Kerry Wood is a Rorschach test, and your reactions to him are a window into your soul. One kind of Cubs fan might see him as a disappointment, a hall of famer who wasn't. Another might see him as a fulfillment of promise, an arm that took the Cubs closer to a championship than hundreds of the arms before it. Another might look at him as living proof that the human body wasn't designed to throw baseballs.
And some of us start with the 20-strikeout game. Most of us, even. This is my camp, as Wood was responsible for one of the purest baseball moments of my life. I wasn't there. I didn't watch live on television. I caught the highlights on SportsCenter, and then I cut class to watch a replay the next day. I also cut class to play Ocarina of Time three out of the next four days, but I promise, the Wood game was different. I'm not going to suggest I wouldn't be a baseball fan without that game, but wherever the tipping point was between hobby and passion, that game was behind me on the other side, helping push me the hell over.
In the pre-YouTube, pre-Napster, pre-high-speed Internet days, I still found a video of the highlights to download. It's probably still downloading now. It'll be ready any second. I've watched this version twice since I started writing this. I love that game, that performance, so very much. For a young, burgeoning baseball nerd, that combination of fastball/slider/curve was like watching baseball in six dimensions.
Which brings us to Corey Kluber. I didn't have the same reaction to his 18-strikeout game, even though it's far more accessible to me. I can watch a replay of the entire game on my phone while sitting on an airplane toilet, but Wood's game was the perfect performance at the perfect stage of baseball fandom for me, something I'll probably never quite recapture in the same way.
The Kluber game was like that for someone, though. Someones. Thousands of them. People who sat down to watch a baseball game and were led by the hand into the Narnia closet, where they were regaled by men with the heads of a lion and lions with the head of a strikeout. We watch so much baseball, so many hours of pitch-catch-return, that it can be a familiar tune we like to keep on in the background. Then we get this -- a rare, individual feat that takes over a team sport. People who have never even heard of the Wood game could argue that the Kluber game was empirically more special, and I wouldn't dare argue back. Kluber's performance was special enough to permanently live in a special compartment of a baseball fan's brain.
It sure could have been that much more special, though. Kluber was the 20th pitcher with 18 strikeouts or more in a nine-inning game, and just the 15th to do it in a nine-inning game, but he could have been one of the eight who have struck out 19, or he could have been three who's struck out 20. More importantly, he had a chance to be the first to 21 strikeouts in a single game. I don't know where that ranks in your personal pantheon of records and milestones, but it's pretty damned high on mine. There's something about the finite quality of 27 outs that sells me, with each new single-game strikeout record getting the game a little closer to the summit of Everest. I want them to strike out as many hitters as possible because it's there.
And that chance was ruined by pitch counts. We ran a long feature on legendary Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone yesterday, which was good timing since he just checked out of society to live in a cave with bears. The last words he said to another human being were "Pitch counts, man. Pitch counts. I am going to live with bears now."
Can you blame the idea behind pitch counts, though? Here is a valuable asset, perhaps the Indians' most valuable asset. That asset means more than the intangible satisfaction of a record or milestone. "Risk vs. reward" means more than "21 strikeouts would be neat," especially when there are millions of dollars and championship droughts to break.
If the idea behind pitch counts is rational, though, the science behind it is still murky. Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches today; pitchers are getting hurt just as often. That doesn't account for pitchers throwing harder, or the increased workload that teenagers tend to have when playing in a half-dozen different leagues around the year, so you can't make a one-for-one correlation suggesting that pitch counts are entirely useless. It's still a powerful, simple statement, though. Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches today; pitchers are getting hurt just as often. Maybe pitch counts aren't the most important thing?
Anecdotes abound. Yu Darvish threw 130 pitches in a blowout for no good reason, and now he's broken. Here's Mark Prior doing the same, and now he's broken. We've been through all this before, though, so let's really explore the value of one transcendent regular season game.
Offer Kerry Wood an extra year at the end of his career in exchange for that 20-strikeout game. Does he take it? I wouldn't. There are other questions -- is there a championship run in that season, how much money is involved -- but on a simple level, if I'm Wood, the transcendent game would mean more than an extra year in the bullpen somewhere. It's something that helped define a career, something that elevated him above most of the other pitchers of his generation.
However, there's one other pitcher who finished the eighth inning with a chance to break the nine-inning strikeout record: Randy Johnson in 1992. Give him a similar offer, but in reverse. He finished that eighth inning with 160 pitches, so offer him the milestone in exchange for ... a mystery injury. Hey, could miss a month. Could miss a year. Could ... well, it could be worse than that. But if you take the mystery box, history is altered, and you get a chance at the record.
I'll answer for Mr. Unit. No. The answer is no, thanks. He'll take the perfect game and the World Series, the MLB Hall of Fame career and the additional milestones. He doesn't need to look in the box. That eighth-inning hook can't possibly haunt him that much.
We know the reward that would have come with Kluber striking out the side in the ninth -- something that was still unlikely, mind you -- but we won't know the boundaries of the risk for a decade. Ask an Indians fan watching a parade in 2018 if they want a peek in the mystery box. Ask an Indians fan the same thing if there's no parade and Kluber isn't with the team anymore.
There has to be some accounting for the transcendent individual performance, though. There has to be some accommodation for it. And here's what I would base my decision on:
That's a pitcher who is not showing signs of fatigue. That's a fastball with superlative movement and velocity, something that would look out of place in the first inning only because it was such an electric, 94-mph fastball. That's a catcher who doesn't have to move his body to get to the pitch he called. That's Mark Reynolds striking out, which, okay, maybe he's not helping the argument.
But I'm not pulling Kluber after that pitch, that at-bat, that inning. He hadn't thrown more than six pitches to any batter since the second inning, and he had struck out two or more batters in his last six innings. He was pitching as well as almost any pitcher in baseball history, and the individual glory was worth the mystery box.
I keep Kluber in, at least until he shows signs of fatigue or ineffectiveness. Maybe I pull him if he gets his first out on a batted ball.
One thing I won't do, though, is pretend that's the one, true answer, the great truth that must be obeyed. Terry Francona and the Indians acted rationally. It might have robbed Indians fans of their purest Kerry Wood moment, but the consolation prize -- getting to watch that freakish game -- is a heckuva consolation prize. It's hard to watch something that magical and complain that it wasn't saturated with enough magic.