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.