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Mark Prior’s retirement reminds us that young pitchers will break your heart

Dec 10, 2013, 8:29 AM EDT

Mark Prior throwing

Every year we get a report that Mark Prior is working out, hoping to make a major league comeback after years of injuries. No more. Andrew Simon of MLB.com reports that the former Cubs phenom is calling it quits:

After a series of injuries and several comeback attempts, it appears Mark Prior is ready to call it a career.

The right-hander, now 33, was in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Monday for the Winter Meetings, where he told reporters he was retiring. Prior also indicated he could take a job in the Padres’ front office, although the club has not confirmed it.

Prior is Exhibit A for the proposition that young, talented pitchers exist to break your heart. The second overall pick in the 2001 draft, Prior was a fixture in the Cubs’ rotation by 2003, when he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 211 innings at age 22. The sky was, seemingly, the limit. The conversation wasn’t about whether or not he could keep it up, but just how great would he end up being.

And then the injuries came. He made only 21 starts in 2004. He made 27 starts in 2005. In 2006 he started nine games, was totally ineffective and then had reconstructive surgery on his shoulder. It would not be until 2010 that he would pitch in a minor league game. He never pitched in the big leagues again.

At the time his career was disintegrating due to injury, many pointed a finger at Prior’s manager with the Cubs, Dusty Baker, for allowing him to pitch too many innings and throw too many pitches in too many outings. And maybe Baker did work Prior too hard. But I don’t feel anyone to this day knows enough about ideal pitcher usage and preservation to say anything with any amount of certainty about that. Some pitchers break, some pitchers don’t, and despite his reputation as an abuser of pitchers, Baker’s pitchers have been pretty darn durable since Prior and his teammate Kerry Wood went down.

Prior just broke. Even guys who look like they’re going to collect multiple awards and hundreds of wins some day break. And with them break the hearts of any baseball fan who put too much faith in young promising starting pitching.

  1. stex52 - Dec 10, 2013 at 8:45 AM

    The guys are throwing a baseball right at the edge of what is humanly possible to do. And they are doing it 100 times in a game, 35 or so games a year. Every body is different and responds differently.

    I have no doubt that sports medicine will advance to the point that they can develop better training regimens and better predictors for injuries. But even then, you have that sudden wrong step, that comebacker that bruises a shin and changes your delivery, etc. For the foreseeable future, I am sure the Mark Prior story will be a common outcome.

    • yahmule - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:13 AM

      Anybody who actually watched Prior pitch saw several games when Baker left him on the mound when he had absolutely nothing left. That was the crime.

      Everybody’s excuse for Baker seems to be, “all pitchers are different, so how you treat them individually doesn’t matter.” Complete nonsense. All pitchers can be different on any given day. One day, your ace might be good for 125 pitches, if necessary. On his next start, he might be running on fumes after 90. A manager is supposed to know the difference and protect the guy. Mark Prior was a bulldog on the mound. He was never going to admit to being tired, especially as a 22 year old.

      Dusty Baker is an asshole.

    • ramrene - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:31 AM

      Two words…

      “Inverted W”

      • yahmule - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:58 AM

        That’s a word and a letter.

      • daveitsgood - Dec 10, 2013 at 11:28 AM

        Isn’t that just an “M’?

      • paperlions - Dec 10, 2013 at 12:39 PM

        Two words: red herring.

      • derklempner - Dec 11, 2013 at 12:12 AM

        For all the people who don’t know what you meant by “inverted W”, I am your lone thumbs up. I think it was his mechanics, which weren’t as perfect as everybody claimed they were, that killed his career. Unfortunately, the knowledge of his mechanics wasn’t as well-known at the time he was pitching, which is probably why he broke down so quickly.

        The ironic thing is that it was his mechanics that made him such a good pitcher. It’s just a shame that those mechanics are probably what ended his career way too soon.

      • yahmule - Dec 11, 2013 at 10:46 AM

        Most of the posters here are familiar with the inverted W. Many don’t think there’s any credence to it.The idea was postulated and championed by a fellow named Chris O’Leary and then lazily disseminated by baseball writers before anybody bothered to do any actual research. Mr O’Leary has been angling for a job in baseball for several years, thus far unsuccessfully, and he believes his inverted W is what will get him there. He has an amateurish website promoting the theory. While searching for it, you’ll encounter several well written pieces discrediting the inverted W.

  2. theaxmancometh - Dec 10, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    Dusty as your skipper & being a Cub? Kid never had a chance. That’s a curse within a curse.

    • Gordon - Dec 10, 2013 at 9:15 AM

      …wrapped in bacon.

      • tfbuckfutter - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:04 AM

        Mmmm….cursed bacon *slobber*

  3. chefjon81 - Dec 10, 2013 at 9:47 AM

    Lots of tough breaks, but he did collect around $13 mil in salary, and it looks like he’s got some nice post-playing career opportunities. Overall, hes got a lot to be thankful for. Best of luck going forward.

  4. jwbiii - Dec 10, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    Love this picture.

    http://shirtyogurt.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/woodandprior-e1337357554500.jpg?w=500&h=669

  5. dawgpoundmember - Dec 10, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    I hope Matt Harvey does not end up having the same story, I feel like the Mets deserve him to be great for awhile, but the way the Cubs treated their own fans after Prior’s game 6, Cubs fans got what they deserved, sorry to Prior and Wood tho.

  6. yahmule - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    I love that people post comments without bothering to do any research. Anybody remember what a workhorse Aaron Harang was for the Reds from 2005 to 2007? Unfortunately for him, a dumbass named Dusty Baker was hired to manage the Reds in 2008. Harang was having a nice 2008, too. For some reason, Dusty decided to ask his most valuable starting pitcher to throw four innings of relief on three days rest, then make his regular start four days later. 239 pitches over eight days and the guy was the never the same, so don’t tell me Dusty Baker doesn’t ruin pitchers and don’t tell me its not because he’s basically a very stupid and stubborn old man.

  7. kastout11 - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    I watched Prior pitch in 2003 and he was awesome. I did not live in Chicage, but had WGN and watched every game he pitched that was televised. I don’t think I have ever seen a pitcher that good at age 22. He was definitely talented, and could have been special. I know it it hypothetical, but if he would have stayed healthy, I think he would have anchored a rotation that would have had a legitimate chance to win a world series, but then again, it is that Cubs.

    • tmarlin1221 - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:24 AM

      the use of the word star is very loose these days. This guy was a “star” in his parents eyes maybe.

  8. cohnjusack - Dec 10, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    To date, one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen in baseball

    21, ranked #1 prospect the year before, struck out 10 per 9 in his rookie season and starting game 1 of the NLDS….

  9. brewcrewfan54 - Dec 10, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    I know its fun to bash Dusty Baker, believe me I’ve done it, but didn’t Prior’s injuries start with a collision on the basepaths that hurt his shouldYou probably already heard the news that author Tom Clancy died Tuesday. For his sake, I hope that he had gotten to see Montana. I wasn’t a huge Clancy fan. I read exactly one book of his mostly because I don’t go in for military/espionage/thriller stuff, generally speaking. But any HBT reader who has been…er?

    • brewcrewfan54 - Dec 10, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      How the hell did that Tom Clancy part get there? I didn’t write that ever.

      • yahmule - Dec 10, 2013 at 12:02 PM

        Prior’s injuries during that collision with the sailor on that Soviet frigate were bad luck, not career threatening.

  10. atepper001 - Dec 10, 2013 at 11:55 AM

    I distinctly remember a scouting report coming out of USC that said his mechanics were so good that he will never get injured. they put his motion up in front of what a computer showed as “the perfect pitching motion” it was almost identical. there is nothing that could ever indicate what a human body can or cannot do and how it will react, it’s all a crap shoot.

    • yahmule - Dec 10, 2013 at 12:04 PM

      He had the most impressive calves I’ve ever seen on a baseball player.

  11. keltictim - Dec 10, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    Have the mechanics changed so much that pitchers used to be able to throw complete games all the time and go with no rest at all? Not that i was alive then but I don’t recall reading about guys back then being injured like they are now.

    • Ryan Lansing - Dec 10, 2013 at 12:35 PM

      Three things here: 1. The art/science of pitching mechanics has improved drastically when it comes to getting more movement and velocity, but not so much for keeping those increased stresses from ruining bodies. It’s like putting a jet engine on a WWI biplane. Sure, it’ll go fast. For a little while. 2. Pitchers 50+ years ago threw a lot less when they were kids. I don’t totally buy the “an arm only has so many pitches in it” thing but I guarantee every current big league pitcher threw a hell of a lot more before he was 18 than Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson or even Nolan Ryan ever did. 3. Hitters have gotten better. In Mathewson’s book “Pitching in a Pinch” he advises youngsters to dial back against the bottom of the lineup and save their best stuff for the best hitters. That might still be OK in high school, but it used to be common in the majors, too. It wouldn’t work any more. If pitchers threw at 75% to every lineup’s 8-9 hitters, Brendan Ryan would start to look like Troy Tulowitzki.

    • yahmule - Dec 10, 2013 at 12:47 PM

      More surgical options now, thus more surgeries. Examine baseball-reference.com for a while and you’ll see all kinds of guys who were great and then flamed out, often from overuse.

      Sudden Sam McDowell is a good example.

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/mcdowsa01.shtml

      He spent his early 20s scaring the crap out of American League hitters. He was so scary and good that he pitched 273 innings as a 22 year old in 1965. Birdie Tebbitts was on his way to getting fired, so he didn’t give this kid’s career a second thought. The stretch in April of 1966 when he had him throw three straight nine inning complete game victories and followed it up with a 12 inning no decision is a prime example.

      39 innings in 21 days by a 23 year old pitcher. Sounds like a great idea, huh?

      Oops. Maybe not. McDowell was wild in his next start, an eight inning no decision. He was wilder still his next time out, a four inning loss.

      Then he spent a month and a half in the bullpen.

      That’s what they did for you instead of arthroscopy in 1966.

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.cgi?id=mcdowsa01&t=p&year=1966

      The next season, Joe Adcock decided to exercise more caution with McDowell as he got healthy. Adock finished eighth and got canned.

      Al Dark wasn’t going out that way. He ran Sam out there for 268 innings in ’68, 285 innings in ’69 and a league leading 305 innings in 1970.

      McDowell was 27 years old. He was never the same after 1970 and out of baseball by the age of 32.

      The Indians lost 102 games in 1971 and Al Dark got canned halfway through the season. He lasted two and half more years than Joe Adcock. He’s 91 now, bless his heart. He probably hasn’t given Sam McDowell a second thought in 42 years.

      There are several pitchers with similar stories, but it’s just so much easier for people to shrug their shoulders and say “all pitchers are different” than to do a little research. That’s what keeps dinosaur brains like Dusty Baker in the league.

  12. edlut63 - Dec 10, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    This story should be, at least, three or four years old. Prior was nothing three years ago. As for Baker, I am still amazed that nothing happened to him when he said he desired mostly black and Latino players for Wrigley Field. If a white manager has said he wanted only white guys playing for him, he would have been hooded and shot at the wall of political correctness.

  13. barrygrippo - Dec 10, 2013 at 3:10 PM

    Prior was so good in 2003 because he could paint the black with his fastball and get ahead of hitters. He had power stuff, but he knew how to pitch. He wasn’t just a thrower like so many young power pitchers. He seemed like a veteran at 22.

  14. keltictim - Dec 10, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    Idk, I realize guys are throwing harder and putting more torque on their arms, but the amount of pitches the older generations threw certainly makes up for the different mechanics. I may not be vocalizing that right. They didn’t throw as hard but the shear volume of pitches thrown must have had a similar effect on the arm, and yet those guys could go night after night. Has pitch counts and babying these guys lead to some of the arm issues today’s pitchers have?

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