Armando Galarraga threw a perfect game. As a matter of fact, Armando Galarraga did one better - he recorded a 28-out perfect game. I know it didn't go in the books as an actual perfect game, on account of that call, but we all know what really happened. Armando Galarraga faced 28 batters in a game and retired all of them. It takes an unbelievable amount of ability to throw a perfect game in the major leagues. A pitcher needs to be at his very best. Somewhere along the way, he will probably also get lucky. A perfect game is some parts ability, and some parts luck. Philip Humber threw a perfect game a few weeks ago.
Throughout the history of baseball, there have been four games in which a pitcher struck out 20 batters. Tom Cheney struck out 21 batters on September 12, 1962, but on September 12, 1962, Tom Cheney threw 16 innings. There have been four games in which a pitcher struck out 20 batters over nine innings. Two were started by Roger Clemens. One was started by Randy Johnson. One was started by Kerry Wood, who, as you know by now, is going to retire.
Seems to me there's a lot less luck involved in a 20-strikeout game. A 20-strikeout game is almost all parts ability, and maybe one or two parts luck. If you strike out 20 batters in a game, it's because you're virtually unhittable. Look at Wood's company. Clemens, Johnson, nobody else. Simply two of the most dominant pitchers in the history of the world.
Wood recorded his 20-strikeout game when he was a rookie in 1998. He whiffed 20 Astros in just his fifth-ever start, and he generated 24 swinging strikes. Four starts later, he generated 23 swinging strikes. In his next start, he generated 22. On August 16, he generated 22, and on August 26, he generated 27. I'm drowning you with numbers, and you might not know what a normal amount of swinging strikes is, but a normal amount is well below the amounts Wood was getting. What I'm trying to explain to you is that Kerry Wood was f***ing incredible.
Kerry Wood was 20 years old when he made his debut, and he couldn't possibly have set the bar higher for himself. Here was this young power pitcher with an impossible curveball, and the only thing between him and being one of the greatest pitchers in the universe was nothing. He was already there. It was just on him to stay there, which meant it was just on him to stay healthy.
Which, of course, he didn't. Wood by no means flamed out. He's only just now retiring, in 2012. And he didn't remain active in the way that Mark Prior has remained active, either; Wood's been in the majors. He just hasn't been in the majors as Kerry Wood, leading us to this tweet from Buster Olney:
Kerry Wood's legacy will always be about what might have been. It's not fair to him, because his mechanics were destined to break him down.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) May 18, 2012
As a rookie in 1998, Wood struck out 233 batters in 26 starts. Here is a selection of pitchers who have thrown more innings in the majors than Wood since 2005:
Wood's 34, and he's a month away from being 35. He's basically 35. Before he's officially 35, he will have retired, having not achieved the ceiling that seemed within reach. You understand where Olney is coming from - what might have been, indeed. Wood had the raw ability to be an all-time legend.
But then, tons of players around the game have outstanding ability and perform below their potential. Just about every player around the game with outstanding ability performs below his potential. Maybe because of injury, maybe because of character issues, maybe because of both or something else. On the one hand, with Wood, we wonder what might have been. On the other hand, Wood was fantastic. Do we wish he could've been more, or do we appreciate what he was?
On the Baseball Reference leaderboards, Wood ranks tenth all-time in hits per nine innings, between Sam McDowell and Pedro Martinez. Wood ranks second all-time in strikeouts per nine innings, between Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. If you don't like innings as a denominator, and prefer batters faced, then of every pitcher who's ever thrown a thousand innings in the major leagues, Wood owns the third-highest career strikeout rate, between Pedro Martinez and Tim Lincecum. Lincecum will probably fall down the list over time.
Kerry Wood didn't string together 15 seasons of unhittability as a starter, but he strung together several seasons of unhittability as a starter and then as a reliever. As a starter earlier in his career, Wood struck out 27 percent of the batters he faced. As a reliever later in his career, Wood struck out more than 26 percent of the batters he faced. When Wood could pitch, which was frequently but not frequently enough, he was one of the most untouchable pitchers in the league. Just last season, in 51 innings out of the Cubs bullpen, he whiffed 57 guys. Wood didn't develop pinpoint command, but that only made him all the more terrifying. Here's this guy throwing in the mid-90s, even at the end of the road. He doesn't know exactly where the ball's going to go, but it's going to go there at almost a hundred miles per hour.
It's a conflict we have - trying to decide whether to appreciate a talented player for what he is, or whether to wish that player were something greater. A lot of people have been through this conflict with players like Carlos Beltran and Adrian Beltre and Matt Garza and countless others. There are players who just ooze all-world ability, and then fall short of being the very best players in baseball for a sustained period of time. Kerry Wood oozed all-world ability, and he fell short. He had his days, but he didn't have enough of them to fully satisfy.
Immediately, we wonder what Kerry Wood could've been. Kerry Wood could've been something else. Something unparalleled, or something almost unparalleled. In truth, Kerry Wood was something else. Kerry Wood flashed more talent than most players ever have, and Kerry Wood had better performances than most players ever have. Hopefully, in time, people come to appreciate what Kerry Wood was instead of what Kerry Wood wasn't. That won't help us make up our minds about active players, but perhaps retirement brings resolution.