It is only human to look back and wonder what could have been. We all do it, and in the case of the 1998 National League Rookie of the Year award winner Kerry Wood, who retired earlier this week, it is a haunting epitaph on a career that could have led to Cooperstown.
His slurve along with a dominating fastball were practically unhittable.
I remember the first time I saw him pitch. It happened to be his 20-strikeout game on WGN. I was late for work because of it. The only hit he gave up in that game should have been an error. The wicked break of that slurve brought back shades of Dwight Gooden and Bert Blyleven’s curveballs. He won the Rookie of the Year award despite being shut down for the last month of the season with a tender elbow.
That turned out to be a sign of things to come. He missed all of 1999 because of Tommy John surgery.
Wood came back, but his arm was a dual-edged blade: it devastated batters, fans, and Wood himself. The torque he generated when he was younger was so devastating he ended up on the disabled list what seemed like every year of his career. He only had 30 starts or more twice and never won more than 14 games in a season.
He moved to the bullpen in 2007, ostensibly to save wear and tear on his arm. And when he made the transition to closer it seemed like he was going to become the next Dennis Eckersley. But that was short-lived as well. He ended up just being a seventh-inning guy at the end, which in baseball terms are a dime a dozen. He finished his career fittingly last week the way he began it – with a strikeout.
And so now the rehashing can begin. He ended up being the first pitcher in history with 75 wins, 50 saves and 10 strikeouts per nine innings, according to Sports Illustrated. If you projected out his winning percentage when he was a starting pitcher from age 21 to age 29 when he had his second reconstructive surgery and the fact that he had four 200-plus strikeout seasons in his first five years, you’re looking at a guy who was being compared to Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan. When he came up, 250 wins and 4000-plus strikeouts would not have been obscene projections. That’s how dominating he was, and could have been …
But he couldn’t stay healthy.
For someone who didn’t follow his career, looking at his overall numbers, one might just tip their cap and say “nice career.” Wood never won more than 14 games in a season and, as a reliever, only had three years of double-digit saves. He did lead the league in strikeouts one time and his short stint with the Yankees in 2010 was as dominating a stretch as he probably had since his rookie campaign. But all told, he only had 86 wins and 63 saves.
So why all this fanfare upon his retirement?
He says he has no regrets. And he shouldn’t – he gave it everything he had through the ups and downs for 15 years. But with the measurable he had coming into the league, perhaps no pitcher in history more warrants a write-up on the question: “What if…?”