Seasons in Boston: 1908-1915
Honors: 2x World Series Champion, 1915 ERA Champion
Red Sox Numbers: 1.99 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 117 W, 986 K, 68 ERA-, 26.2 fWAR
Signature Season (1912): 344 IP, 258 K, 34 W, 1 SV, 1.91 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.6 fWAR
It’s always a little challenging to wrap your head around the numbers put up by great Deadball Era pitchers. The art of pitching, the mound, and the ball were all so different back then that what these players accomplished seems foreign to us now. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Smoky Joe Wood’s career with the Red Sox wrapped up a couple of years before the United States decided to enter World War I, making his best years with the team over 100 years old. With all that being said, part of doing an exercise like this is looking at the players through the lens of their own time. In the words of Ty Cobb, “Joe Wood was one of the best pitchers I ever faced throughout my entire career.” Coming from someone with Cobb’s stature, that is not an empty statement.
Across the 1911 and 1912 seasons just three pitchers in baseball threw more innings than Wood’s 619.2, which were 2 ⅔ more than Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson and fewer than only Hall of Famers Ed Walsh, Walter Johnson, and Pete Alexander. Over those two seasons Wood had a lower ERA than every pitcher in baseball save for Johnson and posted a higher K/9 than anyone. Wood and Johnson were the only two pitchers to post an ERA under 2.00 across those two seasons. Despite his relatively modest size — he stood at just 5’ 11” — Wood threw incredibly hard and did so with fantastic command. Johnson, who had one of the greatest fastballs of all-time, said, “No man alive can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood.”
Wood makes this list as a reliever because, as was the custom back then, he pitched a fair amount in relief even when he was spending the majority of his time as a starting pitcher. Over the course of his career Wood threw 159 ⅓ innings in relief while posting an ERA of 0.73 and a WHIP of 1.16. In both of his best years as a starter, 1911 and 1912, he threw innings in relief allowing me to add him to this list. In his best season, the 1912 season that also ended in a championship for the Red Sox, Wood won three playoff games, two as a starter and one in relief. The one game he pitched in relief during the World Series against the Giants, he entered the game in the eighth inning pitching opposite Mathewson, who had allowed just one run through 7 IP. Wood was able to hold the Giants at bay until his team won the game in the bottom of the tenth, clinching the World Series win.
During his two magical years Wood won 57 games including a no-hitter on July 29th 1911. Wood went nine strong innings striking out 12 batters and walking just two against the St. Louis Browns. The year at which Wood was at his absolute peak was 1912, when he led the league with 35 complete games including 10 shutouts while winning a league best 34 games. Wood sustained this high level of play across 344 IP while maintaining an ERA under 2.00 with a 1.91 for the year. This was also, of course, the first year that Fenway Park opened to the public. Fenway served as the backdrop to the dramatic matchup of Johnson and Wood on September 6 where Wood outpitched Johnson at home to win the game and tie Johnson’s American League record of 16 straight wins. It was Wood’s good friend Tris Speaker that scored the only run of the game.
Those 1911 and 1912 seasons would end up being the only two years of Wood’s career in which he threw more than 200 innings. He was hobbled by a broken thumb in 1913, appendicitis in 1914, and shoulder pain in 1915. That 1915 season was in line to be his best as he pitched incredibly from May 8 to August 16 But he missed significant time with a sore shoulder, returning on September 23 in a diminished form for two starts late in the year. Wood finished the year with 15 wins and a league leading 1.49 ERA but did not pitch in the 1915 World Series win against Philadelphia. Wood would then spend the entire 1916 season rehabbing before being sold to the Indians in 1917.
The Red Sox had traded his best friend Speaker to the Indians following the 1915 season and Wood hoped to get his career on track with that club. Unfortunately, his arm did not cooperate and he threw just 18 ⅓ innings during his six years with the team. In 1918, he converted to the outfield and played there until 1922. Wood hit .298/.376/.433 for the team over that time and was a member of the 1920 World Series winning club, though he batted just .200 in the victory. After he retired from the game Wood went on to coach the Yale baseball team from 1923-1942. Wood never did make the Hall of Fame because his peak was so short. With that being said, Wood pitched at the same time as some of the best pitchers ever to play this game and was better than almost all of them for a two-year sample. That makes him a lock for this team.