Posted December 10, 2013

Mark Prior finally retires after short career that has had a long impact, as evidenced by one amazing stat

Chicago Cubs, Mark Prior
Mark Prior, Cubs

Mark Prior’s career ends with a 42-29 lifetime record and a 3.51 ERA in just 106 major league games.

After seven years of trying to piece back together a career that once seemed destined for greatness, Mark Prior has finally retired at the age of 33. The ex-Cubs star but hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006 but may pursue a front-office job with his hometown San Diego Padres.

Prior was in many ways the Stephen Strasburg of his day, a can’t-miss pitcher with a devastating arsenal and a massive amount of hype. He was drafted 43rd overall by the Yankees in 1998 but elected to attend the University of Southern California instead. Prior went second in the 2001 draft to the Cubs because the Twins had the first pick and opted, not without some controversy, to take hometown high-school catching prospect Joe Mauer.

Considered one of the best pitching prospects ever and possessed of supposedly perfect mechanics, Prior was given a $4 million signing bonus plus a major league contract worth $10.5 million over five years that put him directly on Chicago’s 40-man roster. He made his professional debut in Double A in 2002 at the age of 21 and made just nine starts in the minors (going 5-2 with a 2.29 ERA) before making his major league debut on May 22 of that year and striking out 10 Pirates while allowing just two runs in six innings. Prior remained in the Cubs’ rotation for the remainder of the year, striking out 11.3 men per nine innings, including 10 or more in six of his 19 starts, while posting a 3.32 ERA (122 ERA+).

The next year, the 22-year-old Prior emerged as the ace he was expected to be. He went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA (179 ERA+), 245 strikeouts (10.4 per nine innings) and a 4.90 strikeout-to-walk ratio, making the All-Star team and finishing third in the Cy Young voting and ninth in the MVP voting. Behind the young pitching triumvirate of Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs won their division for the first time since 1989 and won their first post-season series since 1908 by beating the Braves in the Division Series with Prior throwing a complete game to beat Greg Maddux in Game 3.

Chicago then jumped out to a 3-games-to-1 lead on the Marlins in the National League Championship Series, with Prior turning in another strong outing to win Game 2. The Cubs’ season fell apart in their infamous Game 6 loss, in which Prior was on the mound in the eighth inning with a 3-0 lead only to succumb to the confluence of Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez and Dusty Baker – to say nothing of the Marlins themselves — that derailed the Cubbies’ shot at their first pennant since 1945.

Including the postseason, the 22-year-old Prior threw 234 2/3 innings in 2003, that despite spending the second-half of July on the disabled list due to shoulder soreness. On the season, he threw more than 120 pitches in a game 10 times and more than 130 four times. From his first start in September through his complete game against the Braves in the Division Series, his pitch counts were 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 133. After that season, he was never the same.

Prior’s 2004 season didn’t start until June because of an ankle injury, and after his return, his walk and home run rates spiked, pushing his ERA up to 4.02. Those rates remained high in 2005, a season that also started late, this time due to elbow inflammation. A comebacker broke his pitching elbow in late May, and he finished the season with just 166 2/3 innings pitched. He would never again qualify for an ERA title.

In 2006, Prior opened the season on the disabled list for the third straight year. This time it was his shoulder that kept him out, and it was that shoulder that would ultimately limit him to nine starts that season, his last in the major leagues. In his final start that year, on Aug. 10, Prior gave up six runs in three innings in Milwaukee and struck out just one. His shoulder put him back on the DL thereafter. The following April, he had surgery on the joint for the first time, this one to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff. In April 2008 he had another operation to repair a torn anterior capsule and a humeral avulsion of the glenohumeral ligaments. As a result of those surgeries, Prior missed three full seasons, 2007-09.

Prior spent the latter two of those inactive seasons in San Diego’s organization. Then, from 2010 to 2013 he drifted through the organizations of the Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Reds, managing to throw 58 2/3 minor league innings (plus some spring training frames), most of them in relief, across those four seasons. Prior struck out 86 men in those innings, but he also walked 37 (5.7 BB/9) and never managed more than 25 innings in a single season. This past season, he made it into just seven games for the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate in Louisville, posting a 4.66 ERA.

Despite his abbreviated career, Prior has a significant legacy within the game. Beyond his place in the narrative of the Cubs’ continued misfortunes, his injuries proved to be the flashpoint in the increased sensitivity to pitch counts around the game. The need to protect pitchers’ arms from fatigue was a battle that many in the advanced analysis community were already fighting before Prior came into the league, but the confluence of his heavy workloads in 2003 and his subsequent injuries made that message sink in within the game.

Perhaps there is no better measurement of the impact Prior had than this: In 2003, at age 22, Prior made four starts of 130 or more pitches in 33 total starts between the regular and postseasons. In 2013, there were just four such games in all of the major leagues in 2,469 regular and postseasons games — none by a pitcher under the age of 25.

27 comments
pfcarini
pfcarini

Nolan Ryan often threw 150-200 pitches. In one game he pitched 13 IP walked 10 and KO'd 19.

How many pitches do you figure that is, maybe 300? Oh, that was 1974 so he pitched another 20 yrs.

SvetlanaHalley
SvetlanaHalley

you are a bunch of morons!!!!!!!!!!!  what about years ago? players would pitch both games of a doubleheader and more... there where no pitch counts and no workout equipment like today... they are just babied now because of the money.. 

Lufts
Lufts

What was never discussed was the effect his ankle injury had on his mechanics.  He clearly altered his delivery (as did Johann Santana as a recent example) after that injury.

Pitchers avoid disclosing leg injuries or even aches and pains at their risk.

In addition, like two other new pitchers, Strasbourg and Harvey, whoever touts their "perfect" mechanics simply doesn't know what a "short armer" is.
After 20 years as a scout, it's pretty easy to see.
Sad to say, but 1 week before Strasbourg's first injury (it will happen again), someone asked me what I thought of him, and I responded that he was immensely talented but that he'd blow out his elbow.  I told someone the same thing about Harvey this year, and Prior, when I saw him as well.

Not sure why "baseball" people miss this so often these days.  It is a question I have asked repeatedly.

bhayes420
bhayes420

And he's exhibit #1 in why Dusty Baker should never manage in the Big Leagues again!  I saw him in 2003 pitch against the Cardinals in St. Louis.  He was unreal!  Literally unhittable when he was on his game.  

JeffreyS821
JeffreyS821

OK, but how do you square this with Japanese pitchers throwing MANY more pitches than this, throwing after games, in between games, etc., along with pitchers like Phillies' Robin Roberts pitching TWENTY-EIGHT straight complete games?  

Matthew W
Matthew W

Sad way to go out. Having the stuff but having it taken away by injuries.

OwenCaterwall3
OwenCaterwall3

Not only did Baker ruin Prior and Wood, the precedent existed years before in the A's organization, famous for destroying young pitchers.

GeoffreyHolland
GeoffreyHolland

that picture alone tells you why he couldn't stay healthy. terrible mechanics.

weir6
weir6

You ruined my Fantasy draft back in the day Mark -- I'll never forgive!

beast
beast

Dusty Baker ruined the careers of Prior and Wood. Everyone knows that! 

olansuddeth
olansuddeth

Thanks for the memories of a special run, Mark.  Hate it that you were never able to stay healthy, but you were fun to watch pitch for that brief window.

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

Ten paragraphs on a guy who's been non-factor for close to 10 years.  Must've been favorite of RC collectors.


While Prior's injuries may've triggered an "increased sensitivity to pitch counts" in his time (even during his realistic comeback attempt), I suspect Cubs were reasonably sensitive to Mark's early ailments, given their great investment in his big contract.  I also suspect his physical maladies where rooted in matters that went well beyond PCs, and today many may be coming around to that belief.


Nobody wanted this outcome to befall Mark Prior.  When he was good early on, he was so good on the mound.  But it's not a new story.  Human arm was not made to throw 100 mph on daily basis. 

rbeane1956
rbeane1956

Some pitching guru needs to pull film of Bob Gibson and Jim Palmer and study how they pitched back then.I'm sure they did not throw 90+MPH fastballs all the time. They would throw 20 complete games a season back then. were there 20 complete games in all of MLB last year?

oasis1994
oasis1994

Pitch counts are terrible and I believe they hurt pitchers more than anything. It is all about how you prepare and the work one does in between each start. Babying pitchers only teaches them to not be able to throw more than 6 innings each start. 

If a player it hurt, then it is meant to be. Yes, you can prepare in different ways and try to prevent an injury, but at some point if someone is meant to get hurt they will.


Look at Strasburg. They babied him and look; he still got hurt. 

I really think every start is different. A guy can throw 140 pitchers one start and look fine. In another he might tire and only throw 80 before his legs give out. Baseball should really be doing what they use to do; if a pitcher starts to elevate his pitches; take him out.


Pitchers also need to learn to pitch instead of just throwing as hard as they on every pitch. Do you think Tom Seaver threw 95  (when he could) every pitch? I think not and that is the reason why I believe Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball. he doesn't throw as fast as he can all game and actually pitches. 


As for Prior, I wish he panned out and was still pitching. But, he was hurt and I really don't blame Duty Baker for it; I think that is an excuse writers use.


One more thing; Bartman was not at fault. Any one of us would have done the same thing.


Hantiaolang
Hantiaolang

@pfcarini True, but Nolan was 25 before he became a consistent, big-time pitcher and 27 in 1974. He became the poster boy for the benefits of not working pitchers too much before the age of 25. (He was still a freak of nature, of course.)


There are countless examples of pitchers who burned out or suffered injuries from early heavy workloads: Doc Gooden, David Clyde, Mark Fidrych, Herb Score, Prior, Kerry Wood, Smokey Joe Wood, the entire 1980 Oakland A's starting rotation, Bret Saberhagen, etc etc. One could even make the argument that Bob Feller's 3 years not pitching while in the army in WWII may have prolonged his career.


Of course there are numerous freaks of nature who pitched plenty early on but had prolonged careers: Robin Roberts and Clemens (even before the '"miraculous"' mid-30s resurgence.) 


Having said all that, it seems like pitchers get hurt just as much nowadays as they did years ago, despite pitch counts, innings limits, and 5 man rotations. One MLB exec said - half-joking - during the winter meetings that organizations wish they could just preemptively perform TJ surgery on their prospects because the procedure is so advanced and the 'new' ligaments are often stronger that the ones they are born with. 


So who knows? . . .  


RichardHong
RichardHong

They didn't throw as hard back then, nor do Japanese pitchers throw as hard.  Good location was enough, so they didn't throw at max every pitch.  Today's game is a harder game.  There used to be a phrase, "rear back and throw!", suggesting that in a key situation a pitcher would throw at 100% - which was not the case on every pitch.  They would save their hardest throws for important situations.  That's why they lasted longer, both within games and within a season.  Now the strategy is different.  A pitcher takes the mound aiming to finish 7 innings, not 9, and give way to a setup man and closer.

EJ1
EJ1

@OwenCaterwall3 Correct.  Billy Martin ruined a very promising rotation of Norris, McCatty, Keough etc by almost never using his relievers.  And this was in the early '80s.

bhayes420
bhayes420

@GeoffreyHolland Actually, when he came up, he was touted as having "perfect" mechanics.  Now, in that picture, you're right.  Must have been late in his Cubs career after Dusty Baker screwed him up.

EddyB68
EddyB68

@beast He also ruined the career of Edison Volquez and was working on ruining Johnny Cueto before he got fired. A bum and a poor manager who had lucked out by someone elses work before he arrived at San Fran

urney20
urney20

@beast I remember the Bartman game and always thinking it wasn't Bartman's fault, it was Dusty's.  He left Prior in there after he was clearly gassed and had thrown 130+ pitches.  Hung him out to dry, ruined his career.


Prior & Wood, absolutely dominant young pitchers, destroyed by Dusty.

Jerkzilla
Jerkzilla

I heard an interview with Tom Seaver a couple years ago.  He said when he pitched teams like the Pirates were all first ball, fastball hitters, ready to swing as soon as they got in the batter's box.  Said he figures he made it to the ninth inning of most games having thrown 70 pitches.


Nowadays, on base percentage and working the count are important parts of strategy, so pitching is completely different.


Prior and Wood were china dolls.  If they had been babied young, then maybe they would limped through another season or so each before falling apart.

DoctorBiobrainSenior
DoctorBiobrainSenior

Meant to be? What does that even mean? How is it meant to be for a player to get hurt? And then you turn around and blame the pitchers for the way they throw, which would suggest that it *isn't* inevitable that they get hurt, but rather is caused by them throwing. 

And did you honestly think that pitchers decide which pitches to throw, and would throw slower if only they knew how? Sorry, but they're doing what they're coached to do. Modern pitchers didn't wake up and just decide to start hurling fireballs. This is the way the league is now, but it obviously doesn't have to be. Things are finally getting better again, and it's due to managers watching pitch counts. Pitchers are still expected to throw heat, but they shouldn't be expected to play all game. 

Because you're right, Tom Seaver wasn't throwing 100 mph fastballs all day long. That's the problem. Nowadays they do, and it's not the pitcher's fault. It's the people who train them. And just because a pitcher can throw 130 balls at full speed doesn't mean he's not damaging his arm in the long run.

JimyD
JimyD

The Alex Gonzalez error of a potential double-play ball was the real blunder of that infamous championship game but any real baseball fan knows not to grab for a ball when it's near the field of play, especially when you're a fan of the team that's out on the field.  

The Cubs should have done a much better job at managing their young arms (Prior and Wood) both with pitch count and the types of pitches they threw. 

Curt G
Curt G

@RichardHong Great reply to a great question. It is interesting to see the evolution of the game in my short 40 years of following it.  Never thought I would get old enough to even say that!  


bhayes420
bhayes420

@urney20 @beast Exactly right!  The Cubs fell apart.  It wasn't like the Bartman play would have been the third out of the inning.  The Cubs lost their composure, and Dusty did NOTHING to help them regain it.  

oasis1994
oasis1994

@DoctorBiobrainSenior

I agree with you and I didn't get into that. The problem starts when a kid begins throwing and from that day forward they are taught to throw as hard as they can on every pitch.