Cubs' Prior sets standard for pitchers

Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2003

CHICAGO When young pitchers looking to improve their mechanics visit a lab in San Diego, they get a CD-ROM showing how they compare to an ''ideal'' pitcher.

His mechanics are practically flawless, his motion and delivery effortless. But this isn't some RoboPitcher, a high-tech model compiled from bits and pieces of the best.

It's a living, breathing pitcher who will be found at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night, pitching Game 6 of the NL championship series for the Chicago Cubs.

''We kind of consider Mark Prior our gold standard for pitchers,'' said Arnel Aguinaldo, director of the Center for Human Performance at Children's Hospital in San Diego.

While that kind of accolade makes Prior uncomfortable, there's no denying the data.

The San Diego native let Aguinaldo's center analyze his mechanics and delivery last offseason. White, reflective markers were placed on his body while he pitched, and eight, high-resolution cameras recorded their position at up to 240 frames per second.

Aguinaldo and his staff then broke down all of the data on Prior's biomechanics and motion. It now serves as the comparison for pitchers who come to the lab seeking to improve and help avoid injuries.

''Nearly 60 percent of baseball injuries are because of (arm) overuse,'' Aguinaldo said. ''We want to say, 'Hey, this is what you're supposed to do. This is the proof of why you should be pitching more efficiently.'

''It just so happens that what Mark Prior does is perhaps the most efficient way to pitch. To be able to throw the ball with the maximum amount of energy that his body can produce.''

But what, exactly, does that mean?

Pitchers come in all shapes and sizes, each with his own, unique style. Some are power pitchers, like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. Others rely more on finesse, like Greg Maddux. Dontrelle Willis has a wacky windup, just like Fernando Valenzuela did so many years ago.

Whether they have long-term success or not depends largely on their mechanics. You can throw 98 mph, but if you don't have good mechanics, odds are a career-threatening injury is only a matter of time.

''Not everyone is going to throw as hard as Mark Prior,'' said former Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House, whose National Pitching Association works with Aguinaldo's center.

''But they can throw like Mark Prior or Nolan Ryan or Pedro Martinez. It's teachable,'' added House, who worked with Prior in high school. ''It's learnable with the right enforcement and instruction.''

It starts with the body. Every step and motion of Prior's windup and delivery is fluid, seemingly effortless. He uses his legs for power, stays tall and keeps his center of gravity between his hips. He also has what Aguinaldo calls ''delayed trunk rotation,'' which means his torso doesn't turn forward until he's just about to release the ball.

''He maximizes the throw by using his entire body, mainly the body and trunk, so his arms don't have to do all the work,'' Aguinaldo said. ''If that timing is either too early or too late, pitchers end up throwing more with their arm. In other words, stress on the shoulder or elbow is too great.''

Just look at Prior when he finishes his delivery. His body will be facing home plate and the catcher, with all the energy he generated flowing forward with the ball. Other pitchers will be pointing more in the direction of first base, which means another part of their body usually the arm or shoulder had to absorb the stress.

It also puts Prior's release point closer to home plate, giving his pitches more velocity and the batter less time to react.

''If you want to teach a kid pitching, tell him to watch Mark Prior,'' said Cubs catcher Damian Miller, who spent the last five years in Arizona, where he caught Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

''His arm slot's always the same, he uses his legs really well for power,'' Miller said. ''Just everything that he does, it's always exactly the same and that's what you want to teach kids how to do. Where they're stepping, where their arm is, everything's the same. It's a pretty unique thing to watch, actually.''

Prior, though, doesn't necessarily buy it. Take his outing in Game 2 of the NLCS. He got the win, but there were plenty of things he said he did wrong.

''My mechanics for me, personally, weren't as efficient as they should be,'' he said. ''Obviously, I got lucky and got away with it. But I could also be better. There are subtle things that can always be better.''

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