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July 1, 2003
Mark Prior and Pitch Counts
[When Dusty Baker allowed Mark Prior to throw 126 pitches last Thursday against the Brewers, it was the final straw for Gary Huckabay. The big redhead threw in the towel and Prior with it, trading him straight up for Austin Kearns in a 24-team Scoresheet Baseball league. The deal inspired some discussion among the Baseball Prospectus staff.]
Gary Huckabay: For the record, I ran screaming from Mark Prior yesterday, trading him away in BL-DwMurphy. I couldn't handle the risk. I'll take Austin Kearns and bet on my remaining arms.
I give Prior 44 more starts under Dusty Baker, fewer if the Cubs are in a pennant race and the bullpen blows another save or two. I think The Lawsuit is going to originate from the Cubs at some point in the next three years. It'll fail and turn into a worker's compensation case.
Rany Jazayerli: I'm not sure I understand why. Yes, he threw 126 pitches, and he's done that a lot this year, but I've been led to believe by multiple sources--as diverse as (Montreal Expos minor league pitching coordinator) Brent Strom and our own Will Carroll--that Prior's mechanics are as drop-dead perfect as they come. I'm inclined to think that Prior is the Tom Seaver of our generation, a pitcher capable of weathering high workloads because 1) he has great mechanics and 2) he's so effective that, even at eight innings a pop, he's unlikely to have to throw more than 130 pitches at a time.
Keep in mind: 16 strikeouts, no walks. I'd bet there aren't 10 pitchers in the history of baseball who have whiffed 16 or more batters in a zero-walk start. (Joe will remind me that Jason Bere, as a rookie, had a walkless start in which he whiffed 13 batters, which almost prompted me to draft him over Pedro Martinez in a Strat-O-Matic league.)
As far as I'm concerned, Prior is still one of the first five guys I'd choose to start a franchise right now.
GH: Of course you understand why.
I don't care if he's made of liquid titanium. I don't care if his mechanics were designed by Da Vinci. The organization he's in couldn't find its ass with both hands. They've shown no signs of understanding the precepts of not abusing their starters. Recent addition Dusty Baker isn't exactly The Bringer of Light.
Prior will likely throw 220 innings this year at the age of 22. We can look for reasons why Prior is an exception to the rules all day long. I prefer to assume he's NOT an exception, take the 23-year-old outfielder with broad offensive skills who's going to be in a hitters' park, and live with the reduced potential in exchange for the lower risk.
Dusty Baker and the Cubs will burn up Prior, and that's a hit to my base that I can't take, no matter when it comes.
David Cameron: I'm with Rany. Mark Prior has, by far, the best mechanics of any pitcher alive. It isn't really close. He repeats his delivery more often than Greg Maddux does. His arm looks like it's on an electromagnetic track and cannot be derailed. Somebody is eventually going to use him to sell instructional videos on how to pitch. He's remarkable.
Besides, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a pitcher who hasn't thrown 126 pitches at some point in his career. Prior may get hurt at some point, because throwing a baseball is an unnatural act, but I think he's one of the better bets among pitchers to have a long, healthy career.
I'll take Rany a step further. If you offered me anyone in the game to start my franchise with, I'd flip-flop between Prior and Alex Rodriguez for a few days, before finally taking the hitter. But Prior is a clear #2.
Greg Spira: The problem with the Seaver comparison is that he pitched in a an era when hits and runs were far less frequent--especially when he was Prior's age--than they are today. That's partially why so many Hall of Fame pitchers' careers got their start in the 1960s. It's extremely unlikely that a Seaver could go as deep into games today and prosper the way he did.
Michael Wolverton: I don't see it. In his age-22 season, Seaver gave up both hits and walks at a higher rate than Prior has this year. Seaver faced an estimated 37.1 batters per nine innings that year, the same as Prior this year. Seaver threw 251 innings that season.
I imagine Seaver threw fewer pitches per batter than Prior, but enough to make up the projected difference in innings? I doubt it.
GS: I'm only concerned about how deep he goes into games, so I think the fewer pitches per batter over several seasons does make a difference. Also, in 1967 and 1968, Seaver was on a higher mound, which made it easier to throw each pitch.
Will Carroll: It's a bit off topic, but Seaver himself was discussing Dontrelle Willis on the Mets broadcast Wednesday night. They showed a split-screen graphic of Willis on his first pitch and his 100th, and it was dead-on identical. Seaver was smart enough to discuss arm slot, repeatable mechanics, and that it's what happens when his leg starts coming down that counts.
Prior is similar in that his delivery is perfect. Thursday he lost no velocity: 94 mph all game, breaking stuff between 80 and 82. It was almost too predictable, but the Brewers sure couldn't hit it. My worry is that Dusty will see some blown saves, realize that Joe Borowski is still Joe Borowski, and think "I can get one more inning, let him finish things out."
Cubs trainer Dave Tumbas said that Prior's elbow never swells, even slightly, and that while he's fatigued the day after a start, he has full velocity for his bullpen sessions, if needed. He also says that Prior will often warm up at 96-97, but has never thrown that in a game. What we have in Prior might be a combination of Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux at age 22.
Nate Silver: On the SportsCenter recap, there was a comment to the effect that Prior felt taxed during the eighth inning, but Baker left him out there anyway.
As a Cubs fan, I'm actually hoping that the team overpays for middle-relief help just so it discourages Baker from doing stuff like this. They left Carlos Zambrano out there a long time the other day (123 pitches), during which Chip Caray and Steve Stone commented that Zambrano would have to "take one for the team" since the bullpen was overworked. Isn't that what Shawn Estes is for?
Prior does have beautiful mechanics, but that just mitigates the risk, not eliminates it. I try not to be a total fascist about this stuff, and I can see an argument for pushing a guy once or twice a year in the perfect situations, but Baker has done it indiscriminately.
Jonah Keri: For the record, I think Prior--being the sharp guy that he is--will simply come to realize that Dusty will never help him. He'll become more efficient with his pitches, throwing more hittable off-speed stuff early in the count that will result in weak groundouts rather than racking up huge strikeouts in every game. That would then allow him to get into the ninth inning comfortably under [scary pitch count number].
NS: I like the thought, Jonah, but I'm not sure that Prior can be much more efficient with his pitches than he already is. According to the numbers, he's throwing 66.6% strikes (how's that for an ominous indicator?), which is one of the highest rates in the league. The couple of times that I've watched him when he hasn't done well, I actually thought that he was throwing too many pitches for strikes, not realizing that most Brewers and Pirates have a strike zone the size of Joey Meyer.
JK: I don't mean strikes per se. Because Prior's strikes can be the type of strikes that virtually no one can catch up to. No, I mean more slop-like strikes...placed cleverly within the zone, such that a hitter can make contact but likely tap out to second base. I'm saying Prior can occasionally be Tom Glavine, circa Glavine's peak years, when he needs to cut back on his pitch counts.
Take this with a giant grain of salt, but it's something that Javier Vazquez has said he's trying to do, coming off the butchery of the Torborg years. Mind you, Vazquez's pitch counts have been up again this year anyway, but it seems to me that good pitchers may be able to do something like this to save themselves from demanding managers.
NS: I don't know that the Glavine example works. Glavine actually throws a lot of pitches relative to the number of outs that he gets. Setting a hitter up to make weak contact often requires a lot of cat-and-mouse games, or a tremendous change-up (which Prior doesn't have). That's before even getting into the whole DIPS thing.
Chaim Bloom: We can talk about this outing 'til we're blue in the face (heck, a number of us might have let him go eight innings), but we think about it completely differently than Baker and the Cubs do. The issue is not this outing in itself, but how it fits into a pattern of overuse, and I'll be damned if anyone at Wrigley is losing sleep over that.
Given that Prior has pitched about a year in the big leagues, I think it's a little early to start dubbing him the Tom Seaver of our generation. Just in case he's not, I'd sooner baby him a little, risk a few late-inning losses, and let him get a little older before I really start testing him.
That said, I can't think of another pitcher with whom I'd start my team, especially when you consider salary (which is a great reason to take him over A-Rod, too). If anyone can survive this abuse--and we've seen worse abuse--it's Prior.