The Kerry Wood 20-strikeout game was one of the greatest individual performances in baseball history. There is no argument from the peanut gallery, no dissent from the contrarians among you. There might be a Flat Earth Society of people who don’t believe this, but half of them are being ironic. Wood’s 20-strikeout game was 20 years ago, and it’s only right to gawk at it.
I’ve told this story before, but six years ago is 18 years in internet time, so I’m gonna tell it again: After hearing about the game, I raced home and waited for Baseball Tonight. They showed all of the strikeouts, and it was like watching The Godfather for the first time. The fastball was hopping, the curveball was befuddling, and the slider snapped through time. It was a formative baseball experience.
And then when Baseball Tonight ended, I didn’t see any of it again for years. Gather ‘round, children, as I tell you about a time before there was access to every single baseball highlight whenever you wanted one. I kicked myself for not taping the highlights, and I just had to wait and wait and wait for ESPN Classic to show the game again.
I waited years.
It’s 20 years later, and if I push a button on my magic phone, highlights beam down from space. The future is awful in a lot of ways, but it’s pretty sweet if you’re interested in Kerry Wood highlights. Which I am.
In honor of the anniversary and in honor of there being easily accessible video, here is a ranking of all 20 strikeouts. They’re all special, of course. But some are just a little more special than others.
20. 15th strikeout (breaking ball)
This ranking has absolutely everything to do with the camera angle, which was awful. At least it allows me to be up front with the idea that this is a ranking of the aesthetics of all 20 strikeouts. That is, which ones are the purtiest. This one might have been the nastiest pitches, but we’ll never know because the Astros’ broadcast used their moon camera.
Hope you’re happy, moon people. You ruined a perfectly good strikeout.
(Although if you’re really interested, pssssst, check out this not-quite-MLB-friendly video of the Cubs’ telecast. It was a slider, and it was naaaaaasty. Top 10, probably. Maybe top five. But we’ll use the official video for the ranking.)
19. Third strikeout (fastball)
It was a fantastic pitch in a two-strike situation, and a Hall of Famer was helpless. But it probably wasn’t a strike. It’s hard to tell with the camera angle on a lot of these, but that looks like it could be high and outside, even if just a little.
Still, it speaks to the kind of stuff he had on that night that this is the second-least interesting strikeout pitch of the bunch. It’s a pretty great pitch.
18. Eighth strikeout (fastball)
Do I give points for the paint, or do I issue demerits for the umpire blowing the call? I think the latter because it definitely wasn’t a strike.
Still, Wood hit the target his catcher set for him. Like, whoa, right there. And that was the best part about this game: Wood usually had iffy command. His raw stuff allowed him to dominate, but he was never Pedro Martinez, hitting all of the quadrants with all of his pitches, whenever he needed to.
Except in this game. This one ranks higher than the previous one because that catcher’s glove never moves.
17. Sixth strikeout - fastball
I’m learning a lot about myself and my strikeout preferences. Watching a hitter swing through a ball like this is more satisfying than watching an umpire ring up a hitter on a pitch that is just outside the strike zone, so this moves up, even if it wasn’t a superior pitch to the one before.
There are levels to the inherent beauty of a strikeout, people.
16. First strikeout - fastball
No big deal, just a pitcher making Craig Biggio look like he took a report card that read “30 career hits” and added two zeros to fool his parents.
(And you’re right to think, “Wait, how can this be only 16th?” The answer is that they were all good pitches. Every one of these pitches is a puppy, and they are all good boys.
15. 12th strikeout - fastball
If we’re giving demerits to pitches that weren’t strikes, what about the ones that catch too much of the plate? Shouldn’t they be judged more harshly?
Maybe. But I keep watching that movement, over and over again. Even if there was a swing, it wasn’t going to matter.
14. 14th strikeout - fastball
He was late, but he wasn’t as late as ...
13. 13th strikeout - fastball
It was a full count, and Bagwell was thinking, “He’s gonna throw a fastball. Be ready for it. He’s gonna throw a fastball. Be ready for it.”
He threw a fastball.
Bagwell wasn’t ready for it. This is what I look like when I step into the 90-mph cage after not swinging a bat for three years. After a few swings, I might foul a couple off, but my first swing always looks like this.
12. Fourth strikeout - fastball
This is one of my favorites because it misses the target. It was one of the few pitches that Wood didn’t want to throw. In another situation, it would have been a danger pitch.
As is, the fastball absolutely humiliated another major leaguer. Jack Howell had a long and varied career, both in Japan and the United States, but none of it prepared him for that kind of fastball.
11. 17th strikeout - fastball
Jose Hernandez’s swing was so late, it almost fouled off the first pitch of the next at-bat.
10. 18th strikeout - slider
It’s at this point that I’m realizing I’m having troubles differentiating the sliders from the curveballs. I think this has the velocity of a slider, but it also goes straight down, similar to his curve.
And if I have troubles telling from home, Jeff Blauser just might have problems picking it up from the batter’s box. Don’t want to speak for him, though.
9. 10th strikeout - curveball
Ah, now we enter the “hitters looking like they’re seeing a breaking ball for the first time” territory. Is it a coincidence that Dave Clark retired after the 1998 season? Probably.
But maybe not.
A hitter getting fooled that badly is just the 9th-best strikeout. I need to sit down for a bit.
8. 11th strikeout - fastball
This is the platonic ideal of a fastball. It had velocity. It had movement. It was thrown exactly where it was supposed to be thrown. If Wood could have done this regularly, his career numbers would have been even sillier.
7. Seventh strikeout — slider
Let’s look at a gif of this one:
Why is it not the top strikeout pitch? It was a little up. We’re looking for boogers inside of Mona Lisa’s nose, but when you get down this far, you have to make up the reasoning as you go along.
6. Second strikeout - curveball
My favorite kind of curveball is the type that ends up in the strike zone, yet still prompts wild, flailing swings. If Derek Bell takes this pitch, he strikes out. But he can’t hit it. But he can’t take it. But he can’t hit it. But ...
While there are times when I wished the official MLB video used the Cubs’ broadcast, it’s fun to hear the voices of announcers who have never seen Wood before. In the second at-bat of the day, he unleashed this freaky demon curve, and it had to have blown minds. Twenty years later, I’m still stunned.
5. Fifth strikeout - fastball
There is so much violence in this one, both in the heat-seaking fastball and Moises Alou’s swing. The movement carried it into Alou’s body, and by the end, it was nearly at his shoulder. And yet you couldn’t blame him for swinging. It was self-defense, really.
4. 16th strikeout - curveball
While Bagwell couldn’t do anything but bend out of the way, Clark thought he could hit that. Halfway, through his swing, he thought, “I can’t hit that!”, so he stopped. Turns out, he probably could have hit it. It would have been called a strike, at least.
And it came in a 3-2 count. A pitch like that is against the spirit of the law, sir, if not the letter.
3. Ninth strikeout - fastball
One day, there’s going to be a pitcher who can do this 90 percent of the time. That is, throw 100 with movement and the kind of pinpoint accuracy to make hitters give up mid-pitch, and do it with nearly every pitch. While this supercut of strikeouts doesn’t tell the whole story — Wood most certainly did miss some pitches and have the kinds of wild moments you would expect from a 20-year-old rookie — when he hit the glove, he was untouchable.
Imagine seeing a kid for the first time, realizing he has both a curveball and a slider from the gods, preparing for those pitches, and getting this Maddux-and-Aroldis-lovechild of a fastball. Wood never had great command, even as a veteran. But in this game, he had his moments. Here was his best hit-the-glove moment.
2. 20th strikeout - slider
That was his 122nd pitch of the game. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating this game. Maybe we should look at it like a cautionary tale, a reminder that young talents like this weren’t taken care of properly. Wood made six starts that July and averaged 118 pitches during that stretch.
On the other hand, if Jim Riggleman pulled him early, we wouldn’t have gotten the chance to see Wood hit the eject button on Derek Bell’s soul.
I can’t imagine being a baseball fan without this game, so I’ll just assume whatever was going to happen was going to happen without the high pitch counts. Now let me watch this slider again.
1. 19th strikeout - slider
The best part is that Wood screwed this pitch up. From the Chicago Tribune’s oral history:
I got him out in front of a slider that was one of my worst of the day. It was belt high, didn’t have any depth to it. And it just kind of went sideways.
So the pitch wasn’t the best. And if you look at it with a critical eye, you can see that there’s a little hump in the slider.
Still, it broke 14 feet, and it made Bill Spiers look hilariously bad. I don’t think he was looking for a slider. I think he was looking for a basketball.
Also, Bill Spiers apparently talks like Gomer Pyle. Read these quotes in Jim Nabors’ voice:
Spiers: I had my role as a utility player and didn’t start that day and was watching the whole thing unfold and going, “Jeez-iree.”
Spiers: In my mind I said, “Here comes a fastball.” And I see a fastball in. Then I remember thinking midswing, “Oh, great day! This is a curveball!”
But, more importantly, note that Spiers also couldn’t tell the difference between a slider and a curveball. Sometimes, all you know is that the thing is moving.
In the end, the Astros were an offering to the baseball gods. They were placed on an altar and ritually disemboweled in front of the whole world, and we must thank them for their sacrifice. Metaphorically, at least.
In reality, nobody really knows what happened to the Astros after that day. But no one really knows for certain, and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.