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What Mark Prior Learned in His First Year as a Pitching Coach

Before his shoulder went bad, Mark Prior could absolutely blow you away with either his heavy fastball or crackling breaking stuff.

As a 21-year-old Chicago Cubs rookie in 2002, the then-wunderkind averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings. A year later, Prior fanned 245 in 211.1 innings, with a WHIP of 1.103 and an ERA of 2.43 — third-lowest to that date for a Cubs starter since World War II. No wonder he was 18-6 and a co-cover boy with buddy Kerry Wood on Sports Illustrated.

The rest of his abbreviated career, however, was hardly as sensational as injury problems derailed Prior.

As a coach, one’s mindset does a 180. He never threw another big-league pitch after his 26th birthday, as shoulder surgery did not fix his ailments well enough to bring him back to big-league standards. So in 2015 at 34, an age where he thought he logically should still be pitching, he channeled everything he knew into a new job as his hometown San Diego Padres roving pitching coordinator.

Prior said he’s not too concerned about whether his young pitchers have a fastball that blows by hitters. If you can get outs, by any means, Prior wants to help advance the concept.

“I think at the end of it, velocity is great; it helps you to get away with mistakes a little bit more,” he said. But if you’re not executing pitches as a whole, consistently, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re throwing it.

“We’ve got guys that throw 95 — every team has guys that throw 95 and above — but they don’t execute enough pitches to get outs. So absolutely I would totally back a 90-91 guy, especially now. Because it’s an abnormality to have one of those guys; it actually could potentially play in your favor.

“I’m all for guys who perform and get outs.

Once Prior was thought to have the textbook delivery, the textbook pitches. If baseball throws that textbook away, that’s fine with him.

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Just because it’s the conventional way of doing things is to be a right-hander who throws 95, on average 95, doesn’t mean it has to be the way,” he said.

“And I think it’s great when we see a lot of the guys in our organization who are able to perform and get outs, and they don’t do it (the conventional way); they do it their own way and they do it their own style,” he added. “That’s all pitching is, is in and out, up and down, and add in some trick. If they do that well, they’ve got a chance.”

As a rookie coach, Prior had learned by conjuring up the memories of all managers, coaches, and players he had watched or shared a locker room. One who stood out was Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who came back to Wrigley Field in 2004 after an 11-season absence to supposedly form a dream Cubs rotation. Injuries to Prior and Wood, though, thwarted that grand plan.

“We would talk in the video room,” Prior said of 355-game-winner Maddux. “He was very subtle on how he delivered information. He wasn’t pushy. He wasn’t one of those guys that said, You really need to try this.’ He asked questions that made you think and made you critically think about what you were trying to accomplish out on the mound, and how can that make you the best version of you. He had a very good way about him, but he also, on the flipside, loved to have fun. And so I think you saw the balance of a great competitor really enjoy playing the game.

“Some of that has rubbed off on me in my coaching philosophy. It’s more of, ‘How do I get concepts to players in a way that they can understand it, a way that they internalize it and then make it their own?’ vs., say, ‘You need to do this.’ At least I felt like I always responded better to more of that, and I think that’s probably why my style is the way it is.”

The obvious lesson for a younger coach is keeping one’s eyes and ears open at all times, Prior said.

“I think that comes with age and experience, a quest for information and some intellectual curiosity for baseball knowledge,” he said. “I think all those things play a factor into it. But at the end of the day, if you get out of the game and you weren’t paying attention and you still want to be involved, I think there’s ways to get access to it.

Prior said you can learn simply by paying attention and having a feel for the game and how different managers and coaches approach different situations.

“And then I think it helps,” Prior said. “when you do ask questions: ‘Why did we run this play?’ ‘Why did we do this bunt play in this situation?’ And it just gives you a better understanding of why you’re doing things, so that maybe the more you can think along with your manager or your pitching coach, it actually helps keep the plays and perform the fundamentals the way they should be.”

From GameChanger and George Castle.

Baseball, Baseball Features, Baseball Player Development