Wednesday, March 23, 2011

#120 - Wilbur Wood

Our next action shot - and obviously here "action" stretches the descriptive limit - is of Wilbur Wood reposing on a bench at an away stadium, probably either Oakland or New York since that is where just about all his teammates were photographed. That he was not on the mound was sort of an event for Wilbur during the earlier part of the season. In fact, Wilbur had one of the sickest starts ever ti kick off the '73 season: in Chicago's first forty games, Wilbur went 13-3 with a 1.71 ERA and three straight shutouts (four in all) while getting a decision in every one of his games. He was on a pace to win 52 games! while that obviously didn't happen, Wilbur still put up some pretty mind-numbing stats: he continued to record a decision in his next 21 games and in his 49 starts only missed getting a decision in five of them. The arguably most successful knuckleballer of the first half of the '70s, Wilbur was a huge innings hog who seemed to have the ability to pitch every day. At least until Ron LeFlore shut him down.

Wilbur Wood was a three sport - football, hockey, and baseball - home-grown kid who signed with Boston in 1960 out of high school, where he won 24 games. He learned the knuckleball from his dad while playing youth league ball. When he hit the minors, though, he was aware that the knuckler was frowned upon so he threw more conventional pitches, primarily a fastball and a curve. Those would work to varying degrees in the Boston system the next few years in the minors and through '63  he had gone 35-30 with a career ERA well below 3.00. But in 32 games in the majors over that span he went 0-7 with an over 4.00 ERA as a spot starter and reliever. In '64 he made the Sox out of spring training but after a few bad early outings Wilbur was released outright to the club's Triple A franchise where he had a bang-up year, going 15-8 with a 2.30 ERA. Those numbers got Pittsburgh interested in him and late that year he was sold to the Pirates.

With Pittsburgh, Wood finally spent a full season up top in '65, finally won his first MLB game, and put together a decent season, though he wasn't used terribly much. But in '66 Wilbur got squeezed out of MLB Time and returned to Triple A where he put up a 14-8 season with a 2.41 ERA as a starter in a year where he tentatively turned to the knuckleball. At the end of that season he was traded to the White Sox for Juan Pizzaro and it was then that Wilbur's MLB career took on a new life.

The '67 ChiSox team Wood joined was a good one for a pitcher with his skillset to get established. For one thing, Chicago was in a pennant race all year and for another, one of the best knucklers ever was in the rotation in Hoyt Wilhelm. That spring Wilhelm worked with Wilbur to refine his pitch and the results were immediately beneficial. Wilbur had a nice '67, posting his first four MLB saves and then turned it on in '68, getting into a then-record 88 games and going 13-12 with 16 saves and a 1.87 ERA. Two facets of his knuckler contributed to his success: one was that his tended to tail down and away from righthanders; two was that he could throw it for strikes. Two more excellent seasons in relief followed. During that span in the pen, Wilbur led the AL in games three times and in games finished twice. Then before the '71 season Joe Horlen got hurt and Chuck Tanner moved Wilbur into his spot in the rotation. Tanner also wanted to have heat coming out of the pen and he had two young guys named Terry Forster and Goose Gossage who could do that.

Woods responded impressively, going 22-13 in 42 starts his first year and 24-17 in a league-leading 49 starts in '72. In those two years he would come in third and second, respectively, in Cy Young votes. After his fast 1973 start got brought back to earth by Sox injuries, Wilbur still won 24 and again led the league in starts as he would the next two seasons. In '74 he won 20 while in '75 he lost that many as his ERA bloated a bit. It was his first season in five years without Ed Hermann as his catcher so that was probably a contributor to that performance. In '76 he kicked things off very well and in early May was 4-3 with a 2.24 ERA when he started a game against Detroit. Ron LeFlore hit what Wilbur described as an inside-out hit right up the middle. An inside-out hit is one in which the batter's hands are kept inside the arc of the swing for the whole pitch and stay close to the body during contact. It looks to the fielders as if the batter is pulling the ball but in reality it can be hit to all fields. Wood wasn't ready for the comebacker and it hit his knee, shattering the kneecap. That was it for his season. When he returned the next couple seasons he was tentative on the mound and tried to re-work his knuckler so that it would tail to the inside instead of the outside. It didn't work too well and after 17 wins combined in '77 and '78 with an elevated ERA he quit. For his career he went 164-156 with a 3.24 ERA, 114 complete games, 24 shutouts, and 57 saves. He was also named to three All-Star teams. There is a nice interview with Wilbur on the Baseball Almanac site here.

After baseball Wilbur initially moved into the fish market business outside Boston before getting into insurance and pharmaceutical sales which he was still doing at the time of the above interview in 2005. He was named to the Sox all-century team.

Wilbur was in the thick of an excellent stretch of his career at this point. He had one of the most successful reliever-to-starter transitions ever and had not had an off season since '64. That career ERA is awfully impressive also. The Fireman of the Year award has been given out by The Sporting News every year since 1960.

I just miss this using Jim Morrison. This one will use some ex-Yankees:

1. Wood and Oscar Gamble '77 White Sox;
2. Gamble and Bill Robinson '72 Phillies.
3. Robinson managed by Danny Ozark on the '73 and '74 Phillies.

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