Kerry Wood Calls It A Career

Based on Game Score, Kerry Wood‘s 20 strikeout game against the Astros on May 6th, 1998 is the best-pitched nine-inning game in Major League history. The 105 score is better than every perfect game and four points better than any other game period. He was 41 days shy of his 21st birthday and it was his fifth big league start.

Wood, now 34, is set to announce his retirement from baseball today according to ESPN Chicago’s Bruce Levine. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 career innings, his career 10.31 K/9 is the best in history by a right-handed pitcher and the second best all-time behind Randy Johnson (10.61 K/9). His 20 strikeouts against Houston remains the National League single-game record, and five days later he struck out 13 Diamondbacks to set the all-time record for strikeouts in consecutive starts (33).

In many ways, Wood is the embodiment of everything that can happen with young pitchers. He dominated, he walked a ton of guys, he got hurt, he dominated again, got hurt again, shifted to the bullpen, and then got hurt yet again. Unlike Mark Prior, Wood was hurt long before Dusty Baker came to Chicago’s north side and starting running arms through the shredder. He had Tommy John surgery in 1999 and shoulder inflammation in 2001, but still managed to rack up 17.2 WAR before his career really flew off the rails in 2004.

The laundry list of injuries includes labrum and rotator cuff surgery, five separate DL stints for non-surgical shoulder problems, knee surgery, back problems, blisters, an oblique strain, and triceps issues in addition to the elbow reconstruction. Wood spent 16 different stints on the disabled list during his 14-year career, including a bout with shoulder inflammation this season that appears to have contributed to his decision to retire. Frankly, it’s surprising he didn’t call it a career sooner given all the physical problems.

In an age when the term “electric stuff” gets slapped on every kid with a mid-90s fastball, none have lived up to the moniker like Wood. His fastball would legitimately sit in the mid-to-upper-90s early in his career and that curveball … it was just a thing of beauty. Batters swung and missed at his offerings a whopping 12.3% of the time since the data starting being recorded in 2002, a testament to how nasty he was. Wood topped the 200 IP plateau only twice (2002 and 2003) but he had four different seasons of 3+ WAR, including another at 2.7. He started, he closed, and he setup between injuries for the Cubs, the Indians, the Yankees, and then the Cubs again.

It’s almost impossible to find someone who wasn’t a fan of Kerry Wood. He was never an underdog in the sense that he lacked talent — he had talent to spare, if anything — but he was an underdog in that his body did everything it could to sabotage his greatness. Wood was one of the most exciting pitchers of his generation, fitting the Texas fireballer stereotype to a tee. Paul Sullivan of The Chicago Tribune says he’ll announce the decision following this afternoon’s game, and chances are Wood will make his final appearance as a player in relief and walk off the field to a standing ovation. After all he’s been through, Kerry will leave the game of baseball on his own terms and that’s awesome.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

48 Responses to “Kerry Wood Calls It A Career”

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  1. JDanger says:

    So long, Kid K.

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  2. Misfit says:

    Even though he battled with all of those injuries his whole career, I was still surprised today to see that he won just 86 games in his career. No matter, that’s 86 more games than most of the world’s population and he was a ton of fun to watch, especially that rookie year where he piled up 233 strikeouts in just 166.2 innings. It wasn’t the career most, including himself, probably thought he would have but it was still damn fine.

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    • Vinnie says:

      My favorite part of that video is how pissed off Moises Alou gets after each AB. Actually, Moises Alou’s perpetually pissed-off demeanor is one of my all-time favorite baseball-related things period.

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  3. pudieron89 says:

    Nice article. The only time I ever really disliked him was in 2009 (or was it 2010?) when BJ Upton stole a base down 7-0 or 7-1 and the Rays nearly came back to win it, Wood was throwing heaters at his head the next game. C’est le jeu.

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  4. West says:

    Biggest game in franchise history he goes 5.2 7 ER, but keep blaming Bartman.

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    • NBarnes says:

      You may need to move on.

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      • ezb230 says:

        I’m still kinda mad at Kevin Orie for missing Ricky Gutierrez’s grounder, costing Kerry a no-no. There’s a 50-50 chance I would bring it up to Orie if I ever met him.

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    • David K says:

      I happen to agree. It’s RIDICULOUS for Cub fans to blame Bartman for their failure in ’03. Even if Alou makes that catch, we don’t know if the Cubs would have eventually won that game or not, and the team certainly had other chances to win and didn’t come through. They had Prior and Wood in their prime pitching the last two games at home when they only needed to win one of them, so one missed opportunity to catch a foul popup isn’t the main reason the Cubs missed out on the WS that year.

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      • Brett W says:

        Cubs fans don’t blame Bartman. Cubs fans blame Alex Gonzalez. The national media is the only one who talks about Bartman. Even if there were Cubs “fans” (read: day-drinkers) who blamed Bartman, they don’t anymore – it’s ancient history.

        Please stop watching ESPN. You’ll help save the world, I swear.

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    • Candlestick Parker says:

      The franchise has played continuously since U.S. Grant was President, and although it’s been awhile they have won 2 world series and a ton of NL pennants. So that was hardly the biggest game in Cubs history.

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    • Larry Smith Jr. says:

      I’m not a Cubs fan, but if I were, I’m pretty sure this is something I’d have a hard time ever moving on about.

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  5. Vegemitch says:

    BTW how astounding is it that Nolan Ryan has thrown 5 of the top 15 games ever pitched? A few of those performances came against top flight offenses as well and 3 of them came when he was 42+ years old.

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  6. Carl says:

    That’s not even mentioning the 2nd best Kerry Wood memory, his go ahead home run in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS.

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  7. RMD says:

    Raise your hand if you want to see him pitch today at home versus the White Sox…

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  8. ab says:

    So long, Kerry with a K.

    I have a fond of watching him at Wrigley during one if those great seasons and hanging up a K with every strikeout. That was a fun career to watch. it’s unfortunate for everyone that we didn’t get to see more from a healthy Kerry wood.

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  9. Matt Hunter says:

    I’m just going to say one thing. That video…is DIRTY. DISGUSTING. ABOMINABLE. GROSS. ABSOLUTELY UNREAL.

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    • JDanger says:

      baseball porn.

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      • DJG says:

        Whose announcing it? He’s got about as much emotion in his voice as Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

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    • 81 says:

      Jeff Bagwell’s Ks get funnier each time

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    • AustinRHL says:

      While he was utterly unhittable that game, he also got a GIGANTIC strike zone that he used to his full advantage. That directly gave him at least a couple of strikeouts that he probably shouldn’t have had, and I have to think it contributed to a couple of the terrible swings late in the game (like Spiers’ strikeout in the top of the ninth).

      I’m pretty sure the announcer in the video is Jim DeShaies, the same guy whom FanGraphs readers regarded very highly in Carson’s broadcaster rankings. He really should have shown more excitement in his voice, but you do have to give him some slack for being the announcer for the away team. If you want emotion, Chip Caray on the Cubs’ side will give you that in spades… unfortunately, it’s been removed from YouTube since I last watched it, but hopefully Wood’s retirement will spur a couple of people to re-post it.

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      • Perkins says:

        You’re correct on DeShaies. He and Bill Brown had the call for the Astros, and the montage video doesn’t do it justice. After about the fifth inning, they’re reduced to two kids seeing baseball for the first time. They get in a few positive statements about Shane Reynolds (who also had a pretty good start that day), but like everyone else, they’re amazed at what they see from Wood. They were certainly more excited and complementary for that game than ten years later when Zambrano no-hit the Astros.

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    • Dan M. says:

      Unreal stuff. However, is it just me or were 4 of those calls on the outside corner a little iffy? I think the ump had a hot date he needed to get to or something.

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  10. hartmtown says:

    Great write-up, Mike. As a lifelong Cub fan, Woody goes down as one of the greatest Cubs of the last 30 years. He loved the team, the city, and the fans as much or more than any other player has, and he would have never left except he wasn’t wanted back. It’s generally been a joy, and at times a pain, to watch him, but I’ve always rooted hard for him. Thanks for the memories, Kid K.

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  11. Jack Weiland says:

    Nice piece, Mike.

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  12. Bad Bill says:

    The much-overlooked stat, HBP/PA, just took a turn for the better, league-wide. Say all the nice things about Wood you want to; he deserves many of them. But the man threw at hitters, at a rate equaled by few of his peers. That, I will not miss.

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    • JDanger says:

      Curiously, he’s at 99 career HBP’s right now.

      You think planting one in the rib of AJ Pierzynski tonight would make a nice round number?

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  13. matt1101 says:

    Just insane.

    It’s too bad you had managers that pitched you way too much before the arm strength and stamina were there. you were fun to watch Kerry

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    • David K says:

      How does his pitch counts and IPs in his first couple of years in the majors compare to others in fairly recent history? Was he really that much overused? I’d like to see the actual numbers to prove it.

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      • Mcneildon says:

        I don’t believe there is any research that conclusively proves that elevated pitch counts lead to injury, but that seems to be the conventional wisdom in this era. Anyway, to address your question in a very lazy, I-spent-35 seconds-doing-it kind of way, he threw over 115 pitches in half of his starts as a rookie and over 120 in 8 of them. No manager would ever do that today with a 20 year old. Of course, that doesn’t mean less pitches per game means less injuries.

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  14. doug says:

    Seeing that game score list reminded me of just how awesome Brandon Morrow’s 17k shutout was 2 years ago.

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  15. As a kid, I remember watching Wood strike out 20 that night on a live ESPN feed to my little tv in my bedroom in California. It was one of those moments in baseball that a fan never forgets.

    Happy trails, Kerry

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  16. A true competitor that was a joy to watch working.

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  17. ezb230 says:

    My favorite part of the 20k game is that Houston’s 3-4-5 hitters (Bagwell, Jack Howell, and Moises) went 0-9 with 9 Ks. Crazy.

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    • Jason B says:

      That box score just slays me – you’ve got HOFer Biggio leading off, many-year ML regular Derek “Operation Shutdown” Bell hitting second, likely HOFer Bagwell hitting third, underappreciated and very good for a very long time Moises Alou hitting fifth, and…scrub Jack Howell hitting clean-up?!? Who was away from the game for five years and logged a whopping 42 plate appearances in 1998!?

      I’m assuming regular 3B Caminiti just had the day off, but for Christ’s sake, you don’t have to have his replacement hitting clean-up just because the regular 3B did. He should have been batting down with the immortal Brad Ausmus, not that it would have made much difference that day…

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  18. ben says:

    I once read an interview where they asked Kerry, Do you ever catch the 20-K game on ESPN classic? If so, what stands out to you about that day? And Kerry’s reply was bascially, What stands out was what a huge strike zone I was given.

    Lifelong Cub fan here, and to find a classier, more humble guy you’d have to go all the way back to Andre Dawson…

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  19. Cidron says:

    sad to think that he will be largely forgotten in what, 20 yrs, due to no significant stats that will survive the time. aside from that one magical game.

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    • Dr.Rockzo says:

      All it takes is one game or even one play to be remembered. I don’t even know if Don Larsen was any good, but I remember him for one game.

      Wood will also be remember for what this article discusses as well. He is, along with Prior, almost certainly the two best examples of what could have been. Debate over if they were destroyed by Baker or mechanics will last forever. Were they doomed to break down or could caution prevent it? Had Gonzalez got that ball, would all of it been worth it?

      I would like to know how much the Wood-Prior careers have actually led to changes in how teams work pitchers. I do not remember as much external attention paid to workloads and pitch counts prior to their injuries, but I also wasn’t paying as much attention. Did the Cubs let this happen in an industry that was already shifted, or was this event something all other teams saw and didn’t want to have happen to their franchise?

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  20. DavidL says:

    Woody threw a signature pitch in slider, not curveball. His slider was 85-mph and had a “slurvy” movement and goes tight against left-hand batters, making them confused and jammed.

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  21. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Wasn’t around to see Wood in his prime, but I saw him near the end, loved watching him. He seemed like a cool guy.

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