In the days leading up to the Cy Young Award announcements, a few New York Met fans I spoke with at my office were convinced that R.A. Dickey was not going to win simply because he threw a knuckleball. Happily, that turned out not to be the case as Dickey won in a rout, garnering 27 of 32 first place votes. Knuckleball practitioners everywhere probably rejoiced seeing one of their own winning the most prestigious pitching award in baseball. With that in mind, I would like to take a look at the career of Wilbur Wood, a player who sadly, I never got a chance to see pitch, his career over after the 1978 season.
When we think of knuckleballers from Ted Lyons to Hoyt Wilhelm to Phil Niekro to Tim Wakefield, the one thing they had in common is that they were right-handed. The one guy I think of that was a left-handed knuckleball pitcher over the last 40 years is Wilbur Wood. All of the pitchers mentioned in the previous sentence seem to get more recognition that Wood, who enjoyed his best seasons with the Chicago White Sox. That is a crime. You know, when they talk about all-time pitching seasons, we hear Bob Gibson in 1968, Steve Carlton in 1972, Ron Guidry in 1978, Dwight Gooden in 1985 and Justin Verlander in 2011 among others. How about Wilbur Wood in 1971? He started 42 games, relieved in two others and had 22 complete games. The total number of innings pitched was 334 and the ERA was, get this 1.91. That’s right 334, a number that is about 70-80 more innings than what the top guy does today with an ERA under 2.00. Maybe the record of 22-13 holds down the amount of respect that deserves to go Wood’s way. Want more eye-popping stats? When you combine the number of innings pitched in 1972 and 1973, you come up with an astounding 736. He led the American League with 24 victories in both of those seasons. In fact, he won 20 or more games in four straight seasons from 1971 through 1974. In those four seasons, he pitched over 300 innings in every one of them. In three of those years, he finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting.
Perhaps because Wood’s period of excellence was relatively short is why he tends to get overlooked. After that 1974 season, Wood won 16 games in 1975 and then only 21 over the last three seasons of his career. Still that is no reason why his dominance in the early part of the 1970’s should be dismissed. After all, the idea is wins and getting hitters out and over that four-year stretch, there wasn’t many pitchers in baseball that were better than Wilbur Wood.
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