Friday, August 27, 2010

Stephen Strasburg is not Mark Prior

Prior illustrates the infamous "Prostrate Sigma" pitching motion.
If you care, you probably already know. The MRI of Stephen Strasburg's divine cannon of retributive wrath arm indicates he will probably need life-threatening career-ending your basic, run-of-the-mill Tommy John surgery, a procedure rendered so simple by modern medicine you can get it done in the food court at Walmart. I can't count the number of times in the last hour I've heard him compared to Mark Prior. Seriously, it would be like keeping up the count of hamburgers McDonald's has served in history. Suffice it to say, the comparison has now been made billions and billions of times.

I even made the comparison. Shame on me. The guys are similar in that they are both stud pitchers who were selected in the first two picks of the draft by teams that really, really, really (x billions and billions) needed them to do well. They both allegedly pitch with the "M" arm motion (aka the inverted W, the prostrate Σ, the sleeping 3, and the drunken zig-zag). They both have struck fear in the hearts of opponents with their dominant pitching and triggered mass bouts of hysteria among their respective fans due to long bouts of not pitching. And both were antagonized by their teams' ex-pitcher color analysts for not being tough enough to pitch through pain.

But the nature of Strasburg's early flirtation with the TJ surgical scalpel is nothing like Mark Prior's early career. Nothing. We have all, it seems, played revisionist historians with Mark Prior's days as a Cub. Please allow me to clear the record and scoff at the myriad fools who claim to have predicted Mark Prior's physical woes.

To revisit Prior's sad but altogether un-Strasburgian legacy of ligament damage, I turn to the most infallible source in all the land . . . Wikipedia. Here's the rundown of Prior's lost time and shattered dreams:

August 31, 2002
While running the bases, Prior strained a hamstring. As anyone careful enough to observe his sideways little-K running style, this was inevitable. Plus, Baylor just left him on the basepaths too long. He missed the rest of a doomed season.

That's how Prior first
hurt his shoulder.
July 11, 2003
Also while baserunning, Prior collided with Marcus Giles of the Atlanta Braves in an ugly spill that only the most keen experts could have predicted (based, of course, on his spinning 8 eye angle). He missed three starts, although his return to form was hardly immediate. Sure, he won his next seven starts after returning with an ERA of 1.00 and an opponent OPS of .494, but deep down you could tell he wanted desperately to give up pitching like the coward he is. I blame Dusty.

Preseason 2004
A nagging Achilles tendon surgery kept Prior out of the all-important Cactus League rotation for two months. A rudimentary understanding of Greek mythology would have been sufficient to predict this one. When you invert your W's, you really have to dip them all the way into the River Styx, which Prior's sea-nymph mother clearly did not do. He didn't make a start until June and put forward a disappointing (read: barely above average) season in which he made only 21 starts (though I assume Dusty left him in to make 400 pitches in each and every one).

Preseason 2005
An elbow strain robbed the world of 15 days of Mark Prior preseason glory. He made his first start on April 13 and didn't give up a run until his third start of the season (he gave up 2, *gasp*). It looked like he was going to have a wonderful year (except to the prognosticators with enough emotional distance from the phenom to open their eyes to his dos-equis eye position on his follow through) until . . .

May 27, 2005
Brad Hawpe hit a line drive that everyone (except Mark Prior) could see coming. He didn't return until June 26, but after taking the baseball to his pitching elbow (which never would have happened if Dusty taught the fundamentals of line-drive evasion) Prior returned to his 2004 just-average form, going 7-6 the rest of the way with a .726 OPS against and yielding a negative net Win Probability added of -.261 over that span.

July 14, 2006
Prior strained an oblique in batting practice. Zambrano much? He missed two selfish starts.

August 14, 2006
Shoulder tendinitis put Prior on the shelf for the remainder of this otherwise brilliant 96-loss season. He would have season-cancelling shoulder surgery in 2007 that would put his Cubs career to a painful end. He needed shoulder surgery again in 2008, and the guy hasn't had the stones to pitch in the majors again. Toughen up and straighten out that Sigma, buddy.

Returning to sincerity for a moment, notice how pitching-induced arm trouble was responsible for about one or two missed starts at the beginning of the 2005 season, after which Prior was dominant. That's it. Before the end of 2006, his so-called terrible mechanics at the very worst cost him two starts in his first 5 seasons. Had it not been for the Hawpe line drive, who knows where Prior would have ended up? Maybe his later shoulder problems were the result of bad mechanics, or maybe one or more of his many other injuries caused him to compensate in a way that somehow led to hurting his shoulder. I don't know, and I doubt anyone does.

People who think Prior was a bust and an arm explosion waiting to happen must have wiped their memory banks clean or are just being willfully ignorant of his career stats, because they tell a different story.

Oh, and Prior never needed Tommy John surgery. I hope Strasburg gets better as quickly as possible and goes on to have a long, illustrious career. Whatever happens, if you're going to compare him to Mark Prior, do so based on the facts. They are similar in hype, but not in their injury history.

5 comments:

  1. You've very well demonstrated that Strasburg and Prior's problem are different...

    The scary thing for Nats fans (all 3 of of them) is that SS only has pitched 12 starts and is already hurt. While Tommy John surgery is quite common place now and many people recover to have good careers, I do believe that SS is likely to have more problems in the future. He did have shoulder problems just a month ago as well. While that might have just been a routine precaution on the Nats part, it should throw up some warning flags about this kid.

    As said on twitter and in my blog, these phenom pitchers almost never work out and for every Tom Seaver, there are 10 phenoms that don't fail to make a significant long term impact.

    Teams should just go ahead and pick Joe Mauer from now on.

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  2. Oh...and Marcus Giles is a jerk. (I was at that game.)

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  3. Yeah, I fear I may have drawn people into a false hope with the headline that there's nothing to worry about with Stephen Strasburg because he isn't accursed to suffer the same fate as Prior. My point really is that Prior's career, while unfortunate, wasn't as doomed from the beginning as people tend to think. Hindsight, not always 20/20.

    All I have for Strasburg is hope, because it's definitely not a good sign that he has multiple arm problems. The good thing, I'm guessing here, is that all his injuries will have a chance to heal as he rehabs from surgery. With any good luck, he'll return to dominance. But I do think it will take some luck.

    In the end, I don't know if teams can really pass a chance to have a pitcher with the potential to be that great. I don't think I could, but I'm pretty impulsive.

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Spill it.

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