Pristine mechanics caused Prior pain
PEORIA, Ariz. – We are suckers for symmetry, because symmetry is beauty, and the idea of a beautiful pitching motion goes against everything we know. Pitching is violent and unnatural, and to watch Mark Prior throw a baseball felt like an invitation to an art installation on the perfection of the human form.
Our eyes deceived us, of course. Prior has not thrown a pitch in the major leagues for nearly three years. What won us over for its aesthetics – the way his arms mirrored each other, the deliberate pace, the smooth finish – may have been just the opposite. There’s a long-held school of thought that Prior’s delivery was gold-plated, a false idol, and it turned one of the gifted right arms of this generation into a mangled mess of ruined talent.
For now, the zipper scar along his right armpit is enough to remind Prior daily of what was and what is, and the canyon between the two. Never did Prior buy into the hokum that he was a laboratory-created super-pitcher, proof of how technology could marry genetics and change the game. It was too easy an explanation for what he did, though the ease with which Prior threw the ball 98 mph made it plausible to everyone who had the privilege of watching him throw.
“I tried to tell people: ‘My mechanics are not perfect,’ ” Prior said. “I was still working on things all the time. No one ever seemed to get that. People liked it because it didn’t look like I was trying. It wasn’t until the injuries. Then people started saying because I do this, that happens.”
The sentiment went something like this: Every time Prior throws a pitch, the stress on his shoulder brings him closer to blowing it out. And it did blow out. Twice.
Which leaves the 28-year-old here, in the San Diego Padres’ spring-training clubhouse, with an ice pack wrapped around his arm as he continues the comeback from his second shoulder surgery. Prior was once deemed by his personal coach “the poster child” for what a pitcher should be. Instead, he’s the poster child for pitching injuries, and he provides the perfect case study for the statisticians and biomechanical analysts chasing baseball executives’ ultimate question: How do you keep a pitcher’s arm healthy?
Prior refuses to play that game. He lost too many hours of sleep wondering why his arm hurt. Was it the motion he spent all that time honing? Or, like the arm surgeron Frank Jobe had told him, “everybody’s got a finite amount of pitches,” and maybe he hit his?
Or was it just fate that Mark Prior, who at 22 years old was one of the best pitchers in baseball, found real symmetry not in his delivery but that he fell as quickly as he had risen?
Baseball’s graveyard is littered with the wrecked arms of young pitchers. Mark Fidrych’s and Don Gullett’s and Steve Busby’s and Gary Nolan’s and hundreds of others’ that never made the major leagues because something caused their ligaments and tendons to rebel.
This could not happen with Mark Prior.
“Objectively,” Tom House once said, “he’s a can’t miss.”
House pitched in the major leagues for eight seasons before retiring, getting his Ph.D. in psychology and styling himself a pitching guru. When he watched the gangly Prior as a sophomore in high school, House saw the perfect specimen to build into the ultimate pitcher. For the next six years, he put Prior on a specific diet, ran blood work regularly, schooled him in mental acuity and, most important, imparted all of the lessons he had learned from high-speed-video and computer studies about proper mechanics to avoid injury.
“Because he was a computerized athlete,” House said, “he was supposed to be perfect.”
– Pitcher Mark Prior on his rash of injuries.
The New York Yankees drafted Prior out of high school in San Diego and offered him $1.5 million. He turned them down and went to college. After struggling at Vanderbilt, Prior transferred to USC and as a junior went 15-1 with a 1.70 earned-run average. The Cubs picked him second overall in the 2001 draft and gave him $10.5 million, still the highest signing bonus ever. He debuted with Chicago less than a year later, 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds of overwhelming hype.
By then, the Center for Human Performance at Children’s Hospital of San Diego was offering a biomechanical analysis to children for $400. The allure: Parents could see how their kid compared to the hospital’s standard for perfect mechanics, Mark Prior.
At the time, few disputed the claim. Early in the decade, only the most devoted to the study of pitching understood the idea of scap loading, or pinching the shoulder blades together to gain extra velocity. Now, everyone who values biomechanical analysis knows it as a crutch pitchers use – and opinions vary on its merits. Back then, the Inverted W meant nothing. Today, it’s the likeliest culprit for Prior’s injuries, according to some armchair biomechanists: the part of his motion where his elbows end up higher than the plane of his shoulders, make a shape like an upside-down W and supposedly cause considerable strain on the arm.
House, now the pitching coach at USC and no longer working with Prior, does not believe the Inverted W hurts a pitcher’s arm. He said years of science and research support his methods. Same with doctors at the American Sports Medicine Institute, including famed surgeon James Andrews.
And to those who make a fuss about the Inverted W and point out that House’s prized student has been laid up for years? Well, House said, “They don’t know their asses from a boat paddle.”
In 2003, Prior felt no pain. He starred as a rookie and finished behind a juiced Eric Gagne for the NL Cy Young award. He had pitched a shutout in Game 6 of the NLCS until the eighth inning, when Steve Bartman rendered the first seven meaningless.
The injuries cascaded in ’04 and ’05. Achilles’ issues. Elbow inflammation. Shoulder strain. Some blamed his collision with Marcus Giles on the base paths in 2003 and others his massive workload from college and others yet his pitching motion. What did it matter? By 2006, Prior’s velocity dropped 10 mph, his ERA ballooned to 7.21 and the Cubs shut him down. He put off surgery until April 2007, when doctors operated on a torn labrum and split shoulder capsule.
“My arm hurt all the time,” Prior said. “Nobody could tell me what’s going on. I could see my performance wasn’t the same. You’re trying to compete with inadequate stuff, and you get down on yourself, and you get bitter and negative. Having the surgery was almost a relief.”
Prior by the numbers
Except for how he left Chicago. Prior signed as the Cubs’ savior, and his legacy would be long vacations on the disabled list and presiding over the most heartbreaking loss in the franchise’s history. The Cubs cut Prior, and he signed with his hometown Padres.
By June 2008, Prior was close to returning. During a bullpen session, he heard a pop on the fourth pitch, a fastball. A burning sensation surged toward his shoulder. The capsule had torn again, this time completely off his humerus bone. Another surgery beckoned.
“For a four-year stretch, everything was good, and then it suddenly happens?” Prior said. “Who knows? There may be some validity to the people who say it’s mechanics. I’m not changing. I don’t think there’s anything I specifically do that has caused my injuries. No one’s ever going to be able to tell me for certain that it is, either.
“Look, this is the way I throw. It’s another one of Tom’s philosophies. He’s got 1,000. But one I do believe is that the way you throw is the way you throw. And you have to make it work with the other fundamentals. Everyone wants to know why I hurt it. Fine. It could be my mechanics. It could be my workload. That doesn’t change the situation I’m in now.”
Which hasn’t changed since mid-2006: trying to return and spending far too much time in the trainers’ room. A few days back, he stumbled on a book by Andrews called “Injuries in Baseball.” Prior paged through looking for some new information, something that answers the questions that still faze him.
“Unfortunately,” Prior said, “there wasn’t anything I didn’t already know.”
Bud Black paced around the room, rotating his arm like a softball pitcher.
“Look at your shoulder when you walk,” he said. “You can do this all day and probably never get sore.”
Black, the Padres’ manager, reversed his arm’s motion. He was now throwing overhanded.
“You do this and you get tired. Right?” Black said. “Your shoulder’s not meant to go that way. The anatomy of each person, and the architecture of their shoulder, the way that joint works, how their muscles are, contributes to every injury you might incur in your life.”
He was talking, of course, about Mark Prior, who that particular day was scheduled to throw. He didn’t. His arm wasn’t up to it. He still hasn’t gotten into a game this spring.
“I think he’s got a good delivery,” Black said. “Good mechanics. Good fundamentally. Sound thrower.”
Traditional pitching coaches still see Prior’s delivery in all of its six-years-ago splendor, and knowing how effective it was, they’re loath to change it. Prior has worked with only the Cubs’ Larry Rothschild and the Padres’ Darren Balsley – along with Black, a former pitching coach – and none has suggested he tinker with how he throws.
“I’m not saying they’re the be-all, end-all, but they’re major-league pitching coaches,” Prior said. “If something was really wrong, don’t you think they’d change things?”
You’d hope so, though the universal consensus is that Cubs manager Dusty Baker abused Prior at the end of the 2003 season simply because he knew no better. In Prior’s last nine games, including three in the playoffs, he logged the following pitch counts: 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 132, 115, 119. House believes the overuse by Baker doomed Prior. Eight pitchers this decade have thrown 109 or more pitches in nine straight games, and half of them needed reconstructive arm surgery. The only other pitchers this decade to throw at least four 130-plus-pitch games in a season, let alone in two months, are Livan Hernandez and Randy Johnson.
Johnson was another of House’s students, more for mental hang-ups than physical. Still, he is 45 and has not had arm surgery, nor has the 34-year-old Hernandez. As much as biomechanics experts want to air their findings and find wide acceptance in the baseball community, even they admit the human arm is fickle enough that there is no right delivery – and there certainly isn’t a perfect one.
“I’m not opposed to changing things, I guess,” Prior said. “I mean, I don’t know if my elbow does get over my shoulder anymore. I’m sure my mechanics changed after surgery. Things feel different. I’m 28.”
He knows time is running out. This is Prior’s last chance. He re-signed with San Diego on a minor-league contract. Unless he returns, he will be just another shoulda-been, a sad reminder that not even modern medicine can save some pitchers.
“I’m an optimistic realist,” Prior said. “I understand the challenge and the road I’m facing. I understood that after the first surgery. Not that it’s out of my control, but it is.
“It’s a lonely road.”
One he hopes doesn’t lead down the path to the same graveyard inhabited by so many others.