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Kerry Wood says he felt something in elbow during 20-strikeout game

Jul 7, 2012, 12:30 PM EDT

AP Kerry Wood AP

Kerry Wood revealed something pretty interesting during a recent interview with David Kaplan of CSNChicago.com, saying that his 20-strikeout game against the Astros on May 6, 1998 on was the first time he felt something in his right elbow.

It all started with that famous final pitch, a wicked swinging strikeout of Derek Bell. Still, the recently-retired right-hander told Kaplan that whatever changed with his elbow that day was “worth it.”

Racking up absurdly high pitch counts as a rookie, Wood went on to make 21 more starts that year before sitting out the final month of the regular season with a sore elbow. He returned in late September to pitch in the NLDS against the Braves, but blew out his elbow the next spring and missed the entire 1999 season following Tommy John surgery. It’s not clear if Wood ever said anything to coaches after initially feeling something in the elbow, but he has said on numerous occasions that he felt it was only a matter of time before it gave out.

While Wood still enjoyed a productive major league career, he didn’t start another game in the major leagues after his age-29 season in 2006. If you are annoyed by your favorite team’s rookie pitcher getting pulled after 90-100 pitches, look no further than Kerry Wood as a cautionary tale.

According to Bill James’ Game Score metric, Wood’s 20-strikeout game ranks No. 1 all-time for a nine-inning game.

  1. qacm - Jul 7, 2012 at 1:30 PM

    That’s one of the things I don’t like about Bill James’ Game Score: it overvalues strikeouts and undervalues economy of pitches. Isn’t it better in almost every way for a pitcher to throw 95 pitches in 9 innings and strike out only 5 batters, than to strike out 15 but throw 140 pitches? Yet, other things being equal (walks, hits, runs, etc.), the high strikeout and many pitches effort will get a higher game score than the other. Doesn’t make sense.

    • samu0034 - Jul 7, 2012 at 1:49 PM

      Excepting that a struck ball has the possibility of becoming a hit, therefore a strikeout is superior to other forms of outs that a pitcher can produce. Don’t get me wrong, the end result is the same, but a strikeout doesn’t even give the batter the chance to get to 1st.

    • paperlions - Jul 7, 2012 at 1:51 PM

      No, it isn’t. Strikeouts never turn into hits, whereas roughly 30% of batted balls turn into hits regardless of who the pitcher is….if a pitcher throws 9 innings using only 95 pitches, odds are he got fairly lucky on balls in play. If a pitcher keeps the ball down, out of the middle of the plate, and doesn’t walk anyone, he’ll minimize the damage as he won’t give up (probably) very many XBH, but it doesn’t take many more pitches to strike guys out than to get them out some other way…and by striking out more guys, you generally face fewer hitters, requiring fewer pitches to get through the game.

      • wlschneider09 - Jul 7, 2012 at 5:18 PM

        “whereas roughly 30% of batted balls turn into hits regardless of who the pitcher is”

        This is a bit of a lie.

      • Kevin S. - Jul 7, 2012 at 8:27 PM

        The variation certain SP may be able to control still isn’t that large. There are fifty-four active pitchers with 1000 career IP. Six of them have BABIPs below .280. Assuming that at 1000 IP we give SP full credit for their BABIP (dubious), we’re saying a little more than 10% of pitchers can reduce the chances that a ball in play becomes a hit by more than a percentage point or two. I’ll take the strikeouts, please.

      • wlschneider09 - Jul 7, 2012 at 9:14 PM

        Allow me to deconstruct:

        “There are fifty-four active pitchers with 1000 career IP. Six of them have BABIPs below .280.”

        That’s saying 10% of pitchers have stuff good enough that they consistently over their careers are significantly better than the norm. Quite probably there are an additional 10% that are so bad that they are consistently 20 points worse than the norm, except that these guys don’t stick around very long. If 15-20% of pitchers are not the norm, that means 1-2 pitchers on each team on average affect BABIP significantly. So the statement “whereas roughly 30% of batted balls turn into hits regardless of who the pitcher is” is a bit of a lie.

        You guys are eminently logical most of the time but you ignore the following:

        1. Some pitchers show up year after year leading BABIP rankings (Kershaw, Jared Weaver, Marcum, etc.). If the stat was truly random this would not occur.

        2. While there is some variation, most pitchers post their best BABIPs during the peak years of their careers. For example, look at Greg Maddux, who is frequently used as the poster boy for BABIP lovers because he has a career .289 BABIP.
        http://www.fangraphs.com/graphs.aspx?playerid=104&position=P&page=7&type=full
        Again, if this was a truly random stat BABIP should be age independent.

        3. 1-2 percentage points is not important? So you’re saying .280 hitter is just as good as a .300 hitter? 1-2 percentage points are pretty significant in baseball.

      • paperlions - Jul 7, 2012 at 9:41 PM

        You are arguing around the edges while ignoring the main point.

        The difference between Maddux and an average pitcher in BABIP = 1%

        The difference in frequency between batters that strike out reaching base and those that put the ball in play: 30%

        30% >>>>>>1%

        To use your phrase, a .280 hitter (BABIP against the few pitchers that seem to be able to “control it” a bit is far better than a 0% hitter (what happens when guys strikeout).

        Number of strikeouts that result in a HR: zero.

        Striking out guys is the best way to make sure they don’t score, a ball in play is significantly more likely to result in a runner or run scored.

      • Kevin S. - Jul 8, 2012 at 1:24 AM

        Actually, that’s not 10% of pitchers… only 10% of starting pitchers good enough that various teams will let them throw 1000 innings. I had to accept some selection bias in order to weed out BABIPs subject to too much noise. Also, picking nits but the league average looks like it’s more typically around .295. Regardless, the larger point is not that pitchers have *no* control over their BABIPs, but rather that a pitcher’s ability to get more outs by limiting the success rate of balls in play pales in comparison to his ability to get them by striking hitters out.

      • obpedmypants - Jul 8, 2012 at 1:26 AM

        paperlions:

        >>Strikeouts never turn into hits, whereas roughly 30% of batted balls turn into hits regardless of who the pitcher is

        This statement is too a posteriori for my taste. It treats “a batted ball” and “a strikeout” as the two relevant outcomes of a pitchers actions. It’s true that a strikeout is an out 100% of the time, but it’s not true that the action a pitcher took in order to achieve that strikeout would result in an out 100% of the time. e.g. A called strike three by one umpire is ball four to another.

      • wlschneider09 - Jul 8, 2012 at 1:37 AM

        Never said that strikeouts are bad, just pointing out the myth that BABIP is beyond pitcher control.

        I gave Samu a thumbs up even.

      • paperlions - Jul 8, 2012 at 11:43 AM

        There is no a posteriori context here regardless of your taste.

        Pitcher intent also is completely irrelevant. It is the outcome of the AB that is the question. The ability (regardless of intent) to strike guys out is highly valuable as batted balls can become home runs, hits, and errors. Similarly, the ability to not walk guys is highly valuable because walks are never outs.

        Pitcher BABIP is not contingent out pitcher strikeout rates, balls in play are just as likely to be hits against strikeout pitchers and non-strikeout pitchers….so, as a pitcher, the fewer balls in play, the better.

      • obpedmypants - Jul 8, 2012 at 12:55 PM

        You are under the impression that I know far less about what you are talking about than I do. Everything you’re saying, I’ve heard before and I understand completely. So, I kindly request you don’t plagiarize Bill James further.

        Even he recognizes the shortcomings of batted ball and K-rate analysis.

        You make this statement: “Strikeouts never turn into hits, whereas roughly 30% of batted balls turn into hits.” But it’s just as valid to say “ground outs never turn into hits, whereas roughly 30% of batted balls turn into hits.”

        The point of all of the statistical analysis isn’t to just regurgitate different outcomes. It’s to take accessible data, and try to find out what the results are the direct result of a player’s action. “A strikeout” is not a pitcher’s action. It’s a result, and it’s a result that is not entirely dependent on a pitcher’s action. Pitchers throw balls towards the plate (and sometimes field them). Pitchers don’t strike people out, or induce ground outs, or have balls put in play, or walk batters. Those are pieces of data that we use, for better or worse, to proxy a pitcher’s talent.

        “Dominance” takes on many different forms, and it happens that strikeouts are one of the better pieces of information that we have at discerning pitching talent, but it is not the be-all end-all. I guarantee the Cubs GM would rather have had Kerry Wood strike out 5 people on 90 pitches in a complete-game shutout, and not blow out his elbow throwing too hard on his 120th pitch, than to have this “most dominant performance” repeat itself with another prospect.

      • paperlions - Jul 8, 2012 at 1:29 PM

        First, I can’t plagiarize James because I’ve never read any of his stuff (though I have read a lot of stuff by people that read his stuff), you have to pay for just about anything James has written (online or otherwise), which I haven’t done. What I have stated is just based on logic and fact.

        Second, 90 pitch complete games only happen when a pitcher is lucky. There is a reason they are rare events. Because even for pitchers that are most likely to have such things happen (generally, guys that stay down in the zone that change speeds a lot and are facing a crappy lineup anyway), they have to get very lucky on balls in play. Of course, teams would prefer that fantasy to reality. Sadly, no such pitcher exists that has the skill set to regularly record 27 outs with 90 pitches. When you deal in reality, you want guys that record outs….and the less often balls are put in play, the higher % of hitters make outs. Again, that isn’t analysis, it is just a fact.

        Sorry for under estimating what you think you know, but it was an easy mistake to make when you seem to be ignoring so many facts about how baseball works.

      • wlschneider09 - Jul 8, 2012 at 1:37 PM

        And another thing, while I’m on a thumbs down roll:

        I just never bought the assumption that the majority of pitchers have no control over BABIP. Yes, I’m fully aware of the whole “on average” argument, but I think that’s ignoring the trees for the forest. It’s somewhat equivalent to saying that if you roll 100 dice 10000 times, and achieved a average of 3.5, the results are completely random. Yet if there are 25 dice loaded to roll sixes and 25 dice loaded to roll ones you’d get the same result by only looking at the cumulative average, and miss the fact that the results are anything but random on a die by die basis.

        So I did a little study of my own. I started going through the starting pitchers of MLB teams with at least 1000 plate appearances against over the last three years. I started with Arizona and proceeded alphabetically, stopping when I got to 25 SPs that met the criteria. I calculated BABIP splits for these SP vs right handed batters and left handed batters.

        Now if BABIP is truly random, the results should be even, with no bias for pitching to like (RHP vs RHB or LHP vs LHB). Because after all, once ball hit bats, everything is supposed to be completely equal, regardless of whether or not the bat is held by a right handed hitter, a left handed hitter, or an ambidextrous amputee.

        Mat Latos: 58 points better against like-handed batters
        Paul Maholm: 45 points better against like
        Jake Peavy: 39 points better against like
        Justin Masterson: 36 points better against like
        Ryan Dempster: 32 points better against like
        Tommy Hanson: 30 points better against like
        Josh Beckett: 20 points better against like
        Joe Saunders: 17 points better against like
        Ubaldo Jimenez: 17 points better against like
        Jhoulys Chacin: 16 points better against like
        Clay Bucholz: 16 points better against like
        Ian Kennedy: 14 points better against like
        Jeremy Guthrie: 14 points better against like
        Tim Hudson: 11 points better against like
        Trevor Cahill: 10 points better against like
        Mike Leake: 7 points better against like

        Derek Lowe: equal against all batters
        Tim Hudson: equal against all batters

        Jason Hammell: 2 points better against opposite-handed batters
        Gavin Floyd: 4 points better against opposite
        Jon Lester: 5 points better against opposite
        Homer Bailey: 15 points better against opposite
        Matt Garza: 16 points better against opposite
        John Danks: 18 points better against opposite
        Johnny Cueto: 36 points better against opposite

        So that’s 16 pitchers that are better against hitters that hit from their strong side, two equal and 7 that have the opposite effect. Overall the BABIP numbers are much better for pitchers against like handed hitters. And I’d argue that some of the pitchers where the opposite is true also strongly affect their BABIP, it’s just that they have better pitchers to get outs against opposite handed hitters (Cueto in particular). Based on this data I think you could also argue that at least half of pitchers in MLB have a significant effect on BABIP.

      • obpedmypants - Jul 8, 2012 at 1:50 PM

        This is like talking to a wall. Think whatever you like.

        If you read and retain what I wrote, you will be a more knowledgeable person. If not, you’ll continue being “that guy.”

    • Kevin S. - Jul 7, 2012 at 3:11 PM

      That’s funny, because I’d argue Wood’s performance was the most dominant start we’ve ever seen. Game Score agreeing with that would seem to be a point in its favor, not against it.

  2. db105 - Jul 7, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    Woods may have been overworked early in his career. But young pitchers now do not fully develop because of pitch counts.

    • mplsjoe - Jul 7, 2012 at 2:00 PM

      Right…no young pitcher has fully developed in the past 20 years or so…

      Being a slave to pitch counts no matter the person or situation is dumb. But not as dumb as pretending that the human arm has an unlimited number of pitches in it.

  3. materialman80 - Jul 10, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    The Cubs ruined Kerry Wood, but then again, they are the Cubs…..

  4. dschminck - Jul 15, 2012 at 1:43 AM

    The question of the better outcome, as it pertains to preventing a future run scored during any given inning of a single game, does not in fact pertain to a comparison between “at bats” and “strikeouts”: the “at bat” is not an “outcome” and therefore cannot be the “better outcome”. This is true regardless of the probabilities of outcomes, since probability was not in question. The question of the better probable outcome with respect to the forgoing comparison is trivial: the strikeout is an out 100% of the time for each at bat that results in a strikeout and the probability of an out for each at bat, regardless of the pitcher or batter, is less than 100%. The question of how much better is either irrelevant or trivial: the actuality of a positive outcome is always superior to the probability of a positive outcome unless that probability is equivalent to having the probability of no negative outcome, which is trivial.

    The more interesting and far more complicated question, however, is whether preventing a future run scored during any given inning of a single game is the most significant outcome for the fielding team or its pitcher in all situations. For example, a devastating injury to a star player that results in an out would probably be considered the more significant outcome than the out itself, no matter how the out occurred, unless the out resulted in a world series championship and the injury was not career threatening. The significance, however, is greatly sensitive to differences in social and personal values: Kerry Wood said that the pitch that exhibited the first developing symptom of his later injury was worth it, presumably because it resulted in his tying the strikeout record for a single 9 inning game, although commentators viewed his attitude as poor judgment.

    The significance of the strikeout to the winning team, aside from the potential to match or exceed an historical strikeout record or personal goal, diminishes in direct proportion to the size of the lead, the potential to score runs, the absence of men from the opposing team in scoring position and the number of innings played. The greatest strikeout pitcher of all time, Nolan Ryan, won a little more than half of his games (.525 winning percentage for games in which he figured in the decision). Mr. Ryan also walked more batters during his career than any other pitcher in the recorded history of Major League Baseball.

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