In the eyes of many, Kerry Wood has never lived up to expectations. The 32-year-old right-hander doesn’t agree with that assessment, but there is no denying that the sky seemed to be the limit when Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros in just his fifth big-league start on May 6, 1998. His historic performance elicited comparisons to Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan, but despite ranking second all-time in K/9 with a mark of 10.382, Wood hasn’t achieved the Hall of Fame-level brilliance that so many envisioned. Plagued far too often by injuries, the native of Irving, Texas has nonetheless had a successful career since being taken as the fourth overall pick in the 1995 draft. Now the closer in Cleveland, after 10 seasons with the Cubs, Wood has a career record of 80-64 with a 3.67 ERA, and 54 saves in 334 appearances. Wood sat down with BP when the Indians visited Fenway Park on the last weekend of the season.
David Laurila: Your 20-strikeout game was 11 years ago this summer. Does that seem like a long time ago, or more like it just happened yesterday?
Kerry Wood: It goes both ways. There are times when it seems like it was forever ago, but there are also times when it seems like it wasn’t that long ago at all. It kind of goes with the career, I think. If you’ve been around long enough, some memories feel like they were forever ago and some of them feel fresh, so it kind of just depends.
DL: How do you remember feeling going into that game?
KW: I was actually telling the story to a couple of the younger guys last night, and I don’t remember throwing one strike warming up for that game. Maybe the last pitch I threw was a strike, and I thought, “Well, I threw one, and it’s not going to get any better than that, so let’s go.” Then I went out for the first inning and struck out the side, but I didn’t really start feeling like I was focused until it was about the third inning. I had a few strikeouts, and then it just started clicking. Everything worked, and the ball was going where I wanted to throw it.
DL: Two outings before your 20-strikeout game, you had one of the worst performances of your career, walking four consecutive batters, and hitting another, while not getting out of the second inning. How do you bounce back from a game like that?
KW: As you get more experience, and you do it longer… you’ll still see it in veteran players, but a lot of times, for young players, the game tends to speed up a little bit, especially if you haven’t spent a lot of time here. When you get into a funk like that, where you can’t throw a strike, it just magnifies, and now you’re thinking, “Okay, don’t walk this guy, because you just walked the last guy; I have to throw a strike.” As soon as you start thinking, “I have to throw a strike, I have to throw a strike,” you’re 2-0 and 3-0, and you’re walking guys. That was my problem my whole minor league career. I always walked guys, and people would always… coaches in the organization were always concerned about my walks. Then, at one point, when I got to Triple-A, I had one pitching coach tell me that he didn’t care how many guys I walked, as long as I didn’t let them score. That’s when it really clicked for me.
DL: Who was the coach?
KW: It was Marty DeMerritt. He really simplified it for me. I was struggling in Double-A-I had a rough year-but they moved me up, probably just to give me a change of scenery. My first day in Triple-A, I threw a side, I threw a bullpen, and he said, “What happened?” I was a mess. I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” He said, “Throw like you did in high school.” I told him that I was worried about the walks, and he said, “I don’t care how many guys you walk.” From that day on, I never really focused on… obviously, there are situations where you can’t afford to walk guys, but you’re not out there thinking about not walking guys before they’re in the box. But a lot of times, young guys get going, and the adrenaline kicks in, and they’re not able to step back and slow the game down. The more time you have out there, the more experience, and the more years you get, you’re able… you see guys who will lose it for a pitch or two, then they’re able to step off and get right back to work. I think that just comes from experience.
DL: You’ve cited Nolan Ryan as an influence on your career. How similarly do you feel you and Ryan view pitching?
KW: I feel like we might be similar, although today’s game is a little bit different. The strike zone is a little bit smaller, and the one-through-nine guys… I don’t know, I just feel the game is evolving every few years and guys get better and better and better and better. So I think the mentality that he had was, “I’ve got dominating stuff, and here is what you’re going to get. Let’s see what you can do with it.” I kind of had that mentality early on, especially at the start. Obviously, you don’t pitch as long as he did, and have the success that he had, unless you have the smarts, the brain, to be able to pull it off. You can be dumb enough to be good at this game, but you don’t go out and pitch for that long and not have an idea of what you want to do. I think that 95 percent of the pitchers that have long careers in this game are intelligent people and know what they want to do before the game starts. They know how they’re going to get a guy out the second time through the lineup, or at least they have a game plan.
KW: You know what? We’ve been in the pitch-count era for awhile now, at around 100 pitches, and I’ve seen… when I was in the minor leagues, I was never allowed to go over 100 pitches. Then, when I got to the big leagues and it was time for me, in the fifth or the sixth inning, to go over 100 pitches, it was all new to me, so now I’m learning at the big league level. You see it all the time here. Guys get protected in the minor leagues. And it’s both ways. You’ve got investments in young guys; you’ve got future big-league players that you don’t want to hurt or damage, but you also need to teach them. I think that if they’re prepared physically, which we all think we are, but now, looking back at my first few years in the league, I was not in good enough shape. I think that’s where a lot of my injuries came from, from not being in as good shape as I needed to be to have that 200-inning workload. So I hope that it works out for [Ryan]. I think that it’s a great thing that he’s doing, and I completely agree with what he’s doing. The unfortunate thing about it is that if he has a couple of key guys go down from arm injuries, everybody is going to abandon that theory. But I do believe that it’s the right theory, and I do believe that guys should be able to go out and throw 120-125 pitches every fifth day.
DL: John Smoltz has said that while people have generally viewed him a power pitcher, he’s never really looked at himself that way. How do you see yourself?
KW: You know what? He’s been doing it for a long time, and he’s one of the guys who has been fortunate enough to have both. He was also around Maddux, who was the pitcher. Maddux didn’t have overpowering stuff by any means, but he dominated games every fifth day. He dominated with his head. I would love to say that I’m a pitcher first, but I’m realistic and know that I’m really not. There are days that I go out and I do pitch, but I’m more successful when I go out there with my best stuff and just go after guys. I’m going to make more mistakes, but you can afford to make a few more mistakes with power stuff. I would rather classify myself as a pitcher, but I’m not sure that I can.
DL: Would it be fair to say that you’ve never significantly evolved in the way that you approach pitching?
KW: No. I think that I evolved as a starter. I liked knowing how to set guys up for their second and third at-bat. Now, coming out of the pen, you get one inning, so there’s not a whole lot of thinking; it’s more, “Here’s my best stuff. I have to get three outs, so I’m going to come at you.” I think that once I went to the pen, that process of pitching and setting guys up kind of eluded me a little bit. You have to focus on your strengths, especially coming in late in games. You obviously want to know their weaknesses, but you’re still going to go to your strengths. From a starting standpoint, I think you’re mentally more into the game, inside the game, because you and the catcher have your own little game going with hitters. You’re setting guys up, and the rest of the game is going on behind you. Coming out of the bullpen for one inning, it’s more, “Here’s my best stuff, let’s go.”
DL: Who most influenced your transition from a starter to a closer?
KW: I was fortunate that I got to play with Rod Beck, and I saw him close. I played with [Ryan Dempster]; I played with guys who have done it in the eighth inning, guys who have started, like [Mike Remlinger], and then been in the pen. I took a little bit from everybody. Still, I kind of didn’t want to clutter my head with a bunch of different ideas from a bunch of different guys, so I really tried to keep it as simple as I could. Just watching those guys, I always kind of thought that it would be fun to close, and when I got the job last year, I just tried to keep it as simple as possible. It was strike one and go after guys. It really simplified my process of pitching once I began coming in for just one inning.
DL: From your perspective, what was Rod Beck’s approach?
KW: He did it for so long, and he was so successful doing it. I was a young player watching him do it, and no matter the situation, he was the same guy whether he saved 15 in a row or blew 10 in a row. He was the same guy every day, and that’s… especially for late-in-the-game guys, that’s the biggest part. Whether you have a good day or blow the game, you want to be the same guy the next day, and it’s hard. It’s hard to come in here and have confidence, especially when you blew one the night before, and look that starting pitcher in the face. He had the ‘W‘ lined up and you lost it for him. You also lost the game for the team. So it’s tough to come in after a bad day. You know, Bob Howry was a guy I was with in the pen the last couple of years, and I took a lot from him. He bounced back after good days, and from bad days even better. For me, that’s been the biggest thing, being able to shake off the bad ones. But pitching-wise, you get a little bit from everybody. You get some from the coaches, and honestly, at this level you get a lot more from the guys you play with, and even against, because they’re out there doing the job with you. We’re all in the same boat. I know what the closer on the other team is going through, so I can learn from him, even though we’re trying to beat each other. There’s a select group of us that play baseball, and we’ve got to feel like we’re a family and be able to share stuff with each other.
DL: You mentioned Marty DeMerritt earlier. Have other pitching coaches made a notable impact on your career?
KW: One of my pitching coaches, a guy who actually passed away in a car accident a few years ago in the Dominican, was Oscar Acosta. I had him in both the minor leagues and in the big leagues. He was probably the biggest influence. He was my first pitching coach in Rookie ball, and we kept in touch. Then he made it to the big leagues with us, so I had him there, and he was probably the most influential. Of course, I also spent seven years with Larry Rothschild. Pitching coaches matter. They’re essential for anybody, even veteran guys. We all need to get back on track, and we all need somebody, especially when we’re throwing on the side, to be able to say, “Hey, you’re doing this, fix it,” and boom, you go right back to it. It would be great to have a guy standing behind you on the mound, during the game, to tell you, pitch by pitch, what you’re doing wrong, but like I was saying earlier, the more you’re out there, the more you’re able to kind of fix it yourself. Even veteran players need pitching coaches to say, “Hey!” When you get out there, you don’t always think as clearly as you do when you’re sitting and watching it from the side. So it’s always beneficial, and for the young guys it’s huge. It’s their first taste of someone teaching them at this level, or maybe it’s their first professional coach. I think they’re essential.
DL: What separates one pitching coach from the next?
KW: There are just different guys. There are mechanical guys, there are motivational guys, there are guys who help you with the approach, there are guys who help you with pitch selection, and there are guys who do a couple of each. There are guys who help you with off-the-field stuff, if you’re not going well and don’t know how to handle things. Pitching coaches are all different, and that’s why they move around so much. It’s hard to have one pitching coach who can cover all four or five facets of a pitcher. So a lot of times you’ll get that mechanics guy or, like I said, someone who just stays positive and keeps reinforcing the good stuff. And there are obviously guys out there who light you up when you do bad stuff, and sometimes that’s good for guys, and sometimes it’s bad. There are so many different styles of doing it that you can be successful in different ways.
DL: Which style of pitching coach has been best for you?
KW: Well, it was Marty and Oscar, and with those guys, if you made a mistake, you knew it. They didn’t let it slide. They expected a lot out of their guys. But again, not everybody needs that kind of criticism. Some guys can handle it and some can’t. It’s the same thing with being a coach, or a manager, they’re going to handle every player differently. There are different personalities, different upbringings, different make-ups. But for me, I don’t mind when someone gets on my ass and kind of wakes me up. I kind of need that, and I think that we all need it at some point.
DL: How important are catchers to a pitcher’s success?
KW: Catchers are huge. Catchers are huge, especially for younger guys. Older pitchers can help younger catchers, but it’s a lot easier to do your job, and the job’s not easy by any means, but it’s easier to do your job when you’re not fighting the guy that’s calling the game. Once you get on the same page, it’s a lot smoother. And even if it’s the wrong pitch that you both agreed on, at least you both agreed on it and threw it with conviction and with a purpose. That makes a lot of difference. Even if it’s the wrong pitch sometimes, if you have a purpose with it, most of the time it’s going to be a successful pitch. So, catchers are big, especially late in the game defensively, being able to block balls and not letting them take the extra bases. The catcher should be the captain on the field when he’s out there.
DL: What happens when you have a catcher you don’t like throwing to?
KW: You just try to get together and work on the page, and hope that you figure it out together. You sit down and talk. You’re both grown men, so you figure it out. You both have the same goal, which is to win, so you have to help each other. And it’s like that on every team. There are guys on every team that certain guys like to throw to more than others and it is what it is, so you better figure it out.
KW: Jeff Kent was just gritty. He stuck his nose in there, while I think that for me, Frank was afraid of the ball, so I could pound him inside and he didn’t want any part of it. Kent wasn’t afraid of the ball. He’d stick his nose in there, and he hit everything. He hit every pitch. He hit fastballs, curveballs, sliders. I actually threw him a sinker one time, and I don’t even throw that, and he hit it out. He hit everything. Full counts, ahead in the counts. I drilled him in the back, I drilled him in the ribs. I mean, I hit him a few times, but nothing seemed to work with that guy, so I’m glad he’s gone.
DL: With Thomas, was it simply a case of him not liking the ball inside and you refusing to give in and go away?
KW: Yeah, if you leave one out over the plate, he’s going to hurt you. Usually, when I was facing him, there was adrenaline for me. I was a young player and he was a superstar that I had watched growing up, so you get that little extra lift, you know. I knew he didn’t like the ball inside, and that was kind of my strength, so that’s where I went.
DL: Have you primarily worked to your own strengths over the course of your career?
KW: I think that everybody who takes the mound pitches to their strengths. Some guys exploit the weaknesses of the hitter more than others, but for the most part, I think that most of us go out there and pitch to our strengths.
DL: Are you a future pitching coach?
KW: I don’t think so. I don’t know if I have the patience. I don’t think I could deal with 13 different personalities. Pitchers complain a lot.
DL: If your career were to end tomorrow, how would you look at it? Would you be satisfied?
KW: You’re always going to wish there was more, but I’m very satisfied. The average big league career is about two and a half or three years, and I’m looking at 12. I feel like I’ve had a great career. Some people will say that I didn’t meet expectations, but I met my expectations. I never thought I’d be in the big leagues, period. I struck out 20 in my fifth start, and expectations were that I had to be the next Roger Clemens, I had to be the next Nolan Ryan, I had to break records, I had to do this, I had to do that. And if you get a couple of injuries and don’t do it, then all of a sudden your career is a failure. I don’t see it that way at all. I’ve had a great career, and I’ve had a great time doing what I’m doing. I’ve been playing this game since I was five, and I’m going to play until my body completely shuts down and doesn’t let me do it anymore. I’ve had a blast. I’ve met a lot of great people, and seen a lot of great cities, and loved every minute of it. So yeah, I’m satisfied.