Monday, August 24, 2009

Kerry Wood: Lessons Learned (or Not?)

On Blogger Day Part II at Nationals Park, we got a chance to interview Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. My question hearkened back to 1998, when Riggleman was the Cubs a 20-year-old rookie named Kerry Wood pitched a lot of innings, which was followed by Tommy John surgery and two full missed seasons.

In case you're unfamiliar, I recapped the basic facts of the Kerry Wood story in a post shortly after Riggleman was first named interim manager:
Wood was called up at age 20. He won the rookie of the year with a 3.40 ERA and 12.6 Ks per 9. He also walked 4.6 per 9 and was therefore prone to high pitch counts. Riggleman didn't care. He had Wood throw 166.2 innings, including pitch counts of 133, 129, 123, 123, 122 (twice), and 121 (twice). After the season, Wood had Tommy John surgery, missed two full seasons the next season, and has never become the guy he might have been.
Riggleman had just gotten done explaining how careful the team had been with Jordan Zimmerman, and I wanted to know what he'd learned over the last decade that caused him to advocate such a different approach.

Riggleman's answer fell a bit short of what I was hoping to hear.

The gist of his explanation was that the team was in the middle of a playoff race.
They needed to win every game, and Wood as a strikeout pitcher tended to run up big pitch counts. The fans would go nuts every time he took Wood out of a game. And one of their weaknesses as a team was the late-inning bridge between the starter and then-closer Rod Beck.

All that is fair, as far as it goes. After all, flags fly forever. The Phillies rode Cole Hamels pretty hard last year, and it's hard to argue with it now.

Riggles was unambiguous in his philosophy at the time: "I never asked for him to come up, but once he was there we treated him like everybody else."

Looking at Wood's innings and pitch counts, that's undoubtedly true, but I expected him to say they at least tried to protect him a little.

Eventually he said, "If I had to do it over I wouldn't have pitching him that much." That's what I wanted to hear, and if he had just left it at that, I probably would have been happier.

But he went on: "[Pitchers] just get hurt. It was probably inevitable. But your conscience is more clear if you take the conservative approach."

I can understand his desire for redemption. One of the most notorious pitching injuries in recent MLB history happened on his watch. It probably cost him his job in Chicago, and I'm sure he's sick of hearing about it.

But pitcher abuse isn't just a political PR problem. You don't err on the side of caution to protect yourself from criticism as a manager. You err on the side of caution because it reduces the risk of injury.

There's a wide body of evidence that usage does matter. Big innings jumps increase risk. High pitch counts increase risk. Wood had both.

Injuries will never be totally eliminated, but when a pitcher is asked to pitch a lot--especially when asked to pitch tired--the risk level goes up. Riggleman may not want to admit it, but he screwed up.

I came away with more concern than ever before that this isn't the guy to trust with premium arms like Stephen Strasburg. I don't want a manager who will unapologetically run a young pitcher into the ground. And I don't want a manager who can experience such a monumental setback and not really reevaluate his approach.


estuartj said...

I think you asking a tall order to get him to say he would have sacrificed the team's shot at the playoffs in the hopes that Woods arm would have been ok.

Riggleman could have shorted him by 50 innings that year, finished 4 games back and Woods STILL might have blown out his arm.

I am glad he said he would have taken it easier on him if he knew, but realistically he is absolutely correct, pitcher (and players) get hurt and the manager might be able to influence the number and extent of injuries, he cannot guarantee health.

That said I don't want (or believe) Riggleman will be the manager for '10.

Hendo said...

What bothered me was the way Riggleman ascribed a disproportionate share of the blame to the middle relief corps.

I think the Cubs' bullpen held up very well in '99, especially considering how uninspiring the non-Wood portion of the rotation was. Perhaps that last is the take-away here: flailing the daylights out of one starter to get to a playoff berth may be a Faustian bargain.

In any event, let's hope that Strasburg is used wisely as part of a stronger rotation than that of the '99 Cubs.

Steven said...

The Red Sox, Rangers, and Yankees are in the playoff hunt, and that hasn't stopped them from protecting Clay Buchholz, Neftali Feliz, and Joba Chamberlain.

I was as kind as I could think to be in the post. Really, I think it's a pretty gutless cop-out.

Anonymous said...

I'm an unabashed Cubs fan, and I can say WITHOUT question that it wasn't the overuse that killed Kerry's arm in 1998, it was his motion. Youtube the 20 K game, and watch his elbow snapping. I'm surprised his arm didn't fly off on one of those pitches.

The worse injury to Wood was by Dusty in 2003-04, where Wood (and Prior) were both slagged in order to get the Cubs to the World Series. Realizing, of course, that they were four outs away, it might have been worth it, but if you're going to rip a Cubs manager for overuse of Wood (and Prior), it ought to be Dusty, not Rigs.

Wood's motion in 1998 was an arm injury waiting to happen. When he came back from surgery after that injury, his motion changed, and he stopped throwing those nasty 12-6 curve balls.

Wood's a case study in "what-if". I'd love to see a simulation of his career without injury.

Dave Nichols said...

while i don't diagree that Wood was mishandled, i think we all pretty much agree Zimmermann was NOT mishandled, and still blew out his elbow.

the human arm was not meant to throw overhanded, and it's a violent thing to ask it to do so. believe me, i have hte scars to prove it and have another surgery scheduled.

i don't necessarily think Riggs copped out by saying "sometimes it happens". but that wasn't the case with Wood. he had a history of arm problems going back to high school, they were in a pennent race, and he was their most effective pitcher. the Cubs (and Riggleman) knew EXACTLY the risk they were taking.

that won't be the case here next year--racing to the pennant. hopefully whoever is guiding this team on the field remembers that.

Steven said...

The point isn't that Riggles definitely is or isn't at fault for Kerry Wood. The point is that he exposed him to a dangerous level of risk, and he should have learned a lesson.

The "right" answer from my point of view would have been something like this:

"At the time, I was balancing a bunch of factors. On one hand, there was a pennant race. On the other, the player's long term future. We tried to prioritize both as best as we could. Also, sports medicine has advanced in the last 10 years, and we know more than we did then.

"In hindsight, we didn't get that balance right. If I had to do it over again, I would have pitched him less, because asking a 20 year old to throw over 120 or 130 pitches really elevates the risk factor. An innings jump of 30 or more innings also increases the risk. So we shouldn't have done those things. Kerry still might have gotten hurt, but it was wrong to expose him to the significantly greater risk associated with the pitches and innings we had him throw. I won't do that again."

Steve Shoup said...


First off Kerry Wood only missed 1999, not 1999 and 2000. Yes he missed April in 2000 and some time later in the year, but to say it cost him 2 years is quite the exaggeration.

Also comparing what the Yankees, Sox and Rangers are doing now 11 years later is a bit unfair. They have the luxury of seeing the cautionary tale of Wood and others. Also, can we be so sure the Yankees would be so cautious if they were only .5 a game up or heaven forbid trailing in the AL East?

Finally, The Cubs fan was right a big part of the reason was because Wood had arm problems in the past and a very violent delivery. He could have gotten injured even if this pitch counts were lower. Look compared to J. Zimmermann, Wood was a major red flag candidate, yet it was Wood who was able to make it a full year before an injury struck not Zimmermann. While i'm def. in the camp that ascribes to the notion of pitch counts and inning limits for young starters, I think it isn't an exact science. We shouldn't throw Riggleman under the bus completely. I was satisfied with his answer, he doesn't deserve complete blame or a pass in this case and that is basically what he admitted.

Steven said...

Steve--You're right. Somehow I got it in my head that Wood missed two years. Not sure why I goofed that up. Anyway, good catch.

On the rest, let me repeat the point is NOT whether Wood's injury was Riggleman's fault or not. It's an unknowable question. I'm well aware of the critiques of Wood's mechanics, though I also think that you guys are overstating the case a bit. We just don't know enough about biomechanics to say that X = Y, this causes that, if you pitch this way you'll get hurt and if you pitch that way you won't. Just as you can't conclusively say it was the overwork, you can't say it was the mechanics definitively.

Regardless, however, Wood threw enough pitches and innings to be exposed to unnecessary risk. Click over to BP and look at the pitcher abuse points from that season. Wood's right near the top. That was a mistake, and it shouldn't be repeated.

Riggleman did NOT acknowledge that. He said he would do it differently because it would have saved himself from criticism. That's the wrong answer.

As for your Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers question, the Red Sox and Rangers are both right on the bubble.

Cubs4life said...

As an another unabashed Cubs fan that saw or listened to EVERY game in 1998 I feel the need to point out that Riggleman was hosed by the press and the fans regularly for not pitching Kerry Wood MORE. When Riggleman would come to get Wood the fans would literally go crazy followed by floggings from the press for losing a number of games by going to the bullpen after Wood and the other starters had pitched well. I can't tell you how many times Chicago sports talk radio lines were used up in complaining that Riggleman never left Kerry Wood in to finish his games. Especially in light of the fact that there were only two guys that Riggleman could safely use from his bullpen ... Rod Beck and Terry Muholland. Most of his bullpen that year were arsonists, trust me! So Riggleman is correct about his bullpen. It was a nightmare and it is truly to Riggs' credit that he won the wild card in '98 with that bunch and they are culpable and do play a part in causing Wood to pitch more than he should have.

Also, if you want to assign the blame for Kerry Wood's demise other than the fact that Wood's mechanics were a recipe for disaster (throwing across his body) ask about Wood's high school coach that had Wood pitch BOTH games of a double-header, eighteen innings worth to be exact. I'd like to point out that this happened after the Cubs signed Wood. You cannot blame Riggleman for that.

While Riggs probably should have been more careful with Wood, we all have the benefit of hindsight. Woulda, shoulda, coulda.

In fact, I would make the argument that Riggleman should be the guy entrusted with Strasburg as he is one guy that really understands what is at stake here. Riggs is a smart guy, he won't make the same mistake twice.

John O'Connor said...

If Riggleman screws up Strasburg through overuse, it won't be his fault. It'll be Rizzo's fault.

The GM is perfectly able to lay down the ground rules in terms of pitch counts, as well as dictating a day or extra rest hetre and there as appropriate. And the Nats won't be in a pennant race next year (I suspect). The idea that these things should be left to the manager, as opposed to his bosses, doesn't make any sense.

Steven said...

@Cubs4--The thing that bugs me about Riggles's comment is that he showed the OPPOSITE of awareness of what was at stake.

He said, "we were really cautious with Jordan Zimmermann, rarely if every had him go over 100 pitches, never let him get near 120, and he had a strict innings limit."

I said, "you think maybe it would have been a good idea to do that with Kerry Wood."

And he said, "Yeah, because it would have SAVED ME PERSONALLY FROM CRITICISM, but it would have MADE NO DIFFERENCE WITH WOOD."

That's NOT showing awareness of what's at stake.

As for the fans booing, whatever. The manager's job is to take the heat. If he seriously allowed the drunk yuppies in Wrigley to pressure him into abusing the best arm in a generation, then he shouldn't be allowed near anohter young player for life.

Steve Shoup said...


Couple of things I should have been clearer on in my original comment. In regards to those teams Red Sox, Rangers and Yankees their situation dictates what they've been able to do. Yankees i already mentioned, you don't know if they'd still be trotting guys like Gaudin and Mitre out there if they were in a tighter race. As for the Red Sox they knew to stock pile arms (though it didn't really work for them) so Bucholtz is a bad example b/c he wasn't relied upon to be a full year starter for them. As for the Rangers they've had 7 different pitchers start 10 games or more for them. And I think you are referencing Holland not Feliz, since Feliz has only been used as a reliever.

The Rangers have done a great job of protecting Holland. They didn't use him as a starter until the end of May (and gave him a few more relief appearances to keep his innings down), and haven't extended him too far into games. Now part of that is because Holland hasn't been lights out as Wood was back in 98. I think its hard to compare the two when one is a league average pitcher and the other was lights out as a rookie.

Deacon Drake said...

It's easy for us stat heads and bloggers to look back at the innings and pitch counts and shake our heads disapprovingly. Our jobs and happiness do not hinge on each win.

Riggleman's job, on the other hand, does. In the end, he is paid to win games. The GM scouts talent and fills the roster. We would all scream bloody murder if Lannan was yanked after 108 pitchers for Logan Kensing in a meaningful game, one with playoff implications.

From Riggleman's perspective, he is not a doctor. He is not a scout. And if he decided to not play his 25 best guys for a few games and it cost the Cubs the pennant, that is his fault. The fragility of the UCL is not.

The Nats have several young pitchers and they have been handled well this past year. That has not changed with Riggleman taking over. While Wood and J Zimm are tragic injuries, that blame does not fall on any one person.

Cubs4life said...

Steven: I think what Riggleman was trying to say was that no matter what he did, Kerry Wood would still have been injured.

I just read the transcript of his remarks and he also said this:

“And once he got operated on: ‘why did you pitch him so much? You left him out there too long!’ So l learned from it that if I had to do it over again—I would not have pitched him that much. I wouldn’t have known that he was going to get hurt, but if I had known he was going to get hurt, I would have said: ‘You know what? We are just going to have to lose these games.’ But, I didn’t know he was going to get hurt. And he didn’t really (’98). He pitched in the playoffs that year for us. When he came to spring training the next year, the wear and tear of that previous year, I am sure, was the reason his elbow blew out. You know, they (pitchers) just get hurt. When we (The Cubs) signed him, they said he had a ligament issue in his elbow—that was in high school. But he was so good, they signed him and we ran with it. So it was probably inevitable (Wood would get hurt).”

So what part of this did you not understand?

hleeo3 said...

Mechanics and repetition seem more important to me than pitch count and innings pitched. I dunno it is a complex issue anymore with the changes in the sport but you have to wonder how guys like Walter Johnson, Cy Young, and Nolan Ryan were able to do it for so long and so much. Walter Johnson doing 300 innings every year astounds me and they lived in a "barbaric era". I dunno if it is the breaking ball pitches that tear up these arms or lack of the leg kick but I do know that something is wrong with how fragile pitchers have become.

Steven said...

@Cubs4--Again, what I object to is that Riggles (and you can see it even more clearly in the longer quote you pasted in) is saying that the reason he would have avoided pitching him was simply to COVER HIS OWN ASS. He did NOT take any lesson about pitcher abuse. He's saying, "he would have gotten hurt anyway. I did the right thing, but to protect myself from criticism I should have rested him more."

Regarding the comment re: Wood's elbow in HS, doesn't it piss you off as a Cubs fan that this manager knew that the kid had an elevated risk, and still sits there today and says "we treated him like everyone else."

I understand Cubs fans prefer to chalk up everything to curses and fate and bad luck, but sad to say, some of the bad things that have happened to the Cubs were at least in part caused by poor management.

@Steve--I was talking about Feliz, who is on the Joba rules--can't pitch 2 days in a row, etc. But Holland is another example of the team appropriately refusing to sacrifice their long term value for short-term gains.

There isn't a huge gap between Wood, Feliz, and Holland, BTW. If you could take a snapshot of each in their rookie season, Feliz and Wood would be very, very close, then Holland probably a small notch down.

cubs4life said...

Steven: 'So l learned from it that if I had to do it over again—I would not have pitched him that much. I wouldn’t have known that he was going to get hurt, but if I had known he was going to get hurt, I would have said: ‘You know what? We are just going to have to lose these games.’

How is this covering his own ass? He acknowledges that he would have acted differently and would have opened himself up to criticism (as you so self-righteously declared he should do)by saying that they would just have to lose those games.

Not knowing a lot about your background, I can only assume that you have never spent much time on the north side of Chicago during a pennant race and as they happen so rarely there and I have been there for the recent ones, all I can say is it is extremely easy for someone to sit behind their keyboard waxing poetic on how a baseball manager should be mindful of young pitchers' arms while trying to wrangle the media circus surrounding a team that hadn't won a WS in close to 100 years (at that time), complaints of not letting the starters finish their games and costing your team wins while trying to control your clubhouse in the midst of the frenzy of a guy chasing the single season home run record. To say that Riggleman had quite a bit on his plate at the time would be an understatement. Don't misunderstand, this is not an excuse, it is just a statement of the reality of what was happening at the time.

You just don't like the guy, and no matter what he would say, you would find fault with it. It's really quite simplistic of you to declare that Riggleman won't change and that he would be the ONLY guy that holds Strasburg's future in his hands. Strasburg is the future of the Nats franchise and is going to be treated as such ... no matter whom manages the ball club.

cubs4life said...

"I understand Cubs fans prefer to chalk up everything to curses and fate and bad luck, but sad to say, some of the bad things that have happened to the Cubs were at least in part caused by poor management."

For the record, I forgot to add that I couldn't have said this better myself, I agree with you about the Cubs being the victims of poor management. It explains their struggles a lot more than goats and guys named Bartman.

Steven said...

Not knowing a lot about your background, I can only assume that you have never spent much time on the north side of Chicago

Funny you say that. I grew up in Arlington Heights and have been to probably 50 lifetime games in Wrigley, including pennant race games in 1984 and 1989, and I still have a Glenn Beckert, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams baseball cards as well as a priceless autographed Dick Tidrow.

You're really not reading Riggleman's statement right. He's saying he believes he was right, but that he would have done it differently because what he did caused him grief personally.

And I definitely don't "just not like the guy." That's such a tiresome defense.

cubs4life said...

Steven: You're the one not reading his comments right.

He's saying that pitching Kerry Wood less would have saved him from being criticized, but it would not have saved Kerry Wood's arm.

He's not saying that the reason he would pitch him less was to save himself from criticism. He said if he had it to do over again he would have pitched him less to save him from being injured. His comments about pitchers getting injured are a statement of fact. He was pointing out that even when you are careful (in Zimmerman's case) they still can end up being injured. He wasn't saying this to make himself feel better. That's the way I read it so we'll have to agree to disagree.

I feel the need to ask you. Were you still in Chicago in '98? If you were than you should remember how they savaged Riggleman in the press/the talk shows and the new fangled thing called the world wide net. Riggleman didn't care too much about being criticized then and he doesn't care too much about it now either.

Anonymous said...

Back in the day when there were no pitch counts hardly anyone blew out their arm/elbow. We treat everyone so delicatly now yet for some reason it seems to just make pitchers softer. Whats up with that?
Seriouly can someone please explain why with the implementation of pitch counts and limited innings do we have more and more TJ surgeries? Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver anyone? Sometimes close to and over 200 pitches a game.

Steven said...

Back in the day when there were no pitch counts hardly anyone blew out their arm/elbow.

Ha! that's a good one. You should stick around. You're really funny.

Anonymous said...

seriously, it wasn't like today when you had to tiptoe around young pitchers and hope that even if you do things right it may still happen (zimmermann). It wasn't even a thought. Yea it happended and when it did it was career ending, but it wasn't an expectation and something that was talked about every 5th day (or 4th back then).
Fact is pitchers are much more babied these days and yet injuries are higher. Hello guys didn't even have pitch counts in the old days...they didn't even keep TRACK of the amount of pitchers!!

Anonymous said...

Basically the guy admitted that he may not have pitched him as much, given a second chance. Not sure what more you want out of the guy. He's right too about pitching motion. Some pitchers - especially those with filthy motion on faster pitches - have an arm motion that is going to ruin the arm. Shawn Hill comes to mind. Pitchers are like sports cars.

Steven said...

Kind of taking this in a different direction, what if the Cubs had won the World Series that year, but Wood went on to the same injuries? Would it have been worth it? If we say yes it is worth it (see Hamels, Cole) then we are not criticizing overuse, we are criticizing results.

I'm not saying Riggleman is the guy (I think at least some of the recent winning is regression to the mean), but it's highly doubtful he will be in that situation with the Nats next year (though maybe 2011?).

Steven said...

I wanted him to say taht the reason he would have pitched him less is because he would have made a greater effort to prevent the injury. He denied this was a factor, but said that if he had it to do over again he would have pitched him less so that he wouldn't have personally faced as much criticism.

It's like if you get caught cheating on your wife and she throws you out. You might say, "yeah, if I had to do it over, I wouldn't have done that." So far, so good. Then you continue, "Because this apartment is a shit hole and I really miss my plasma TV." But what about your wife's hurt feelings? "Ah women are sensitive. They get hurt feelings. That's life. But I sure regret that I personally have to deal with it."

That's Riggles in a nutshell.

Steven said...

Kind of taking this in a different direction, what if the Cubs had won the World Series that year.

First let's acknowledge that this is a totally unrealistic hypothetical. It's possible that if he'd rested Kerry Wood more that maybe some other guys would have stepped in and pitched ok.

The Cubs in particular were deeply flawed and were a reallllly long shot to go all the way.

But if I hypothetically could guarantee my team a world series ring at the expense of a career ending injury to my star pitcher? Would I make a deal with the devil that says the Nationals win it all in 2012, but that Strasburg never pitches again after that?

Tough, tough call. I've piped down in my criticism of Charlie Manuel, that's for sure. But I still don't really like it. Pushing it a little is one thing. Really extreme pitcher abuse like in the Kerry Wood case or Mark Prior under Dusty or COle Hamels last year... I just don't think that needs to be part of the game.

Michael said...

Steven, first off, cheers to you for showing Riggs that we in DC don't want a repeat of Woods with Zimm, Strasburg, or any of our young arms.

That said, your continued beef against Riggs within this post seems more to do with Riggs' inability as wordsmith than anything else. He didn't provide you the exact answer the exact way that you wanted to hear it. In my opinion, his response was not too far from your idealized answer. Yes, his answer certainly has an element of CYA in it, but you're asking a lot to demand the exact answer you want to hear, especially when you take the other factors Riggs had to face into account (Cubs were in a playoff run, hadn't one a World Series in anyone's lifetime, their bullpen was crap, the media/fans were hounding him to use Woods MORE than he did, etc.).

Now I don't want Riggs to lead this club, but I think you're being somewhat unfair. The guy played a major a role in ruining a young potential superstar's career. He probably feels awful about it, but he also feels that he's got to say "it might have happened anyway," to simply move on with his own coaching/managerial career/life.

Steven said...

Michael--It occurred to me that this was an example of a guy just not quite expressing his point well, but the reason I didn't give him a pass is that it was clearly a rehearsed answer that he's given ten million times. He said that himself at the start of the question, and it was clear as he answered (hearing it live, in person) that this was the case.

That said, there's a long way from what he said and what I wanted to hear.

Again, the main gist of what he was saying was:

1. I, Riggles, was right on the substance

2. you and the bazillions who keep harping on this are wrong

3. however, since I value my career more than being right on the substance, I should have done the wrong thing to cover my ass.

That's a long way from:

1. I was wrong, contributed to a devastating injury, feel terrible about it, and I learned my lesson.