J. M. Pressley
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No Knock on Wood

On May 6, 1998, Kerry Wood fanned 20 Astros in a 2-0 one-hitter at Wrigley Field. It was his fifth start of that season. Wood earned Rookie of the Year honors with 233 strikeouts to go with a 13-6 record and a 3.40 ERA. Despite some nagging elbow stiffness that kept him out for the month of September, many pegged the 21-year-old hurler for greatness. Here was the potential of the next Nolan Ryan.

Wood's right ulnar collateral ligament would give way entirely following his first spring training game of 1999. He missed the entire 1999 season, and came back to make 23 starts in 2000—although he looked nothing like the rookie phenomenon of 1999 in doing so (8-7, 4.80 ERA). Still, the high-profile alumni of Tommy John surgery have more often than not gone on to have productive careers. The elbow healed, Wood was back on the mound, and fans began to appreciate him all the more for having survived the early adversity.

Now, however, Chicago finds itself at a crossroads with a pitcher that is its once and future ace. The fastball routinely clocks in the mid to upper 90s; if Wood locates the curve well, it is nearly unhittable. And yet, after rebounding in 2001 with a 12-6 record, Wood was a meager one game above .500 in 2002 (12-11) and finished 2003 with a record of 14-11. Some fans wonder: is this as good as it gets?

This may in fact be as good as it gets for Wood. And it has nothing to do with the Cubs, everything to do with the type of pitcher Wood is.

Forget that Wood has historically had a bullpen behind him more than willing to give up a lead. Forget that he has had arm surgery. Forget that he does not and will never have fluid mechanics, nor does he yet have the type of physical training regimen that has kept Roger Clemens going. Instead, remember the comparisons with another right-handed Texas strikeout machine?

The comparisons with Nolan Ryan were first inescapable, then unfair. Now? They seem curiously apropos. Wood still reached 1,000 strikeouts quicker than anyone in major league history, including Ryan. Is it fair to compare a young pitcher with a Tommy John surgery behind him to a Hall of Famer with 26 seasons in the bigs? If you look at Nolan Ryan's overall career, yes.

Ryan had two 20-win seasons in those 26 years. Even his best year, 1974 with the Angels, resulted in a 22-16 record—only six games above .500. In 1981 with Houston (11-5) and 1989 with the Texas Rangers (16-10), Ryan was also six games above .500. The other 23 years? Ryan compiled 14 winning seasons in which his cumulative record was 213-163, eight losing seasons in which his cumulative record was 73-102 (including leading the league with 18 losses in 1976), and his last season in 1993 in which he went 5-5. He finished with an overall career record of 324-292 (win percentage: .526), which would put an average Nolan Ryan season at roughly 14-11, three games over .500. And this was the most dominant strikeout pitcher in the history of the game, finishing with 5,714 of them.

Kerry Wood, by comparison, has not had a losing season in his five years in the majors, not even the season in which he was coming off of arm surgery. During that time, he has compiled a 59-41 record (winning percentage: .590), and finished a career-high 13-6 in his rookie year in 1998, seven games above .500. He finished six games over in 2001. So far, that puts an average Kerry Wood season at roughly 12-8, four games over .500. As mentioned before, this is from the quickest pitcher to reach 1,000 strikeouts in a career.

As a final comparison between Wood and Ryan, let's look at their early statistics:

Nolan Ryan, 1968-1972

Year G GS CG SO IP H R ER BB K W L ERA
1968 21 18 3 0 134.0 93 50 46 75 133 6 9 3.09
1969 25 10 2 0 89.1 60 38 35 53 92 6 3 3.53
1970 27 19 5 2 131.2 86 59 50 97 125 7 11 3.42
1971 30 26 3 0 152.0 125 78 67 116 137 10 14 3.97
1972 39 39 20 9 284.0 166 80 72 157 329 19 16 2.28
Total 142 112 33 11 791.0 530 305 270 498 816 48 53 3.07
 

Kerry Wood, 1998-2003

Year G GS CG SO IP H R ER BB K W L ERA
1998 26 26 1 1 166.2 117 69 63 85 233 13 6 3.40
2000 23 23 1 0 137.0 112 77 73 87 132 8 7 4.80
2001 28 28 1 1 174.1 127 70 65 92 217 12 6 3.36
2002 33 33 4 1 213.2 169 92 87 97 217 12 11 3.80
2003 32 32 4 2 211 152 77 75 100 266 14 11 3.20
Total 142 142 11 5 902.2 677 385 363 461 1065 59 41 3.62

Wood does have the advantage in starts and innings pitched at a similar time in his career, granted. However, while Ryan has a decided edge in ERA (he was a lot more stingy with giving up home runs), Wood has 249 more strikeouts and a winning percentage of .590 in 100 decisions compared to Ryan's .475 in 101. Ryan also benefited from the four-man rotation in the next few years (averaging nearly 40 starts in three seasons from 1972-1974, at an average of 314 innings per season). Even taking into account the differences in the game from the 70s to the present, Kerry Wood seems to be the same type of strikeout pitcher that Nolan Ryan was in his heyday. That means we'll be taking some bad with the good.

Power strikeout pitchers have the ability to dominate, but it can come at the price of wins in the modern game. Wood can still hit double-digit strikeouts on any given day, but he can just as easily hit 100 pitches in the fifth or sixth inning. The result is that Wood will be coming out of games earlier, which increases the chance for a no-decision (or a loss, depending upon the mood of the bullpen). Want the point proved? 100 decisions for Wood in 142 career starts; in nearly three out of every ten starts, he will not factor in the decision. With only 32-35 starts to a season, that's 10-11 games shaved off the top of the record right off the bat. Let's say that leaves 24 decisions to comprise the pitcher's record. It's no wonder 20-game winners are such a rarity these days (and there will never again be a 30-game winner). And if a six-man rotation ever becomes popular, pitchers will be lucky to make 30 starts in a season.

Is that a disappointment? If you are gauging the fulfillment of Wood's promise in 20-win seasons or games above.500, yes. If you are waiting for Kerry Wood to pitch in games 1, 4, and 7 of the World Series, yes (this is the Cubs we're talking about). However, if you talk to the batters he's faced over the past five years—batters that have hit for a collective .211 batting average—most would tell you that the only time Wood disappoints is when you're trying to get the bat on one of his pitches. If he continues to improve his command, he could truly be unhittable.

It is impossible to gauge the effect that Wood's injury will eventually play in his overall career. Ryan had a fastball arm that lasted into his mid-40s; most of his injuries were to his legs and back until the very end, which is why the man could pitch so well for so long. Wood's surgery and pitching mechanics would suggest that he will not be a 20-plus season veteran. Barring another major injury setback, however, Wood could still prove to be a solid pitcher with many years ahead of him. Will he be pitching until he's 45? Not likely. Even so, he could still easily end his career with a record approaching 200 wins. And it's hard to rate any pitcher with that many wins in the majors as a disappointment.

Frankly, if that is as good as it gets, then Kerry is in good company.


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