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The Kid K Complex: Kerry Wood and the Cubs' Infatuation With Strikeouts

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst ISeptember 11, 2009

CHICAGO - MAY 18:  Kerry Wood #34 of the Chicago Cubs yells after giving up a home run in the 3rd inning to Alfonso Soriano of the Washington Nationals on May 18, 2006 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

At least one unprecedented Cubs streak will end this year.

Chicago will likely finish this season second or third in the National League in strikeouts. That means that, barring an unforeseen rash of strikeouts by what will be predominantly inexperienced pitchers down the stretch, someone other than the North Siders will finish atop the NL strikeout team leaderboard for the first time since 2001.

That's eight consecutive seasons; no other team has recorded even seven straight years as the top strikeout pitching team in the league since the ridiculous 16 consecutive such seasons recorded by the Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers from 1948-63. of course, that team had half as many teams to best for the distinction as the Cubs have had.

Although the streak began in 2001, the trend it indicates can be traced back to an afternoon in May of 1998. On that day, a 20-year-old fireballer making just his fifth Major League start struck out a record 20 batters in one game. That young gun was Kerry Wood. His accomplishment sent shockwaves through the sporting world: he appeared at the top of sports telecasts, on covers of sports magazines, and all over Chicago itself, as the Cubs scrambled to capitalize on the marketability of their new right-hander. Wood would go on to win the 1998 Rookie of the Year, but miss much of 1999 and 2000 with various injuries.

When he returned to full strength at the dawn of the 2001 season, it was to find a team restocked with power pitchers. Cubs management retooled the entire pitching staff to fit a new philosophy that emphasized missing bats: the four pitchers who joined Wood in the 1998 rotation (Kevin Tapani, Mark Clark, Steve Trachsel, and Geremi Gonzalez) combined for just under 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings. In 2001, the only remnant of the 1998 group was Tapani, and between Tapani, Jon Lieber, Jason Bere, and Julian Tavarez combined to strikeout 267 more men in two-thirds of an inning less than that 1998 iteration.

Perhaps even more tellingly, six major contributors to the Cubs' pen in 2001 had at least as many strikeouts as innings pitched. Only right-handers Rod Beck and Terry Adams had maintained such rates in 1998, and then only very narrowly. Chicago clearly endeavored to make their pitching philosophy more coherent, and more concentrated upon the strikeout, as a result of Wood's emergence.

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To suggest that this was a mere marketing tactic would be unfair: Strikeout rates are highly correlated with a number of metrics that reliably indicate overall quality of pitching. However, the trend is impossible to ignore, and its advisability is somewhat in question. Have the Cubs stressed strikeouts too much in their development and evaluation of pitchers?

In short, yes. In no year of the streak did the Cubs lead the league in a statistic much more highly correlated with success, strikeout-to-walk ratio. And the team has spent lavishly on pitchers like Carlos Zambrano, Wood and Mark Prior, each of whom have delivered sky-high strikeout rates at the cost of sky-high walk rates.

Now that Wood is gone and the streak is all but over, the team might be wise to try and swing their focus toward a balance between stuff and control. Swingman Esmailin Caridad has the best control of any pitcher in the Cubs' system, according to Baseball America, and has 123 K against just 47 walks in 139.1 innings this season. Lefty reliever John Gaub of AAA Iowa has been even more impressive, with 180 K and just 65 BB in 124 IP over thje past two seasons. If the Cubs are smart, they will give both long looks at expanded roles next spring.

Maybe next year, they can start a streak of leading the league in a more meaningful stat like strikeout-to-walk ratio...and snap the other long streak they have going, too.

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