Judging by appearances, you'd never dream Kirk Rueter would be a professional athlete. He's skinny, gangly, and bald. He has huge ears. His fastball goes about 85 miles per hour on a good day. His nickname is "Woody", based on his resemblance to the cowboy doll from Toy Story - not a ringing endorsement of athletic prowess. It was like watching your fifth-grade math teacher on the mound - only the teacher somehow wins two-thirds of his decisions. Yes, for nearly a decade, Woody was an essential member of the Giants rotation, good for 180 innings and double-digit wins every year. On Monday, after thirteen seasons and 130 wins, Kirk Rueter called it a career.
It seems like batters underestimated the guy as well. You'd see hitter after hitter shaking their heads after facing Woody, wondering how after seeing nothing but 78 MPH pitches, they only managed to hit a weak dribbler to shortstop. As a fan, you tend to think of toughness and competitiveness in terms of physical strength or aggressiveness: the pitcher who pumps his fist after a strikeout, the batter who screams at the ump. Rueter wasn't demonstrative, or physically gifted, but in his own way, he was as competitive as any guy in the league. He hardly ever missed a start, and in important games, Giants fans trusted Rueter with the ball. (I still think the Giants would have won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series if only they'd started Rueter instead of Livan Hernandez.)
Rueter was a unique pitcher, in that he sustained a very successful major league career for many years without ever striking anybody out. The only way you can get away with that in the major leagues is if you limit your walks, you don't give up home runs, and don't let anyone steal bases. It also helps if you're left-handed. Rueter was great at holding runners, but at first glance, nothing special when it came to walks and homers. His real talent was his absolute refusal to give in with runners on base. Most of his home runs happened with the bases empty, and most of his walks came with men on base. If the batter wasn't willing to swing at a garbage pitch on the corner of the plate and dribble it back to the mound, Rueter was perfectly willing to put guys on and avoid the big hit. Nate Silver discussed the craftiness of Rueter back in 2003, using much more math than I have here.
He's the best example of a guy whose peripheral statistics (walks, strikeouts, won-loss record) belie what an effective pitcher he really was. Rueter tended to have good won-loss records, but the team's record in games he started was even better. In 2002, his official record was 14-8, but the team went 25-8 in his starts. He didn't always work past the sixth inning, but he nearly always kept the team in the game.
Rueter was quite possibly the best defensive pitcher in the league, though he never won a Gold Glove. He had a great pickoff move, was impossible to run on, and even more deadly on bunts. When Rueter was on the mound and J.T. Snow was playing first, Giants fans probably saw more forceouts and double plays on sacrifice attempts than any team in the league. Rueter pitched with a lot of exuberance, but best of all, the guy worked fast. He got the ball back from the catcher, and pitched it immediately. No dilly-dallying, no pacing around. Fielders and fans alike loved the fast pace, as Rueter was one of the few guys in the league who might get through a game in under two hours.
In addition, Woody was by all accounts a great guy. He was a regular guest in the broadcast booth, bantering with Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper on days he wasn't pitching. In fact, between his visits to the booth, his smart pitching, and the endless stories about "The Shed", Rueter probably gave Krukow a good 10% of his material in a given year. This year, Kruk is going to be forced to talk about the kangaroo court more than ever.
Woody's career with the Giants ended badly, with ineffective pitching, a move to the bullpen, and even a battle with gout before he was released. He'd lost some of his speed and control, and a guy like Rueter didn't have much margin for error to begin with. Still, he'd earned the love and respect of the fans. Even though I was hoping he'd just retire last year, I was sad when the inevitable release happened. I'll miss seeing #46 out there every five days, befuddling hitters with junk, smiling goofily, and exuberantly running off the field after inducing a rally-killing double play. When Kirk Rueter Day happens this year, as it inevitably will, I'll be giving him a standing ovation. But I hope we keep the cheering brief. Woody likes the game to move along briskly.