By In Baseball

Prior Obligations

There were two eye-opening bits of news here in this story about Mark Prior retiring.

1. I honestly thought he retired five years ago.

2. Mark Prior is still only 33 years old.

The second of those bits is even more shocking than the first. He is STILL only 33? If Mark Prior had stayed healthy, he would only now be signing a seven-year, $190 million deal with the Mariners or somebody. Baseball can be an extremely cruel game.

Prior probably should have won the Cy Young Award in 2003, when he was just 22 years old. The award went to Eric Gagne because it was one of those periodic years when the voters fall in love with relief pitching all over again. Gagne had a superb year for a closer … but not markedly different from John Smoltz that same year, Trevor Hoffman in 1998 or Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland this year. Prior pitched more than twice as many innings and was significantly more valuable.

Anyway, people had to figure Prior would win plenty of Cy Young Awards. Here are the greatest pitching performances since World War II for pitchers 22 or younger:

1. Dwight Gooden, 1985, 24-4, 1.53 ERA, league-leading 276 Ks.
2. Bert Blyleven, 1973, 20-17, 9 shutouts, 325 innings pitched.
3. Mark Fidrych, 1976, 19-9, league leading 2.34 ERA, 24 complete games.
4. Vida Blue, 1971, 24-8, league-leading 1.82 ERA, 301 strikeouts, Cy and MVP winner.
5. Larry Dierker, 1969, 20-13, 2.33 ERA, 305 innings, 20 complete games.
6. Sudden Sam McDowell, 1965, 17-11, league-leading 2.18 ERA, 325 strikeouts.
7. Mark Prior, 2003, 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts.
8. Frank Tanana, 1975, 16-9, 2.62 ERA, league-leading 269 strikeouts.
9. Bret Saberhagen, 1985, 20-6, 2.87 ERA, Cy Young winner.
10. Frank Tanana, 1976, 19-10, 2.43 ERA, 261 strikeouts.

Of this list, only Blyleven went on to a Hall of Fame career. Tanana, who is on the list twice, blew out his arm and reinvented himself as a soft-tossing lefty. Dwight Gooden, Sam McDowell and Vida Blue all dealt with various demons and fell a few steps short of greatness. Larry Dierker had an up and down career, and Bret Saberhagen was alternately brilliant and injured.

Then, Mark Fidrych and Mark Prior belong to the same club, the heartbreak club. They each had one glorious year in the Major Leagues. Their bodies would not hold up for another. Fidrych felt his arm go dead in the middle of the next season. Prior had trouble with his achilles tendon the next year — people would always suspect it was his elbow and the Cubs just didn’t want to admit it. In 2005 he was pitching quite well and he got hit by a batted ball that smashed his elbow. In 2006 the Cubs announced that he had a “loose shoulder,” which does not seem like a medical term but Mark Prior was never even a decent Major League pitcher again.

Lots of people blame overwork for the fall of both Fidrych and Prior, and that does make some sense. Fidrych in particular was abused — from May 15 to August 29 that year he made 22 starts and pitched 198 innings. Quick math will tell you, he AVERAGED nine innings for those 22 starts. This is in part because he pitched 11 innings four times during the stretch and 10 innings once. It was pretty close to criminal.

Prior’s overuse was not nearly as pronounced, but people did notice even at the time that Dusty Baker was having Prior (and fellow phenom Kerry Wood) throw a lot of pitches. In September of 2003, during the pennant run, Prior threw 131, 129, 109, 124, 131 and 133 pitches in his six starts. It’s interesting: None of those were complete games. Even now, there is much disagreement about pitch counts and how best to protect young pitcher’s arms and so on. I guess the infuriating part with the Cubs was that there seemed no visible effort whatsoever to protect Prior’s arm. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, but you sort of wished they would have at least made a show of it.

When Prior was young and right, he was all but unhittable. He had a fastball he could pump up into the high 90s and his better pitch was a curveball that was like setting the phaser to stun. His curve would just leave Major League hitters frozen — sometimes it seemed like they were still standing at the plate long after Prior had reached the dugout. He walked just 50 batters in his amazing season.

His effort to come back has been both touching and sad. Anyone can understand: He was destined to become one of the best pitchers in baseball history, and he had it taken away from him, and he had trouble accepting it. From Tennessee to Iowa, from Orange County to Oklahoma City, from Tampa to Scranton to Pawtucket to Louisville he chased ghosts, hoping against hope for some part of himself to return. I imagine that at times he snapped off the old curveball or fired a fastball that hopped a bit, and he found himself believing that he would come all the way back. Then there would be more pain.

The Chicago Tribune on Tuesday had a three paragraph note acknowledging Prior’s official retirement. The first few words were “Former Cubs Phenom Mark Prior.” And sadly, those are the last words too.

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20 Responses to Prior Obligations

  1. People may blame Dusty Baker, but Prior’s mechanics in throwing really hard across his body would have gotten him sooner or later. People wonder how Nolan Ryan threw so hard for so many years. Obviously he worked out right and kept himself in good shape, but the main reason was his great mechanics. He really knew how to use his lower body to generate amazing power while taking stress off of his arm. Prior was on the opposite end of that spectrum.

    • SBMcManus says:

      One thing about Prior is that his motion actually LOOKED pretty fluid and easy to the casual eye, but if you broke it down (as people are capable of now) it was pretty clear that there were some red flags. In any event, pitcher mechanics / usage / injuries is a highly contentious subject still and it’s a shame that Prior’s career was cut short, regardless of where the blame lies.

    • Gareth Owen says:

      Interesting, but it’s also interesting to look at this contemporary discussion of Prior’s mechanics back when he was still a phenom. Some pretty smart people (and David Cameron) hold his mechanics up as the archetype which everyone should copy.

      Very sad, to read of the potential going to waste.

      • Tom Wright says:

        I remember Prior being the test case for whether the inverted W was a reasonable way to throw the ball. Pitching mechanics were less understood then than now, and the most visible authorities on mechanics at the time (like Tom House, Will Carroll, and Paul Nyman) went around saying that Prior’s mechanics were just the same as Greg Maddux, so no one had really given it a second thought. Of course, Mike Marshall was one of the lone voices shouting in the wilderness, but he was so shrill in his proclamations that everyone basically ignored him.

        The collapse of Prior and Wood and the subsequent injury of other inverted W pitchers (Adam Wainwright, Anthony Reyes, Joel Zumaya) really opened a lot of people’s eyes. Of course, people have now gone to the other extreme where they assume that inverted W immediately equals injury (which is silly; correlation isn’t determinism). We saw this phenomenon play out when Stephen Strasburg was a college phenom; there were as many articles devoted to his inverted W as there were to his 102 mph fastball, and his elbow injuries were met by a chorus of I told you so’s.

      • Ian says:

        While that is true, at the time of the draft, one “unnamed scout” was reported to diss his mechanics to a national writer. It was later revealed that the scout worked for the Twins.

    • Like Garth and SBM, I remember talking about how perfect Prior’s motion was and how he should hold up under the strain. Interestingly, one of the few people who did not believe this was Mike Marshall, who said Prior’s shoulder was in danger because of his motion.

  2. Robert says:

    One thing I recall about Prior is how the Twins were ridiculed far and wide for passing on him in the draft (they had the #1 pick that year) because he was deemed to be asking for too much of a signing bonus only to draft some local, signable kid.

    That kid? Joe Mauer.

    Hindsight’s a bitch, ain’t it?

    • KHAZAD says:

      Hindsight can also be a little blind. You are only looking at one possible outcome. Would the Twins have abused Prior like that? If not, his career may have looked different, and the Twins might have a world series trophy from that stretch of first place finishes in 2002-2004. It’s not like the Twins actually thought Mauer was better, it was a move to save money. It just happened to work out.

      • Robert says:

        Khazad, or maybe they realized the folly in taking a pitching prospect (oxymoron?) first overall when there was a great fit for them with Mauer. Until the Twins say otherwise, I tend to think they took a reasoned approach that made too much sense for them: Local kid, stud, plays catcher for goodness sake, will cost SIGNIFICANTLY less to sign, and he’s less likely to be injured.

        • Breadbaker says:

          And those first place finishes maybe don’t happen without Joe Mauer at catcher. It was either/or, they weren’t getting both.

    • Robert, you stole my comment!

      And to Khazad, like you I thought at the time that it was a cheap move going with the local kid, but I now truly believe it was both: they really thought Joe was very good and it was also going to cost them less.

      There might be a third reason although I admit is a stretch, but after watching hundreds of Twins games I deserve to be convinced out of it: They didn’t like Prior because it went against their “pitching to contact” philosophy. The Twins really think of power arms as people with the plague…

  3. Chris M says:

    Fun fact: in 2003, 22 year old Mark Prior threw 4 games of 130+ pitches.

    In 2013, ALL PITCHERS IN MLB threw 4 games of 130+ pitches

    Craziness. Thinking about Prior makes me feel melancholy. 2003 was my freshman year in college and the first time I got to watch the Mets. I remember watching Prior dominate them in the 2nd or 3rd game of the season, and decided that I would watch his next start b/c great young pitching is unlike anything else. Well, that next start was one of the best pitched games I’ve ever seen, he dueled with Javy Vasquez of the Expos(!) to throw a complete game shutout with 12 K’s (Vasquez struck out 14 in 7, but gave up 2 runs). The Mets ended up sucking hard that year, but I watched probably 20-25 of Priors starts, including, unfortunately Game 6 of the NLCS. Just an unbelievable year for a young pitcher, and he seemed to be destined for Cooperstown. Sad that his career got derailed so quickly.

  4. well. fidrych got hurt, it’s true…but it wasn’t a sore arm that got him initially. he hopped or something and screwed up a knee the following spring, i think. the arm troubles came after that…

    • brian says:

      You’re both right. Fidrych tore the cartilage in his knee fooling around in spring training, came back presumably at full strength, and tore his rotator cuff six weeks into his return (which then went undiagnosed until 1985). Assuming for the sake of argument that the knee had nothing to do with the arm, Joe’s statement that his arm went dead in the middle of the 1977 season is neither untrue nor misleading.

  5. Bill Caffrey says:

    Note: Dwight Gooden led the league with 268 Ks in 1985, not 276. He struck out 276 the year before, going 17-9 as a 19 year-old rookie in 1984.

  6. Mike says:

    Is it just me or does no one remember Marcus Giles knee wrecking Prior’s shoulder? Why is that never mentioned in his downfall?

    • Eric says:

      Mike, I too wonder if the Giles collision had anything to do with his shoulder issues. Only thing is, once he came back from that incident, he went on a 10-1 streak, with an ERA in the ones. Thats probably why more people don’t consider it an issue.

  7. Kevin says:

    Love it when one of Joe’s posts digs up an old memory. Frank Tanana. Played in a Strat-o-Matic league – must have been late 80’s – and several other SOM/DMB leagues since. Frank tossed the only no-hitter in the history of any of my franchises. Remember playing that game in the computer lab at MU using 5 1/4″ floppies. Thanks, Joe!

  8. Eric says:

    Mike, I too wonder if the Giles collision had anything to do with his shoulder issues. Only thing is, once he came back from that incident, he went on a 10-1 streak, with an ERA in the ones. Thats probably why more people don’t consider it an issue.

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