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The lasting legacy of Kerry Wood

5/19/2012

It was just time, Kerry Wood explained, in announcing his retirement. Time to spend more time with his family, because he can. Time for relief from the day-to-day grind of preparing to pitch. Time to walk away from a sport he loved -- a sport which presumably broke his heart more than a few times.

Wood won 86 games in his career and lost 75, and pitched fewer than 1,500 innings. According to baseball-reference.com, some pitchers he compares with -- statistically -- are Moe Drabowsky, Kelvim Escobar and Don Larsen.

But his legacy is far more complex than his numbers indicate, and his impact is much more lasting.

A lot of baseball fans will forever view Wood as someone who could've or should've been better. For most of us, our first real glimpse of him came in his fifth game in the big leagues, in 1998, when he struck out 20 and walked none against the Houston Astros. Because it was an afternoon game for the Cubs, I can remember standing in the visiting clubhouse in Texas, as a beat reporter assigned to the Yankees, and watching the reaction from the New York Yankees each time that Wood threw his slider. Wood's breaking ball had so much movement that it seemed unnatural, and completely unfair, and the Yankees guffawed with empathy and astonishment as the Astros hitters flailed at it.

But Wood pitched only 21 more games before blowing out his elbow, a victim of the dangerous mechanics he had used since his youth, and he missed the entire 1999 season. He came back to have good seasons in 2001, 2002 and 2003, but he'd never win more than 14 games in a season. He was the Stephen Strasburg of his time, yet never again had consistent dominance.

His legacy among folks who knew him along the way is that of a great teammate, which is why Yankees GM Brian Cashman was tuned into Wood's last appearance on Friday afternoon, and why he was moved to look up the numbers that the right-hander posted with the Yankees in his brief stay with them late in 2010. "A great guy," Cashman said. "Just a normal person. Zero maintenance. A good guy to talk to."

But Wood's lasting legacy -- and that of teammate Mark Prior -- may be in how they served to change the way teams scout and handle young pitchers. There was great concern about how much Wood had pitched as a Texas high schooler, and about his mechanics, which caused him to place high stress on his elbow. He threw 122 pitches in his 20-strikeout game, and later that season, he threw as many as 129.

As Wood and Prior broke down, their regression led to far more discussion within the industry about the workload of amateur players and the resulting red flags, and about the best way to develop and protect young pitchers as they transitioned into professionals. Wood and Prior are the cautionary tales that executives sometimes cite in explaining the pitch counts and innings limits they place on prospects and first- and second-year players.

On Friday, however, none of that concerned Kerry Wood. He had been talking with the Cubs about walking away, and he got to do it on his terms, stepping into the arms of his son. It was time.

It was a perfect ending, writes Paul Sullivan. This time, he found perfection, writes Barry Rozner.
According to Elias, Wood is one of three pitchers in MLB history with at least 1,000 innings and a career rate of 10 or more strikeouts per nine innings (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez).

Here's what Baseball America had on Wood in the past, when he was an amateur.

Wood's career was a disappointment, writes Joe Cowley. He had unreal promise and painful setbacks, writes Rick Telander.

Before Wood walked off, Paul Konerko was hit in the eye.

Notables

• Chili Davis, the hitting coach for the Oakland Athletics, stands outside the batting cage and talks to the hitters as they take their swings, sounding almost like a boxing trainer during a round. He offers reminders and observations, phrases designed to help them in their swing maintenance, positive reinforcement.

"Stay short," Davis has been saying to Josh Reddick, over and over.

"It's gotten to a point where it's a broken record -- but it works," Reddick said over the phone on Friday evening.

Reddick, acquired in the offseason from Boston in the Andrew Bailey trade, has 10 homers, eight doubles, a triple and a slugging percentage of .532. A left-handed hitter, Reddick has hit well against left-handers and right-handers; he's hit well at home and on the road; and he's hit well early in the count and deep in the count: Six of his 10 homers have come in two-strike counts.

When the Athletics acquired Reddick, they liked the consistent power that he had shown in the minors, and they felt that during the 2011 season he had seemed to progress as a hitter and figured something out about himself.

Reddick believes he hasn't missed as many mistake pitches this season and has done better at grinding through an at-bat -- fighting off a tough pitch, fouling it off or taking it, to give himself another pitch to have a chance to attack. And this stems from his batting practice work with Davis.

"If I don't feel good in batting practice," Reddick said, "it's going to be an ugly body response [in games]."

Reddick worries less about where he's driving the ball in batting practice and more about the mechanics of his swing, of keeping his hands inside the ball, and preventing his swing from getting too long.

Stay short, Davis tells him, and will continue to tell him.

Justin Verlander's childhood hero was Nolan Ryan, and in a conversation this winter, Verlander mentioned to me that he loved Ryan's been-there, done-that reaction to his final no-hitter. This was the genesis of Verlander's understated fist pump after his second no-hitter in Toronto last year.

Verlander has such deep confidence that I'd be willing to bet that before the ninth inning started Friday night, he had thought about what his reaction might be if he closed out his third no-hitter against the Pirates. Would it be a subtle fist pump? A turn to catcher Alex Avila and a big smile? A small grin?

But after the Pirates' Josh Harrison looked like he couldn't even see Verlander's breaking ball on the first two pitches of his at-bat in the ninth, Harrison got the thick part of the bat on another breaking ball and dumped it into center field with one out. And Verlander looked nothing less than stunned, as if it hadn't occurred to him that he wouldn't get the last two outs.

From Drew Sharp's column, Verlander's postgame reaction:

    "God, it sucks," Verlander said when realizing again how teasingly close he came to becoming the sixth pitcher with three no-hitters. "It was a decent pitch. It wasn't out over the plate. Obviously, you want it, but what are you going to do? That's why it's so hard getting no-hitters. It doesn't take a hard one. It just takes the right placement."

This is part of the reason why Verlander is so great. He will never think about how lucky he needs to be to throw a no-hitter; he absolutely believes greatness is something he can achieve.

It's only a matter of time before Verlander throws his third no-hitter, writes Sharp. Verlander shrugged off the near-miss, writes John Niyo.

Harrison had been gearing up for a 100 mph fastball, as Lynn Henning writes. For awhile, it appeared that the Pirates were destined to be no-hit, writes Michael Sanserino.

From ESPN Stats & Information:

As usual, Verlander got stronger as the game went on. His fastball averaged just 91.4 mph in the first three innings, the lowest it has been through three in the last four seasons. From the seventh inning on, Verlander didn't throw a single fastball below 97. Only two Pirates hitters put a fastball in play after the fifth inning.

Average fastball velocity in innings 1-3: 91.4

Innings 4-6: 93.5

Innings 7-9: 97.9

NEXT LEVEL: Verlander had Harrison down in the count 0-2 before Harrison singled. Prior to Harrison's base hit, hitters were 3-for-36 (.083) with 21 strikeouts this season after being down 0-2 to Verlander.

Andy Pettitte was "the man" for the Yankees, shutting down the Reds. From ESPN Stats & Info, how Pettitte won:

A. Pettitte worked both sides of the plate to neutralize the seven righties in the lineup. He threw 74 percent of his cutters and 56 percent of his sliders inside, and 66 percent of his fastballs and 94 percent of his curveballs and changeups away.

B. Pettitte threw 11 curveballs, all for strikes. It's the first time in his 55 starts since 2009 that he threw all his curveballs for strikes (minimum five).

C. Pettitte used his curveball to get ahead, throwing eight of 11 on the first pitch. Only one hitter put the ball in play, meaning Pettitte got seven 0-1 counts off his curveball. He would strike out four of those seven hitters, all on sliders.

D. Only three of Pettitte's eight air outs reached the outfield. He induced four infield popups and another line drive to second base.

Pettitte made his 50th career interleague start Friday. Since interleague play began in 1997, only Livan Hernandez has made more interleague starts.

• Umpire Bob Davidson was suspended for one game, as was Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.

• Nolan Ryan downplayed the chances of the Rangers signing Josh Hamilton during the season. Look, Texas is not going to reach beyond its comfort level, as it designs offers, because of Hamilton's off-field history -- and that means that if Hamilton wants to max out his payday, he likely needs free agency to create leverage.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Eric Hosmer will go back into the Kansas City lineup today, and views his slump as crazy.

2. A slumping Jesus Montero was benched for a day.

3. Chris Young returned to the Arizona lineup.

4. Aubrey Huff is waiting for a chance to contribute.

A Houston developer is pursuing the Padres, writes Tim Sullivan.

Ron Roenicke shook up the Brewers' lineup, dropping Rickie Weeks to the No. 6 spot.

Dings and dents

1. Two Royals pitchers are now scheduled for Tommy John surgery.

2. Kyle McClellan might be able to avoid surgery.

3. Two Boston regulars went down with injuries.

4. Josh Tomlin had a pain-free throwing session.

5. Mike Morse is getting better.

6. It feels like the Padres are averaging about two injuries a day, and they had two players go down in their loss Friday.

Friday's games

1. The Mets used a catcher in relief.

2. Cole Hamels appears unstoppable these days, and so do the Phillies, who have won six straight.

3. Nick Markakis and the Orioles got to frolic.

4. Daniel Bard was wild. Bobby Valentine seemed more bothered by his pitcher's wildness than the umpire who ejected him, writes Scott Lauber.

5. The Braves continue to be road warriors.

6. Heath Bell had Carlos Zambrano's back.

7. Barry Zito picked up a victory.

8. A.J. Ellis knows how to work a count, and he drew a walk-off walk.

9. The Rockies had another rough night. They have a feel right now of a team headed for change.

10. J.P. Arencibia and the Jays beat up on the Mets. Jose Bautista is heating up with the weather, writes Richard Griffin.

11. The Twins have a win streak.

By The Numbers, from ESPN Stats & Info:

6: Tigers pitchers since 1961 to lose a no-hitter in the ninth inning.

10.3: Wood's strikeouts per nine innings, second-highest by a pitcher with 1,000 innings.

19: Home runs by Konerko against the Cubs, passing Barry Bonds for the most against a single opponent in interleague play.

1951: Last time a Cardinals player hit a game-tying HR with two outs in the ninth inning (or later) against the Dodgers, prior to Lance Berkman Friday.

Other stuff

The Rays' faith in Alex Cobb will manifest itself today.

Aroldis Chapman is being sued.

• The Reds are looking for more production from their leadoff spot.

• The government's star witness was pummeled under cross-examination in the Roger Clemens case. There were other needles from other players in the beer can that Brian McNamee kept.

• Ryan notices the Astros' improvement.

Rafael Furcal says Dee Gordon will be fine.

Todd Helton is trying to find his way out of an early-season slump.

And today will be better than yesterday.