year, beating out Colorado’s Todd Helton 128-119.
During spring training in 1999, Wood was still experiencing a sore elbow and was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament which would require ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery, more commonly known as Tommy John Surgery. After surgery, Wood missed all of 1999 and came back firing in 2000. After three starts in the minor leagues to start the season, Wood made his return to the Cubs on May 2, allowing only one run over six innings against the Houston Astros. Often pitching on extra rest, Wood struggled, putting up a 4.80 ERA across 137 innings, striking out 132 and walking 92 batters.
Wood increased his workload in 2001, with 174.1 innings across 28 starts, striking out 217 to go with a sparkling a 3.36 ERA and a 124 ERA+. In 2002, Wood was back to a full workload, with 213.2 innings over 33 starts, striking out 217 batters and walking 97, while putting up a 3.66 ERA.
In 2003, Wood, paired with second-year fireballer Mark Prior, and rising star Carlos Zambrano, Wood threw 211 innings across 32 starts, striking out a Major League-leading 266 batters (Prior was second with 245), putting up a 3.20 ERA (136 ERA+) to go with a career high 100 walks and 21 hit batsmen. Wood logged another 17.2 innings in the playoffs over four starts, striking out 31 while walking 14, as the Cubs lost to the eventual World Series Champion Florida Marlins. Wood’s 2003 season, while amazing, was an incredible example of the use, or complete lack of use, of pitch counts. The Cubs new manager, Dusty Baker, had Wood, along with Prior, throw an inordinate number of games with more than 120 pitches, 13, and Wood threw at least 101 pitches 25 times. Wood threw a season-high 141 pitches on May 10 against the St. Louis Cardinals. More amazingly, Wood threw 952 pitches in 8 starts from April 6 through May 15 and 728 pitches in his final six starts of the season. All in all, Wood threw 4,008 pitches in 36 starts (playoffs included) in 2003, an average of 111.3 pitches per start.
In 2004, Wood had a good season (3.72 ERA) but only pitched 140.1 innings across 2 starts, as he was sidelined for nearly two months with a strained triceps. In 2005, Wood missed time with right shoulder bursitis, a joint problem caused by repetitive movement and excessive pressure. Wood missed all of May, made only one start in July, and became a middle reliever for August before being shut down for the season at the end of August. At the end of August, Wood had surgery to reinforce his labrum and debride his rotator cuff and bursa sac in order to remove dead tissue to promote healing. In March 2006, Wood had surgery on the meniscus in his right knee during spring training. After two rehabilitation starts in the minor leagues, Wood made his 2006 Major League debut on May 18 against the Washington Nationals. Wood made four starts, putting up a 4.12 ERA over 19.2 innings before being shut down for the season with a partially torn rotator cuff. After the season, the Cubs decided not to exercise their option on Wood for 2007, choosing instead to pay Wood $1.3 million and make him a free agent.
With Wood’s injury history, the best offer was to return to the Cubs in 2007 as a relief pitcher for a 1-year, $1.75 million contract with a significant number of performance bonuses. After missing time in training camp with a triceps strain, and was put on the disabled list at the beginning of the season with right shoulder inflammation. Wood made eight successful rehabilitation appearances in the minor leagues before being activated from the DL and making his debut on August 5, allowing one hit and striking out one in one inning against the New York Mets. Wood pitched well in his relief role, putting up a 3.33 ERA over 24.1 innings across 24 games in August and September.
After the season, Wood filed for free agency and received offers from a number of teams, but remained with the Cubs by signing a one-year, $4.2 million deal. Wood pitched well in 2008, putting up a 3.41 ERA (141 ERA+), while striking out 84 batters in 66.1 innings, making 65 appearances and raking up 34 saves.
In November 2008, the Cubs signed Kevin Gregg to close games, causing Wood to look elsewhere. Wood signed a two-year, $20.5 million contract with the Cleveland Indians, with a $11 million option for 2011 that vested if Wood finished 55 games in 2009 or 2010. In 2009, Wood was, literally, a league average pitcher with a great strikeout rate. Wood had a league-average 4.25 ERA with 63 strike outs in 55 innings (10.3/9) while picking up 20 saves. In 2010, Wood was getting shelled during his time with the Indians, with a 6.30 ERA before he was traded to the New York Yankees for Andrew Shive and Matt Cusick. Wood dominated in his time in the Bronx, putting up a microscopic 0.69 ERA while striking out 31 batters in 26 innings. Wood allowed only 4.8 hits per nine innings pitched, the lowest total of his career.
After 2010, Wood returned to the Cubs with a 1-year $1.5 million contract and pitched well, putting up a solid-if-not-spectacular 3.35 ERA in 51 innings across 55 appearances while pitching in relief. After signing another 1-year contract worth $3 million with the Cubs, Wood struggled in 2012, with an 8.64 ERA in nine appearances.
But today, on May 18, rumors of Wood’s retirement have stoked the fires of past potential. Once nearly universally viewed as the next great power pitcher in the mold of fellow-Texan Nolan Ryan, Wood struggled with arm problems and chronic misuse at the hands of his managers. We should not place all of the blame on them, however, as the job of a Major League manager is to win and their overuse of Wood was due to his ability to maintain velocity late in games. Many often take a pot shop at Dusty Baker, and his amazing overuse absolutely deserves some of the blame, but Jim Riggleman did the same thing in 1998, as Wood had eight outings with at least 120 pitches and 21 outings with at least 100 pitches.
So what do we learn from Kerry Wood? Should pitchers be babied? Was it an issue with his throwing motion? Is there really no such thing as a pitching prospect? I think it is all of them – the human arm was not meant to pitch like Ryan did and managers must be careful, but at the same time pitching is an inherently risky activity. Well built pitchers with seemingly perfect throwing motions break down before they can become stars and undersized pitchers with unorthodox throwing motions can dominate while winning multiple Cy Young Awards and remaining healthy.
In the end, no one knows what to do so maybe it makes sense to do what Riggleman and Baker did – overuse pitchers to try to win a World Series, because flags fly forever.
Until next time, follow me @HypeProspect.
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