I flew into Denver today (above is the obligatory “out the hotel window” shot of downtown) to hop aboard the sinking Mariner ship. When I flipped on the internet, I was surprised to see all the stories about Kerry Wood’s impending retirement.
It’s easy to forget what a huge phenom he was back in 1998 — it’s no exaggeration to say Kerry Wood was the Stephen Strasburg of his day. And the hype surrounding him hit full boil when, in his fifth career start, he pitched a one-hitter against the Houston Astros. Oh, did I mention that he also struck out 20? According to the Bill James Game Score formula, it was the greatest game ever pitched. And he was just 20 years old! It surely seemed like we had found our next Roger Clemens, or Nolan Ryan, the two fellow Texans to whom Wood was inevitably compared.
As Mariners fans cling to news from afar on “The Big Three” of Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, the career arc of Wood should serve as yet another reminder, if one is needed, of the fragility of young pitching, and the overwhelming odds against even the most highly touted stud reaching his full potential.
Wood retires having achieved an admirable 14-year career, but it certainly wasn’t the Hall of Fame campaign that was foreseen by many. Wood, in fact, spent the last seven years as a reliever, after blowing out his elbow, mostly as a setup guy.
Wood was very good, but he wasn’t Ryan or Clemens. The seeds of his downfall may have been planted in that glorious season of 1998, when manager Jim Riggleman — who would later serve as Mariners’ interim skipper in 2010 — used him in 11 starts of at least 120 pitches, as the Cubs were driving for a playoff spot.
Riggleman had some poignant memories of that season, and his useage of Wood, in a Chicago Sun Times story today. Here’s a sample:
“As a manager, one of the things you are most sensitive about is taking care of those pitchers,” Riggleman said from Jupiter, Fla., during a break from his duties as the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor-league field coordinator. “Anytime a pitcher gets hurt, you feel like you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Could I have done something different?’ And I have felt like that. I felt horrible about Kerry getting hurt and that maybe we could have done something different.
“I don’t know that we would have done anything different, but still, as a manager, you look at it and say: ‘Man, maybe I shouldn’t have let him go that other inning in July. Maybe I should have pulled him. Instead of getting 120 pitches, maybe I should have just cut him off at 95 or 100.”‘
“It’s very tough to have a young power pitcher in the big leagues in a situation where you are trying to win,” Riggleman said. “We weren’t just going out there like we were in ’97 and trying to get through the season; we were trying to get in the playoffs in ’98. So you are trying to win ballgames. And young power pitchers are going to throw a lot of pitches.
“You find yourself in a lot of gray areas. Six innings of pitching has taken place, and there are 95 or 100 pitches. You know that it is a tremendous psychological boost for the team in the other dugout that Kerry is not going back out there for the next inning. They’re like, ‘Oh, boy, I’m glad that guy’s out of there.’
“So you send him out there, and next thing you know, some guy fouls off 10 pitches. His pitch count is up there at 118, 120. You win the game. He goes seven. And you know, man, you just can’t have it all when you have a young power pitcher. They are going to throw a lot of pitches.”
In the heat of a playoff race, Riggleman put the team first.
“Had we been a second-division club that year and he was there, we probably would have said: ‘You know what? We are never going to let him throw more than 100 pitches. We’ll just bring him along that way,”‘ Riggleman said. “But if we didn’t have a good team that year, he probably would have been in Triple-A all year.”
Riggleman’s successor, Dusty Baker, didn’t exactly go light on Wood. In 2003, he led the majors in pitches thrown during another series in which the Cubs were driving toward the playoffs and the World Series title that continues to elude them.
Who knows if Wood would have avoided the Tommy John elbow surgery in 1999, the strained triceps in 2004, the torn rotator cuff in 2006, and all the other ailments along the way, had he been used more judiciously? But I think the caution shown by the Mariners with Felix Hernandez, dating back to the Bavasi regime, served him much better. Hernandez was a highly hyped pitching prospects who has actually realized his potential — and stayed healthy.
Now the Mariners have three more phenoms ripening on the farm. Kerry Wood’s retirement is a reminder that it might be best for everyone to tone down the expectations just a bit — and hope the Mariners remember that, no matter how tempting it would be to try to ride their electric young arms back to respectability, a bit of caution worked well for King Felix. There can be a heavy price to pay for pushing a pitcher before his time.