I can remember May 22, 2002 like it was
six years ago yesterday as I did not even need to look up gamelogs to remember the very first major league start of Mark Prior. A high school sophomore at the time, I would often use my lunch period to watch day games on either Gameday or MLB TV; on that day I was lucky enough to watch Prior make his Mark. Get it?
Breezing through the Pirates hitters with the greatest of ease, this would begin a five-game stretch in which the Cubs rookie struck out 43 hitters in 28.2 innings. Calm, cool, and collected, his fluid windup provided such an intimidating presence on the mound. On the whole, his rookie season consisted of 147 strikeouts in 116.2 innings; just 38 walks; a 3.32 ERA, 3.16 FIP, and a 1.17 WHIP; and a .230 BAA. He finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting but, in just 19 starts, had risen almost entirely to the top of the Cubs rotation.
If there were any doubts his 2003 not only erased them but helped make people forget said doubts ever crept into their minds. Finishing 3rd (to Eric Gagne and Jason Schmidt) in Cy Young Award voting, Prior went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA. His WHIP went down to 1.10 and he struck out 245 hitters in 211.1 innings. His FIP of 2.47 suggests his ERA was right on the money and he allowed just 15 home runs.
Prior pitched game six of the NLCS where some guy in the crowd prevented a ball caught in foul territory that Moises Alou forgave six years later (Question: Why isn’t Alex Gonzalez criticized more? His play was worse!).
The next season, an injury-riddled one, looked a lot like a slightly poorer version of his rookie year. Check it out:
2002:19 GS, 116.2 IP, 98 H, 14 HR, 38 BB, 147 K, 3.32 ERA, 1.17 WHIP
2004:21 GS, 118.2 IP, 108 H, 14 HR, 48 BB, 139 K, 4.02 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
In 2005 he missed more time, albeit not as much as the year prior (get it?), and pitched pretty well; though not as well as someone determined to be the next 300-game winner would be expected to pitch. That year he struck out 188 batters in 166.2 innings, posting a 3.67 ERA, 3.85 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP.
Missing most of the next season his actual playing time in 2006 proved disastrous. In nine starts he posted a 7.21 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP. His FIP of 6.60, which suggests his ERA may have been a bit high, was still high in its own right. 2006 would also be the first season in which Prior struck out less batters than innings pitched and posted a BB/9 above 3.64. After stranding runners to the tune of 76.7%-79.4% he posted an LOB of just 62.0%.
He missed last season with more injuries and the Cubs decided to let him go. Signing a low-risk deal with the Padres this offseason, hope still existed that Prior could shake the injury-plagued status that accompanies him everywhere these days and be, at the very least, a league average pitcher. This weekend’s news changed everything.
News surfaced this weekend that Prior, still just 27 years of age, would have surgery and miss the entire 2008 season. Often the player associated most with regards to Dusty Baker’s poor handling of pitchers, Prior will again miss significant pitching time due to a faulty shoulder. As Sam Panayotovich points out, it’s a shame because Prior had the abilities to dominate the league at the age of 23; now he’ll be lucky to make 20+ starts in a future season.
When Prior returned from the DL in 2004, Cubs announcers remarked that fans now felt their season had begun with their ace making his return. As my friend Evan Brunell remarked yesterday, “Now you know the season has really begun when ‘Mark Prior out for the season’ hits the newswire.”
Oh, how the tides have turned, and oh how sad of a downfall it has been.