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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.

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