I was reading Paul Sullivan’s piece in the Tribune in which he wrote about Jon Lester helping to create (and embrace) the lofty expectations set for 2015, when I found myself caught up on this snippet:
Seeing No. 34 on the mound again still takes some getting used to. Lester wears Kerry Wood’s old number because his No. 31 was already retired by the Cubs in honor of Greg Maddux and Fergie Jenkins. Wood had to carry the pitching staff as a 20-year-old rookie in 1998.
I immediately flashed back to 1998 and remembered how great Wood was in his age 21 season.
Sure, it’s easy to suggest Kevin Tapani and his 19-9 record carried the club. But that is a bit misguided, considering that Tapani (in his age 34 season) posted a 4.85 ERA, 4.60 FIP, 1.397 WHIP and a 90 ERA+ in 35 games (34 starts).
Those numbers have league-average starter (at best) written all over them.
On the flip side, Wood’s numbers are more representative of what one would expect out of a pitcher carrying the staff.
Wood posted a 4.2 WAR as a rookie, per FanGraphs. It was the best number on the staff, ninth best among NL starting pitchers, and second best on the team behind league MVP Sammy Sosa’s 7.1.
In his starts, Wood struck out 233 in 166.2 innings, compiled a ridiculous 33.3 strikeout rate and a 12.6 K/9 — both of which led baseball. He also owned a 3.40 ERA, 3.16 FIP and a 129 ERA+ as a rookie. Of the starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, Wood was the youngest to rank in the top 25 in strikeouts, strikeout rate and K/9 (1st across the board), ERA (18th), FIP (8th) and WAR (24th).
Wood was only 13-6, but with the benefit of evolving as baseball fans, more of us now realize how meaningful (or meaningless) starting pitcher wins as a stat can be.
The Cubs went 18-8 (.690 winning percentage) in Wood’s 26 starts. In comparison, the Cubs were 19-15 in Tapani’s starts (.559).
And to think, Wood missed the first turn in the big league rotation to make a start at Triple-A Iowa, in which he struck out 11 in 5 innings. After his minor league cameo, Wood debuted on April 12, 1998, after being held back for the first 12 days of the regular season.
If that scenario sounds familiar, it should.
Additionally, Wood didn’t make a regular season start after being shut down after his Aug. 31 appearance against the Reds.
Wood’s 1998 season serves as a nice reminder of how overvalued pitcher wins can be when analyzing a player’s value or performance.
With Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta in tow, it’s a bit reassuring knowing the 2015 Cubs won’t be heavily reliant on the arm of a 21-year-old, expected to put up All-Star numbers as a rookie.
And that is refreshing, considering how much of a toll playing in the pressure-cooker that is Wrigley Field can take on a player — whether he is a rookie or a seasoned vet.
Let’s flash back to 1998, if only for a moment.
And if you listen closely, you might hear a little bit of Jim Deshaies on the Astros broadcast.