Wilbur Wood is a case in point of how the knuckleball can shatter modern perceptions of how a pitcher can be used. After failing to make it in the big leagues as a hard thrower, the left-hander learned the knuckleball from Hoyt Wilhelm with the White Sox in 1967 and became one of the most effective relief pitchers in baseball for three years. Manager Chuck Tanner, who never cared what the hell anyone thought about his methods, made Wood a starting pitcher and for five seasons the chunky southpaw racked up innings like it was the deadball era.
From 1971-1975, Wood averaged 45 starts and 20 complete games a year for the ChiSox, winning 20 games four times and 106 overall. He pitched for a mediocre team, but Wood was far from mediocre: he had a 3.18 ERA (120 ERA+) for that stretch. In 1971 he pitched 334 1/3 innings, but he pitched even more the next two seasons, topping out at 376 2/3 innings in 1972. His arm was tireless as he logged close to 25 percent of his teams innings for five years.
Showing off his durability, Wood made 58 starts on two days rest in the 1971-1973 seasons, posting a winning record in those starts with 27 complete games. Even though the ’72 season was shortened by a strike, Wood made 49 starts, the most by an AL pitcher since 1904.
Paul Blair said of Wood’s signature pitch: “What makes Wood more effective is that he throws it over for strikes. It never goes the same way, but it is always in the strike zone.” Wood walked just 2.4 batters per nine innings despite relying on the unpredictable flutter ball.
On July 20, 1973, against the Yankees, Wood started both games of a doubleheader, but lost both games. It was the first time since 1950 that a pitcher started both games of a twin bill, and the last time it’s happened.
Wood started the ’76 season in typical fashion, spinning (or in his case not spinning) an ERA of 2.21 in seven starts in the first five weeks of the season, including five complete games and a shutout. But on May 9, in a game against the Tigers, Ron LeFlore hit a line drive back up the middle and the ball broke Wood’s knee cap. The hurler missed the rest of the season and never came back to his old form.
Wood’s WAR7 (best seven seasons by Wins Above Replacement) rate higher than that of Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan. His WAR3 is better than the marks of Greg Maddux and Sandy Koufax. His career WAR ranks ahead of Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt and Bob Lemon, as well as Jim Kaat. Of course, his peak stats are helped by his remarkable innings totals, but still Wood was a fantastic pitcher, and a novel one, considering his era.
Most Strikeouts, 1970-1979 American League
Nolan Ryan … 2,416
Bert Blyleven … 1728
Jim Palmer … 1559
Mickey Lolich … 1343
Catfish Hunter … 1309
Vida Blue … 1291
Gaylord Perry … 1241
Joe Coleman … 1239
Luis Tiant … 1229
Wilbur Wood … 1138