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March 18, 2014

Baseball's Seven Wonders

Kerry Wood's 20-K Game

by Sam Miller

The greatest nine-inning game by any starter was thrown by a 20-year-old who entered the outing with a 5.89 ERA in his four career starts, a career minor-league walk rate of 6.8 per nine, a career minor-league ERA of 3.91, and no complete games at any professional level. It came against the league’s best offense. The game was called by a catcher who had never caught the pitcher before, it was nearly interrupted by a rain delay that would have ended the pitcher’s afternoon in the seventh, it is infamous for a third-inning decision by the official scorer, and it’s notorious for the deleterious effect that its cumulative toll might have had on the pitcher who threw it. It also might very nearly have cost an umpire his life, though thankfully it didn’t.

Thanks to MLB.tv's beefed up historical archives, the 20-strikeout game thrown by Kerry Wood—with a game score of 105, the highest ever—is now available to watch in full online. So far, only 22,729 people have watched it, which seems low. That’s fewer, for instance, than the 26,000 people that Wood once joked have told him they were at the game. (The actual crowd, announced at 15,000, was most likely around 11,000.) I was the 22,730th to watch it on YouTube, and it’s a fascinating start. Wood is, in many ways, more dominant than I had expected. And the brilliance of the start is, in many ways, more ambiguous than I had expected it to be.

That’s the first pitch of the game, and it sort of feels like a joke you’d tell after the fact: He was so tough to hit the catcher couldn’t catch him, the umpire was in danger, haha, something like that. (Not a funny joke. But a joke.) Scott Servais had caught Wood’s first four games, but this was a day game after a night game, so Sandy Martinez was catching. Presumably he’d caught Wood before, in spring training. Certainly he’d at least warmed him up before. Definitely they’d met, right?

But he's ducking out of the way; doesn't look like he's even close to catching it. Biggio's ducking out of the way, and the pitch basically splits the heart of the plate. Only home plate ump Jerry Meals doesn't move.

What’s interesting is how quickly the Astros’ broadcast crew notices something special is happening in this game. “Kerry Wood has really set the world on its ear with his first inning of this game,” one broadcaster says after Wood strikes out the side in the first. The Astros’ crew brought up Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan as comps before the game, and they brought them up again in the first, and in the second, and so on.

In retrospect that pitch seems very significant, a sign of what was to come for the rest of the game, and it’s hard to watch and assess any part of this start in any way but in retrospect. This start is so fun to talk about, to imagine, to add meaning to, that when you watch it now you want to put each pitch into one of two categories: Is this a pitch that adds to the legend of the start, or subtracts from it? This fastball to Jeff Bagwell, on a 2-1 count, feels like it adds to it:

But maybe it’s the weight of history talking, not the whiff itself. We don't know, for instance, how hard it really was. Bagwell swung through plenty of fastballs in 15 years, probably even one or two from Francisco Cordova and Josh Fogg and Paul Wilson. Scouts told newspapers Wood was reaching 99, but it's not like we haven't seen that since then. With movement, but in a pre-PITCHf/x world, how much movement? Wood got 24 swinging strikes in the game, which is loads, but not historic by any means: Max Scherzer got 27 swinging strikes in six innings last year; Francisco Liriano got 30 in a game in 2012, when he wasn’t even good again yet; Wood himself got 27 swinging strikes in a game later that year.

So if that’s not what made the game special, what did? Or was the game really that special? I think these are some true statements that can be made about this start.

1. About 90 percent of the pitches he threw were right where he wanted them. The 10 percent that were not missed baaaaaadly.
For instance, in the sixth, he threw these two pitches to get ahead of Craig Biggio 0-2:

Then he threw two pitches trying to put him away:

There were about four multi-pitch sequences in the game that were as bad as those final two to Biggio, that made you appreciate how Wood could walk seven batters per nine innings. But when a pitch misses the strike zone by two or three feet, it (usually) can’t do much damage. When he was in the zone, he was phenomenal.

2. He was utterly in the Astros’ heads.
These are back-to-back strikeouts in the fifth inning, no pitches left out:

Six pitches, all strikes, no swings. There’d be little minitrends throughout the game where you thought the Astros had decided on some adjustment or another: Cheat fastball, or swing early, or take pitches and try to wait Wood out. In the course of each of these minitrends there would be terrible emergency swings and strike threes taken down the middle.

3. He couldn’t have done it without umpire Jerry Meals.
Meals, the home plate ump that day, gave him three to six inches off the outside corner to right-handers pretty consistently. Indeed, the game could probably fairly be divided into two sections. In the first six innings, Wood was electric and sensational but mostly skating by on called third strikes of questionable terminus.

Wood acknowledged this later—"Really, the thing that sticks out is, I got some pretty generous calls,” he said after rewatching the game years later. But the umpire Meals would say later that it was just a different era of umpiring. There were very few complaints, if any, from the Astros batters, other than a couple complaints over checked swings. You realize watching this game how much the strike zone has changed in the past 15 years.

4. He got better after the rain started.
The second section of the game, from innings seven on, were when Wood was really dominant. Fourteen of his 24 swinging strikes came against the final nine batters. This coincides with the rain’s arrival, and while Wood said he was certain that Meals was going to call for a rain delay—ending Wood’s night—the umpire never did. Gordon Lakey, a scout at the game, said later that “The conditions were perfect because it was overcast and tough to pick up the ball. At that time of the year, the hitting background at Wrigley is not that good.” On the other hand, one could easily create a competing narrative that the wet conditions might have made it more difficult for him to grip the ball and throw something like this, a 3-2 slider to Dave Clark with a 1-0 lead in the eighth:

There are some amazing pitches in that final three-inning run (Wood finished with 122 in total), but it’s the sequences that stand out the most. Like when he went slider (called strike), slider (fouled off), fastball (whiff) to put away Ricky Gutierrez in the eighth, or when he struck out Derek Bell on three consecutive sliders (whiff, whiff, whiff) to end the game. (Wood, incidentally, didn’t realize that Bell made 20 strikeouts—made history—until the post-game interview.)

My favorite is this one, ending the eighth against Brad Ausmus, again with no pitches left out:

5. The cheap infield hit that ruined his no-hit bid didn’t have to happen, but it was more Kevin Orie’s fault than the official scorer’s.

We asked Baseball Info Solutions to assess the likelihood that a such a batted ball would be turned into an out. “This specific play predates our collection, but we were able to estimate that similar plays become an out between 30-40 percent of the time given its location and velocity,” said Scott Spratt, a BIS researcher. By the end of the game, Cubs fans were holding up rain-streaked signs lobbying the scorer to overturn his decision, but he always stood by it, and he was right to. A scorer can’t penalize a fielder for failing to make a play that most often wouldn’t be made.

The thing is this, though: If Orie makes the play, and everything else follows in exactly the same order (which is obviously not how life works, but for the sake of conversation), then Wood gets his no-hitter. But the game ends one batter early, before Bell strikes out in the ninth, so Wood doesn’t get to 20 strikeouts. There have been hundreds of no-hitters. There have been four 20-strikeout games. Personally, I think Orie made the right decision.

Anyway, infield hit or error, the pitch was terrible.

6. At least some portion of what makes this game great is that it was Kerry Wood.
The second-highest game score ever (for a nine-inning game) belongs to Matt Cain, who struck out 14 in his perfect game two years ago. Cain’s fun, but if Cain had the best start ever it’d feel interesting but not significant. So much of what makes this game a wonder is that Wood had so little past, so we could project anything on him; and such an underwhelming future, so when we rewatch we get slimed by dramatic irony. The following day’s game story in the Sun-Times:

Four major-league games behind him.

And who knows what’s ahead of him.

Maybe more than tying the record 20 strikeouts of fellow Texas Roger Clemens? Maybe more than the seven no-hitters of fellow Texas Nolan Ryan?

As it turned out, he retired one no-hitter shy of tying Eric Milton’s career total. The guy who would subsequently be nicknamed* Special K, Kid K, KO, K-Man, Kamikaze Wood, Triple K Wood, The Woodman, The Big Heat, Hard Wood, Cannonball, Kid Fire, The Extinguisher, Prairie Fire, Texas Gold and The Texas Tornado would retire with nine fewer career strikeouts than Steve Trachsel. At one point in the broadcast, the Astros broadcasters note how cautious the Cubs have been with Wood, with pitch counts and precautionary trips to the disabled list. But Wood would say 14 years later that the first time he felt the pain in his elbow that would cost him all of the 1999 season came in this game, on the final slider he threw to put away Derek Bell.

So Wood was brilliant, he threw some of the most unhittable pitches I’ve ever seen, his sequencing was mad-scientist outlandish, his fastball touched 100, and he generally commanded his fastball, slider, and curve. He also made a lot of mistakes that, had they been slightly less mistakey, might easily have led to bad outcomes; he benefited from a very generous umpire; and he probably benefited from the weather. I’d say this: He probably wasn’t the best pitcher in history that day. I’d bet there have been at least a few dozen pitchers with better stuff, better command, better control, and/or a better plan than Wood had that day. Things could have gone very differently.

But, ultimately, what happens matters, and that’s why we remember this game so vividly: What happened in the game was untoppable, and what happened in the years after the game was unstoppable.

*allegedly

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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