|Saturday, March 29
Updated: April 3, 4:43 PM ET
Prior destined for greatness
By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
When a pitcher has great stuff and throws effortlessly, scouts like to say, "the ball comes out of his hand so easily.'' Of the Cubs' Mark Prior, one veteran scout says "the ball comes out of his hand easier than any pitcher I've ever seen.''
So, when identifying the game's next superstar -- choosing from established players with less than two years major-league service -- we'll take Prior in a close race over, among others, Roy Oswalt, Josh Beckett and Adam Dunn.
Established? Prior has made only 19 major-league starts. But if you saw him, there's little doubt he's a future Cy Young Award winner.
What's not to like? Prior is big and strong: 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, with legs that resemble the great Tom Seaver's and with height that gives him leverage. At 22, Prior is refined. He pitched at a big-time program at USC. He worked independently with Tom House, a former pitcher and pitching coach -- Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson swear by House's teachings, which stress, among other philosophies, letting the ball go closer to home plate.
"He is the most complete, polished pitcher ever to come out of the draft,'' House says. When asked soon after the 2001 draft (Prior was the second overall pick) when Prior would be ready to pitch in the major leagues, House said "two months ago.''
Similar things were said about LSU's Ben McDonald in 1989. He, too, had exceptional ability, but McDonald didn't have Prior's concept of pitching, or the understanding of the competition.
"What makes him stand out is his makeup,'' says Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "His personality is as good as his stuff. A lot of guys have good stuff, but that's not what it's all about in the major leagues. Plus, his delivery is so solid, he looks like he's playing catch at 93-94 mph.''
The Cubs knew they had something special in the spring training of 2002 in a game against the White Sox, who were playing their best lineup. Prior didn't have his fastball, or his great curveball, so he got people out with his change-up.
"He had no fear throwing it,'' Rothschild said. "A lot of young pitchers get confused when things don't go right, their thought process changes. Not Mark. When he gets in trouble, he's not going to do something that isn't going to work. He never questions himself. His confidence is very strong.''
That confidence was obvious last year. In his first major-league start, against Pittsburgh, Prior struck out 10 in six innings. He finished with six double-figure strikeout games. Thirteen of his 19 starts were quality starts (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs allowed). Overall, he finished 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA. The league hit .226 against him. Simply put, no batter wanted to hit off him.
What Prior has that virtually no one his age has is command of the strike zone. His walk-strikeout numbers his senior year at USC -- 18 walks, 202 strikeouts -- resemble those you see only in Williamsport, Pa. He has what separates great pitchers from good ones: the ability to throw really hard, with violent stuff, yet throw those pitches wherever he likes.
Most great pitchers, from Christy Mathewson to Pedro Martinez, have that ability. Last season with the Cubs, Prior pitched 116 2/3 innings, walked 38 and struck out 147. That's 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only Kerry Wood (12.6) and Dwight Gooden (11.4) had a higher ratio among rookies with at least 100 innings pitched.
"When he misses,'' said Rothschild, "he misses to the area where he was trying to throw the ball.''
He didn't miss much last year as a rookie. He stands to miss even less as he goes along. But Rothchild, and everyone in the Cubs organization, has to be cautious with too much praise.
"You have to let him go through the process,'' Rothschild said. "It's not going to happen overnight. It only happens that way with the very rare. But he has a chance to be very rare."