By Scott Barzilla

On May 6th, 1998 Kerry Wood burst on the national stage. He tied a major league record set by his childhood hero Roger Clemens with 20 strikeouts in a game. The Texas born hurler made mince meat of the Houston Astros that day in route to the Rookie of the Year award that season. He finished that 1998 season with a 13-6 record and 233 strikeouts. He was only 21 years old at the time. Everyone thought he would wind up in Cooperstown. He might end up there one day, but he’ll have to buy a ticket like the rest of us.

We probably should have known something was wrong when he missed the entire 1999 season with an arm injury. The Cubs had one of the best young rotations in baseball in the early 2000s. Kerry Wood joined fellow hurlers Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano to take the National League by storm in 2003. Wood was 14-11 that season, but sported a 3.20 ERA in 211 innings. That’s a pretty good mark considering it was the height of the steroids era.

For the sabermetrically minded, he set career high marks in strikeouts, value over replacement player, and wins above replacement. His superstar teammate Mark Prior had his only ML season with over 200 innings that season. He was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA. He had a sparkling 6.7 wins above replacement player (WARP) in a season that seemed to point him towards the Hall of Fame. He would never throw a major league pitch after turning 25. Yet, he is still talking comeback to this day.

Perhaps the saddest case is Carlos Zambrano. He was only 22 at the time and was 13-11 that season. Still, he had a 3.11 ERA and worked 214 innings that season. He has enjoyed more success than both Wood and Prior, but the effects of overwork can be seen clearly. He is only 31 years old, but has seemingly made the adjustment to pitching like an old man. Sure, it is nice to see him bounce back in Miami this year, but it is sad to see someone that should still be at the top of his game getting by on guile.

Instead of winding down a career as one of the most dominant starters in his generation, Kerry Wood will serve as a cautionary tale on how not to handle young starters. I watched that fateful game back in 1998 and remember being mesmerized by an electric fastball and absolutely filthy breaking stuff. His slider seemed to explode at the last minute. Images of Derek Bell waiving meekly at that slider can still be seen on YouTube. Still, the intervening years are a less gentle reminder of the volatile nature of pitching. Today’s stud is tomorrow’s also-ran. Enjoy your Yu Darvish and Stephen Strasburg. If you blink it might be over.

Scott Barzilla

Scott Barzilla is the editor in chief at hardballchat.com. He is also the author of four books, including The Hall of Fame Index. The Hall of Fame Index was nominated for the Sporting News Award for statistical innovation in 2011.

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