Don't blame the pitcher
One of the biggest criticisms anyone can lay on Kerry Wood is his inability to win ballgames. In his six seasons as a Cub, Wood has never won more than 14 games in a year. A possible reason for this centers around his endurance: Wood has never averaged more than 6.4 innings per start, as compared to fellow Texan Greg Maddux, who averaged over 7 innings a start for the most of his prolific career. But it's also conceivable that Wood's ability to win is hindered by the Cubs all-or-nothing offense.
In 2004, Wood went a sub-par 8-9 with a 3.72 ERA, representing perhaps his second-worst season in his career. However Wood could have won as many as 3 or 4 more games had his team actually provided some run support for him this year. Wood had 5 no-decisions. He went 7 or more innings in three of those games, and 6 innings in a fourth. All told, his ERA in those 5 no-decisions was merely 1.89, and perhaps serves as a solid example of the all-or-nothing approach that Dusty Baker took with his offense last year. Similarly, Mark Prior had 10 no-decisions last season, 5 of which he gave up 2 runs or fewer in 6 innings of work or more. For Prior's 10 no-decisions, he had an ERA of 3.57. Also, Carlos Zambrano (who had a breakthrough 2004) threw 7 no-decisions for 45.2 innings and an ERA of 3.15.
But last year is hardly the only time the Cubs offense has been hit-and-miss. In 2003, Kerry Wood had 8 no-decisions, and during those he threw 49.1 innings with an ERA of 3.10. In his amazing 2003 campaign, Prior threw only 6 no decisions, never allowing more than 2 earned runs in those games (both games in which he allowed 2 earned runs, he'd given 8 innings of work). Prior's ERA was 1.71. Zambrano threw a whopping 9 no-decisions in '03, for 56.1 innings of work, with an ERA of 3.99 in those games.
And in 2002, Wood threw 10 no-decisions, games in which he averaged 6.62 innings of work. His ERA in those games was 3.78.
But just comparing those numbers doesn't really tell us anything, which is why I propose we compare with a prolific 20-game winner, Curt Schilling. Schilling is a workhorse with the luck of being on good offensive teams in two out of the last three years. As a consequence he's won 23 games in '02, and 21 games in '04, sandwiching an injury-plagued 2003 in which he went 8-9 but with a 2.95 ERA.
In 2004, Schilling only threw 5 games in which he received a no-decision, and only one of them could have gone as a win. His ERA in those games was 4.72, a full run and a half higher than his overall ERA of that season.
In the injury plagued 2003, Schilling threw 7 no-decisions in 24 starts, for 46.1 innings pitched and an ERA of 3.69. And we can also compare it with his 2002 year, when he threw six no-decisions for 43.1 innings of work and an ERA of 3.74 (again, half a run higher than his overall ERA).
While it's still a very small sample, I think we can see a pattern here. Clearly we should expect any good pitcher to have perhaps as many as half a dozen no-decisions in a season. Even Randy Johnson, who has played hurt and on offensive-deprived teams in the last few years tends to only throw 5-7 no-decisions each year. So for Kerry Wood to throw 5 while missing a third of the season, or for Prior to throw 10 while missing even more time is a true symptom of Dusty's all-or-nothing approach.
Perhaps a good correlator would be the player's ERA. If a player's ERA during his no-decisions is drastically higher than his overall ERA, we can assume that he's surrounded by a competent offense that provides him with good run support. But if a pitcher's ERA is significantly lower, then we can presume that every game is a struggle and the offense is sporadic at best.
Obviously Dusty isn't about to change his approach. The Cubs will keep banking on the three-run homer while leaving the bases littered with runners who will fail to score runs. But this approach will never work at Wrigley Field, where it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to hit the longball once the September chill sets in. (In other words, it probably wasn't a coincidence that the offense collectively slumped at the end of this past season.) People are lamenting the addition of powerless hitter Jerry Hairston, but I think he's exactly the type of player the Cubs need. He's a guy with some speed who hits a lot of doubles. In fact, if the Cubs were ever one of the league leaders in doubles (perhaps a hard task in the smaller confines of Wrigley Field), we might see not only a few 20-game winners, but a World Series pennant as well.