Kerry Wood and the Unfulfilled Career

Wednesday May 23, 2012

Bryan Sheehan (Baseball Writer): When he first came into the league, there were comparisons drawn to Nolan Ryan. Not just, “hey look, both of these guys are from Texas and play baseball!” comparisons, but predictions by some that their career numbers would shine in a similar fashion. But, after 14 years in professional baseball, Kerry Wood has decided to retire from the league, falling far short of the media’s once lofty expectations.

The fourth overall pick in the 1995 draft, Wood started to make a name for himself almost instantly after toeing the rubber for the first time. His fifth ever start, which came in May of 1998 when he was just 20, was a one-hit shutout performance in which he struck out 20 batters: still a National League record (video below). This game was against the Houston Astros, a team that would go on to win 102 games, and featured an original iteration of the Killer Bs, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Derek Bell. His 13-6, 3.40 ERA rookie campaign earned him Rookie of the Year honors, an award that, as one NY Times article stressed, Nolan Ryan never won. Praise for the young phenom grew louder, and his future looked bright.

“The guy has got talent that you don’t see except maybe once every decade,” then Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said in 1998, “If he stays healthy, he’s going to do things only a handful of guys have ever done.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t stay healthy.

First, Wood missed his Sophomore season entirely after Tommy John surgery. A shortened 2000 season ends in a 8-7 record and a 4.80 ERA. Shoulder tendonitis pushes him to the DL for about a month in 2001, but he bounces back and doesn’t miss a start through the 2003 season. In fact, in 2003, Wood leads the league in strikeouts (266) and is named an All Star. The next five seasons are not so kind, as he hits the DL at least once in every year from 04-08. By now, Kerry is moved to the bullpen, finishing with 71 wins in 178 career starts. But just how dominant would he have been if injuries had never slowed him down?

Kerry Wood had the stuff. His fastball flirted with, and occasionally touched, 100 MPH and his curveball was named best in baseball by Baseball America in both 2002 and 2003. Even after all the injuries, a 34-year-old Wood finished his last appearance with a nasty curveball that struck out White Sox hitter Dayan Viciedo and his fastball still averaged 93.8 MPH for the season. On the other hand, his injuries caused him to be extremely ineffective as time went on,  and he never produced numbers that fit his potential.

His story is one of “what if?” Spending almost his whole career playing for the Chicago Cubs organization, his struggles seem to embody the failures of the team as a whole. No matter how highly touted or how sharp he looked, Wood never had an extremely stellar season. In 2003, he had a career year; so did the Cubs. But fate was cruel, and once the club faltered in the NLCS (yes, this is the year of Bartman), neither the Cubbies nor Wood looked the same. You can sit around all day and wonder, “what if the Cubs hadn’t imploded in the 2003 NLCS?” and think about how they could have signed their names into baseball history with a World Series Championship. The same logic can be used on Wood, as a healthy career may have put him alongside Nolan in the pantheon of great pitchers. But time moves on and neither Kerry Wood nor the Cubs have been able to live up to expectations.

Wood’s retirement is bittersweet. While he ended on a positive note, a swinging strikeout, his retirement was forced by a 2012 ERA of 8.31. Less than two weeks prior to his heroic end, he gave up two runs in an inning against the Braves, prompting a mini-freakout that ended in Wood throwing his glove and hat into the stands. There’s no denying, though, that his last out, which was followed by an on-field embrace with his son, was the perfect end to a unfulfilled career.


Today’s feature was prepared by  Baseball Writer, Bryan Sheehan.  

You can follow Bryan on Twitter (@BaseballHipster), read his interviews with Phillies’ minor league prospects at PhightingOn.com and PhuturePhillies.com, and catch him writing the occasional article for ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com. Tweet him about this article and give him a follow and he will follow you back!

 

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Posted on May 23, 2012, in MLB Player Profiles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. He’s totally a What-Should-Have-Been/What-Might-Have-Been, Type Player.
    So Much Potential That Was Never Quite Realized, And The DL Stints. Sheesh.
    He LIVED On The Thing.
    -BRAD

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