Before Matt Harvey, there was Mark Prior

Mark Prior recently announced his retirement. The once-dominant hurler had not pitched in the major leagues since 2006. In his most recent comeback attempt, he threw seven innings for the Cincinnati Reds Triple-A affiliate before being released. Selected after Joe Mauer with the second overall pick in the 2001 draft, Prior enjoyed a phenomenal 2003 season. However, injuries plagued him in the following seasons, and Prior never managed to regain his form. His 2004 and 2005 seasons were solid when he was on the field, but injuries limited him to just 285.1 innings. In 2006 he threw 43.2 disastrous innings with a 6.56 ERA.

Matt Harvey had one of the best seasons by a young pitcher, or any pitcher, in recent memory. Before an elbow injury ended his season, Harvey had posted a miniscule 2.00 FIP in 178.1 innings with strikeout and walk rates of 27.7 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. His 55 FIP- was the lowest since Zack Greinke‘s 53 FIP- in 2009. Featuring an elite fastball that regularly reached the upper 90’s, and three excellent secondary pitches, he produced a 12.5 percent swinging strike rate.

Here’s a comparison of Prior’s 2003 season and Harvey’s 2013 season.

Harvey-Prior Graph

Very similar. Prior has the slight edge because he maintained Harvey’s level of performance over another 33 innings. Both Harvey and Prior were praised for their clean, efficient mechanics. Various theories have been promulgated as to the cause of their injuries. Prior was given a heavy workload in his age-22 season. Then manager Dusty Baker has taken at least his fair share of criticism for the high pitch counts he allowed Prior and fellow ace Kerry Wood to work up to during the 2003 season.

Harvey himself ran up some very high pitch counts during his college career at North Carolina, reportedly throwing more than 120 pitches on several occasions. In addition, he threw significantly more innings in 2013 than in previous years.

Jeff Zimmerman has found a higher risk of injury for starting pitchers who average more than 95 with their fastball (Harvey) and those who throw curveballs on more than 25 percent of their pitches (Prior). Still, due to Pitch f/x data only going back six years, the samples are very limited, and the results are far from conclusive.

It’s hard to attribute causation to any one of these factors. Pitchers tend to get injured. In fact, nearly 40 percent of all pitchers that throw at least 120 innings will have at least one DL trip the following year. Prior’s retirement is a reminder of how tough it can be to root for pitchers. Hopefully Matt Harvey will have a successful recovery from Tommy John surgery as Stephen Strasburg has done up to this point. In the meantime, numbers types that are smarter than I am will continue to work on finding a formula to catch pitcher injuries before they occur.

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