In the wake of their cheating scandal, the Houston Astros hired 70-year-old Dusty Baker to be their next manager. Baker is now the oldest manager in the MLB.
The move is not a terrible one for the Astros. Baker has extensive managerial experience and led the Giants to the World Series back in 2001. It’s a solid public relations move as well; Baker has been known to go against the analytic trends in today’s game. However, during his reign as Chicago Cubs’ manager in the 2000s, this mindset arguably ruined the career of a young pitcher with a bright future. Let’s talk about Mark Prior.
2002-2003: From Bright Rookie to Star
Prior broke into the bigs in 2002, making 19 starts, and throwing 116.2 innings that season. As a rookie, he showed what he could do as he led all rookies with 147 strikeouts, helping him finish seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year race. Well-known pitching coach Tom House labeled Prior a “can’t-miss” prospect who was bound to become a star in the MLB. He could have been incredible.
2003 came, which was the season that would later become remembered for the infamous “Steve Bartman” game. In Baker’s first season as the Cubs’ manager, the team won their first division title in 14 years before losing in the NLCS to the Florida Marlins.
It was also the season where Dusty Baker inadvertently derailed Mark Prior’s promising career.
That year was a breakout season for Prior, who finished the season 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and an NL-leading 2.47 FIP. Those numbers sent him all the way finishing third in the Cy Young race behind Eric Gagne and Jason Schmidt. Dusty Baker consistently pitched Prior deep into games, often hitting upwards of 130 pitches. Prior threw over 100 pitches in 26 of 30 starts that season, averaging 113.4 pitches per start.
In September, Prior’s workload grew even more. In six starts, Prior threw 131, 120, 109, 124, 131, and 133 pitches: an average of 126 pitches per start. He then averaged 122.7 pitches in three playoff starts. Dusty Baker burned him out. Any pitcher who is forced to throw that many pitches is bound to have arm issues down the road. Factor in the fact that Prior was a 22-year-old who hadn’t been forced to throw so many pitches in a season before, and this was due to become a disaster. In total, Prior threw 242.2 innings that season (including the playoffs).
2004: The Injuries Start
Here are the facts about the Prior’s start to the 2004 season:
- He missed the first two months of that season due to an Achilles injury.
- Several reports then came out saying he needed Tommy John surgery on top of his current ailments.
- Both Prior and Baker denied this, saying it was an only Achilles injury that kept him out for the start of the season.
Did Prior likely have arm issues at this point in his career? One would assume so given the workload Baker put on him. I tend to believe that Prior missed the first two months of that season because he was having elbow issues in addition to the Achilles injury.
Prior’s workload in 2004 also decreased a lot, which is interesting considering Baker had no problems pitching him well above 100 beforehand. Prior wouldn’t reach 100 pitches until his eleventh start of the season on August 5th. He only threw 100+ pitches in 10 of 21 starts that season total as the Cubs failed to reach the playoffs. His ERA spiked up to 4.02 as he struggled with walks and velocity. The walks and the reduced number of pitches can indicate that Prior was likely having elbow problems as well. Dusty Baker burned him out the previous season, and it was starting to show in 2004. It wouldn’t get any better in 2005.
2005: The Injuries Continue
For the second straight season, Prior missed the beginning of the season due to injury. The Cubs labeled it as an arm issue, but Prior only missed the minimum 15 days, and returned early into that season. Was there likely a larger arm issue here? Probably. Prior’s walk rate had already spiked the previous season, and Baker put him on a pitch count for the start of the season.
Bad luck also played a factor for Prior in 2005. During late May of that season, Prior took a line drive directly off his elbow, causing a compression fracture. He then missed nearly a month and wasn’t as sharp upon his return. Despite his previous elbow issues, Prior was pushed to the limits by Dusty Baker during the second half of that season. In August and September of that season, he averaged 110.8 pitches per game in 11 starts despite the team missing the playoffs. The number of pitches was still too much for any pitcher with elbow issues, even before managers started becoming more aware of pitch counts.
In 2005 Mark Prior went 11-7 with a 3.67 ERA while pitching 166.2 innings, well up from the 2004 season.
2006: The Start of the End
2006 would mark the end of both Prior’s MLB career and Baker’s reign as the Cubs’ manager. For a third straight season, Prior suffered an injury in Spring Training that would cause him to miss the start of the season.
After missing two months due to a shoulder strain, Prior made his season debut in June of 2006. He pitched terribly that season, finishing the year with a 1-6 record, and 7.21 ERA. He went on the Disabled List again in August and missed the rest of the season due to ongoing shoulder problems. Prior would never throw another pitch in the MLB. High pitch counts enforced by Dusty Baker evidently ruined a promising career.
2007: Season-Ending Surgery
By the end of the 2006 season, Prior’s shoulder had the same consistency as a cup of jello. The Cubs described this injury as a “loose shoulder,” an injury that could lead to further complications down the road. Well-known baseball doctor, James Andrews, also did a procedure on Prior’s arm that showed significant structural damage. After not throwing an MLB pitch in the 2007 season, Prior was non-tendered by the Cubs.
2008-2013: Failed Comeback Attempts
Despite being over a year removed from pitching, Prior received a one-year, $1 million deal from the Padres in December of 2007. However, by the time he was close to returning, Prior suffered yet another shoulder injury that resulted in season-ending surgery.
Prior’s next comeback attempt came in the form of a minor league contract from San Diego in 2009. However, he was released in August after he hadn’t made progress in his recovery.
Over the next four seasons, Prior would attempt to make comebacks with the Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox, and Reds. Unfortunately, he never made it back to the majors. Prior announced his retirement from baseball in December 2013.
Mark Prior’s injury story is one of the saddest in recent years. Had he avoided major arm issues, he could have been a star. He could even still be playing at age 39.
Dusty Baker contributed to Prior’s suffering severe arm injuries down the road, ruining his career. Had the Cubs been more careful with his workload and pitch count, Prior could have been amazing.
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