Stephen Strasburg Entering Mark Prior Territory?

Born in San Diego, drafted to extremely high expectations, in the big leagues by the age of 21, exploding fastball, and outstanding command of his breaking pitches.

I’m talking, of course, about Stephen Strasburg. I could just as easily, however, be talking about another San Diego native drafted in the first round.

That would be Mark Prior.

The similarities don’t stop there. Both Strasburg and Prior have been integral parts of World Series contending teams early in their careers. Strasburg has struck out 10.2 per nine innings. Prior struck out 10.4 per nine in his five year career. Through 119 career starts, Strasburg has won 46 career games for the Washington Nationals. Prior won 42 in 106 starts. Both were viewed as extremely mature college products and saddled with high expectations from the day they were drafted.

That, unfortunately, is not where the similarities come to a close. Prior burst onto the national scene in 2003 with 245 strikeouts in 211.1 innings. He finished the season with an 18-6 record and a 2.43 ERA. Along with Kerry Wood, Prior very nearly ended years of misery for Chicago Cubs fans. Last season, Strasburg struck out 242 in 215.0 innings. It was his first big league season with 200-plus innings logged.

What came the following season, has been just as disastrous for Strasburg as it was for Prior.

Let’s take a look back at the demise of Mark Prior. The 2003 season was Prior’s first 200-plus inning season. It came at the relatively young age of 22. The following season, Prior missed time with an Achilles heel injury. His ERA was 4.02 in only 21 starts. In 2005, Prior led the National League in SO/9 with 10.2. From there, more injuries followed, including shoulder surgery. Prior’s final Major League season went like this — nine starts, 7.21 ERA, one win, six losses. Only three seasons removed from taking the baseball world by storm, Prior was gone from the game for good.

Strasburg has not quite yet entered that territory, but he is getting close. Strasburg left Friday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds after just 16 pitches with neck tightness. Now, he is on the 15-day disabled list, and the Nationals don’t really know what’s bothering him.

“We gotta get to the bottom of what’s going on,” Nationals’ manager Matt Williams said. “It’s perplexing because it’s not anything you can point to. So Stras will go on the DL, get this thing worked out, and hopefully be back in 15 days.”

Strasburg has not lasted more than five innings since April 30. He left after just three innings on May 5 with soreness in his back. The following start, on May 12, Strasburg surrendered seven earned runs in just 3.1 innings to the mediocre Arizona Diamondbacks. An average start against the San Diego Padres followed, before Strasburg was back to giving up five earned runs in 3.2 innings against the woeful Philadelphia Phillies.

Through ten games this season, Strasburg has a 6.55 ERA with a 3-5 record. He has struck out a career low 8.9 per nine. Opponents are batting .325 against the tall right-hander.

The fact that Strasburg is dealing with an injury to his neck or back does not necessarily spell a Prior-like demise, but there is cause for concern. When a power pitcher like these two breaks down, it is akin to a Ferrari with a blown engine. It’s going to be costly to fix, and it might never run the same way again. Much was made, as well, about the similarity between Prior and Strasburg’s delivery.

Both Strasburg and Prior threw using an “inverted W” arm action. When throwing with an “inverted W” motion, the arm takes a longer path, thus throwing off the timing. The front foot lands before the arm is really ready to complete the pitch. Now, the shoulder and elbow are forced to rotate more rapidly to catch up and get the arm to its highest point in time to throw a pitch. (If you would like to read more on this topic, check out the work of Chris O’Leary. O’Leary has written extensively on both Strasburg and Prior.)

Here is Strasburg’s delivery. Notice the front foot is nearly down, but the arm is still less than halfway to its apex.


Credit: Reuters

Here is Prior’s delivery.


Credit: Chris O’Leary

While I’m not ready to label this recent string of setbacks the end of Stephen Strasburg’s run as a dominant Major League pitcher, there is major cause for concern. Strasburg’s delivery is problematic, and he has already undergone Tommy John surgery. He may very well return to dominance and consistency, but with each short start and setback, fears within the Nationals’ organization will only intensify.

This is the exact situation the Nationals were hoping to avoid when they held Strasburg out of the 2012 NLDS, a decision that was largely influenced by Prior’s downfall. Now, only two years later, that appears to be all for naught. Time will tell if this stretch is just a troublesome chapter in a lengthy career for Stephen Strasburg or the beginning of the end to a career that held so much promise.

Follow Josh Sadlock on Twitter: @JoshSadlock

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