Ranking the 5 best expansion era seasons by Cubs rookie pitchers

Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Kirn /Allsport
Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Kirn /Allsport /
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Extra! Extra! The Chicago Cubs are developing pitchers! With an influx of rookie pitchers on the horizon, it’s a good time to look back on the five best Cubs rookie pitching seasons during the expansion era (since 1961). WAR figures come from Baseball Reference.

#5 Kerry Wood 1998, 13-6, 3.40 ERA, 129 ERA+, 3.9 WAR

Remember Pitcher Abuse Points? The basic idea is that somewhere beyond, say, 100 pitches each additional pitch does incrementally increasing damage to a pitcher’s arm. Kerry Wood’s career became a billboard for pitcher abuse: an extremely promising young pitcher done in by managers far more familiar with spittoons that statistics. Manager Dusty Baker is, to this day, vilified for grilling Wood’s arm like a cheap steak.

Let’s unpack that. Wood’s rookie season featured the impressive stats listed above, as well as league-leading strikeout and hit rates. But looming over all this was The Game, yes, that game – the one some have called the best pitched game ever. Twenty strikeouts and one feeble hit cemented Wood’s place in baseball history.

Wood threw 122 pitches in that game,120 pitches or more in eight games that year, and over 100 in 21 of his 26 starts. It was all too much for his ulnar collateral ligament, which downed tools after Wood’s stellar rookie season. He would miss the 1999 campaign, returning from Tommy John surgery – probably too early – in May 2000 to post his only ‘bad’ year as a starter. Wood threw over 3,000 pitches per season from 2001-2003. He would never again have a full season as a starter, though he had several effective seasons in short relief.

Baker was fingered as the villain, but he only showed up in 2003. He did put the most pitches in a single season on Wood’s arm of any manager Wood played for (3543 if you’re keeping score at home) but that arm already had a lot of mileage on it. Moreover, 3000 pitches in a season just wasn’t that unusual back then.

Arms control: Number of pitchers with at least 3000 pitches

  • 2002: 57
  • 2012: 54
  • 2022: 13

Wood quite inadvertently helped change baseball, albeit slowly. He was brilliant for just long enough to demonstrate that his brilliance was no fluke, and ridden hard enough to demonstrate that the throw-until-it-shreds approach could derail not only a promising career but a significant piece of a team’s playoff hopes.

Kerry Wood probably couldn’t happen today; teams are unlikely to work a promising young pitcher that hard for that long, especially one with an injury history. Baker, for his part, moderated his approach to starter usage, to the point that he’s pulled Justin Verlander from two games this season in which Verlander had yet to surrender a hit.