On April 12, 1998 Kerry Wood made his major league debut for the Chicago Cubs against the Montreal Expos at age twenty. Twenty-four days later Wood took the mound at Wrigley Field and put on a show for the ages. He threw a complete game, zero walk, one-hit shutout with 20 strikeouts (breaking the previous rookie record of 18) against the Houston Astros. Wood didn’t just masterfully dominate a lineup full of guys who would amount to nothing more than journeymen. He did it against a team with Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Derek Bell, and Moises Alou that would go on to finish 102-60 and lead the National League in runs scored with 874. For an encore Wood struck out 13 batters in his next start, setting the Major League record for strikeouts in back-to-back games.
A star was born.
The man from the same state that produced the legendary Nolan Ryan, and even wore #34 as a tribute to him, was starting to be mentioned in the same sentence as MLB’s all-time strikeout leader. Wood finished his rookie season 13-6 with 233 strikeouts in 166.2 innings pitched and was named National League Rookie of the Year.
After missing the 1999 season due to Tommy John surgery Kerry Wood returned in 2000 to pick up where he left off. The following three years Wood was at his best as a starting pitcher. From 2001-2003 he averaged 12 wins, a 3.40 ERA, 199 innings pitched, and 233 strikeouts per season, including a career-high and major league leading 266 in 2003.
Unfortunately, 2003 was the last we would see of Kerry Wood the dominant starting pitcher. In only one season since has he topped the 100 innings mark due to various injuries. Whether it was his triceps, knee, elbow, back, shoulder, or a blister there was always something preventing us from seeing the Kerry Wood of yesteryear. The Kerry Wood who burst on the scene and immediately placed his name along side Roger Clemens with his 20 strikeout gem.
Kerry Wood last started a major league game in 2006, shifting to the bullpen in an effort to preserve his potent right arm. In 2008 Wood was named to his second All-Star Game, this time around as a closer. In the National League only Jose Valverde, Brad Lidge, and Brian Wilson notched more saves than Wood’s 34. The next year, his first in Cleveland, Wood would close out 20 more victories for the Indians.
In 2010 Wood was traded from the Indians to the Yankees, where he would appear in 24 games and allow only 2 earned runs in 26 innings, striking out 31 in the process. He would return to the Cubs for the 2011 season, signing a one-year deal with the team he would spend the majority of career with and turned in another effective season as a reliever.
Wood’s transition to the bullpen allowed us to still see his electric fastball, devastating curveball, and near unhittable slider, albeit in smaller doses. It just wasn’t the same. Injuries robbed us of witnessing more than four 200+ strikeout seasons and Kerry Wood of atleast one Cy Young Award, if not more. He was that good.
Kerry Wood announced yesterday he would be retiring from Major League Baseball and fittingly the only batter he faced in the Cubs’ 3-2 loss to the crosstown rival White Sox went down swinging.
Wood’s career ends with an 86-75 record, 63 saves, a 3.67 ERA, and 1,582 strikeouts in 1,380 innings. He reached the 1,000 strikeout mark in fewer innings (853) and games (134) than anyone in MLB history. Among pitchers with atleast 1,000 innings pitched his 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings is second only to Randy Johnson’s 10.6.
In looking back over Kerry Wood’s career the predominant theme is unanswered questions. What if injuries didn’t limit him to 178 starts? How many years would he have led Major League Baseball in strikeouts? Would he have a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Sadly, we will never know the answer to any of these questions. Phenoms like Kerry Wood don’t come around often but when they do it’s unfortunate when they aren’t able to realize their vast potential due to something they largely have no control over.
Those who had the opportunity to watch #34 in his early years knew he was destined for great things. They felt that way because of this day.