Chicago Cubs: Kerry Wood’s 1998 rookie season was an unforgettable ride

Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Kirn /Allsport
Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Kirn /Allsport /

If you mention ‘1998’ and ‘Kerry Wood’ to any Chicago Cubs fan, one thing will almost certainly follow: some mention of his 20-strikeout performance against the Houston Astros.

And, rightfully so. It’s arguably the best-pitched game in baseball history and given that was just his fifth career start, it’s no shock that Wood’s legacy can almost singlehandedly be summed up with just that outing. But the right-hander’s 1998 rookie season was much, much more than that unforgettable start at Wrigley Field early in the year – and it’s worth looking back at.

Things got off to a bumpy start for Wood – who immediately showcased dominant stuff, but really struggled to hit his spots early on. In the season’s first month, he struggled to a 5.89 ERA across 18 1/3 innings of work. The strikeouts were there, sure, as he racked up 25 – but he also walked 12, en route to a 2.08 K/BB mark.

When the calendar turned to May, something clicked and Wood was near-unhittable all month long. His first start that month was his 20-strikeout showing against Houston – and when you pair that outing with his next two starts, the numbers are ridiculous for any pitcher, let alone a rookie.

In that run, opponents hit just .110 and Wood threw 66 percent of his pitches for strikes. In May, he averaged more than 15 strikeouts per nine – a ridiculous bar we haven’t seen in some time. When he was hitting his spots, there wasn’t much opponents could do. From April 30 through June 3, the right-hander notched a quality start every time out, but growing pains set in shortly thereafter, evidenced by a 4.22 ERA that month.

The story for Wood was being effectively wild. The swings and misses were a constant – but when he missed the zone by a wide margin, no matter how good his stuff was, it was a lot easier for batters to lay off. Wood quickly rebounded in July, though, notching 53 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings of work with a 2.08 ERA.

Looking back at his numbers, there were ebbs and flows as the 20-year-old (at least until his birthday in June) navigated his first go-round at the big league level. But there was never a stretch where opponents just figured him out. The best month they had against him came in June – and all they managed was a .712 OPS, batting .222 in the process.

Chicago Cubs: Kerry Wood’s rookie season is worth remembering – even now

As the dog days of summer hit, Wood battled through fatigue and he wound up missing the final month of the season with elbow issues. Of course, as we know now, he wound up tearing his UCL the following spring – but his body of work in 1998, despite that missed time, still wound up leading him to NL Rookie of the Year honors.

As Wood went, so went the Cubs. In games he won, he didn’t just keep the team in the game – he put them on his right shoulder and went to work. In his 13 wins, he worked to a 1.45 ERA and racked up 139 punch outs in just 93 1/3 innings of work. And getting back to that ‘effectively wild’ moniker, he carried a 4.08 SO/BB ratio in his victories, which far outperformed the 1.71 mark in losses and 1.93 clip in no-decisions.

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I’m not saying it was a perfect rookie season from Wood. But it’s one that we haven’t seen replicated by a Chicago Cubs rookie since. Hopefully, amidst the team’s up-and-coming crop of young arms, we won’t have to wait too much longer – but even being optimistic, that seems unlikely.