That wound up being the peak of his career.
His last big league pitch came in 2006. But the San Diego native spent the next seven seasons undergoing surgeries, rehabbing, and trying to get back to the highest level in five different organizations. For Prior, that day never came. So, in 2014, he joined the Padres front office as a special advisor.
During an offseason of significant shake-up throughout the Padres organization, he was approached about becoming the team’s minor league pitching coordinator. Unlike most teams, he will have two assistants in that role; long-time Phillies coordinator Gorman Heimueller and Eric Junge, who had brief big league service time in 2002 and 2003, then spent the next decade pitching everywhere from rookie ball to Triple-A, Korea, Venezuela and three different stints in independent ball.
We spoke to Prior about his approach in the new role and what his unique experiences can bring to the club.
MadFriars: How did the transition from a front-office job to an on-field, in-uniform role come about?
Mark Prior: I didn’t get approached until [mid-December]. I think they trusted that I would pick up on some things and that my aptitude was up to it. Basically, I feel they were looking for someone who could be a positive influence and be impactful for kids. I’m fortunate and humbled by the opportunity.
MadFriars: How do you coordinate the three of you working together?
Mark Prior: I think with Gorm and his experience at doing this, he’s been invaluable. He’s been great and shown me how everything works and how to transition into this. For me, we can agree on different ideas but also differ, and I think that makes for a really good working relationship. I think the luxury of doing it this way, having one guy doing this doesn’t allow you sometimes to really focus in.
Everything builds around us picking up a baseball and preparing to get on that mound. We want guys to feel ownership of their careers, to have that mindset. You need to own it, from the day you put those spikes on and walk into the clubhouse. You need to have a plan every day and an idea of what you’re trying to accomplish from the first throw of the day.
There’s plenty of dead time in baseball, we get that. So spend that good 15 minutes in the bullpen and really be engaged, because after that, you’re done for the day. You don’t ever want to look back at the day and say “what did I do?”
So I think we try to reiterate that as a staff as a whole – we’ve said that to the pitching coaches as well. Be engaged, walk the line, make sure they understand what they’re doing.
MadFriars: Can you tell us the thinking behind not having any radar guns out in camp at this point?
Mark Prior: It’s not that there won’t be radar guns coming down the line. But we want guys initially to be focused more on pitching. I think [Erik Junge] and I have come on fresh and we have a general manager and a farm director who support us in that thinking. Radar has its place, we all get that. But it’s a tool that needs to be used properly.
For the most part, people who are taking the information – us, front office, stuff like that - use it for the proper information. We’re trying to break out of the mold where kids are running back to the chart to check out how hard they threw. It’s more about executing the pitch, especially early in camp. Guys’ velocities might be down, they might be up.
It does help when you’re evaluating someone who’s maybe on the bubble, we understand that. But I want kids to be more focused on making pitches and competing out there. That for me is first and foremost. Go out there and compete whether you’ve got good stuff or bad stuff today, you need to be able to compete out there. So that’s the mindset and the message. We don’t need a radar gun during batting practice.
There’s guns around. It’s not like I’m not sneaking a peek here and there just to get an idea. If you’re around the game, you know when a guy’s arm is live, when the ball’s coming out.
I use the gun more to see the differentials between fastball and off-speed. It can be an indicator of something going on health-wise and I totally respect that. But do I need to know whether a guy who sits 92-93 is 90-91 in his first action? Is that a huge red flag?
To me, it’s not. Yes I’m new and maybe I’m ignorant. But to me it’s not. It’s about can you execute a pitch that’s more important and that’s the message we want to send to these kids. We say to them all the time velocity isn’t what matters the most, yet we stick a gun right back up there. There’s mixed messages in that and I’ve lived it and seen it, and I’m guilty of it – hey, how hard was I throwing?
MadFriars: This may not be a fair question, but how much do you think your experiences trying to come back impact the way you think about this job?
Mark Prior: My last three years with the Yankees, Red Sox and the Reds is invaluable to me than my first three years in the big leagues as far as this job goes. I kind of did it backwards, but that gave me a perspective that a lot of people don’t have. Most guys are 21, 23, trying to work their way up. Well, I was 30, 31 and still trying to work my way up.
But with 10 years of life experiences, you look at it through a different lens and you understand the business a little more. I think I’m still really close as far as the generational gap. I feel like I understand what they feel like when they walk into a clubhouse at this time, not that the other guys don’t. But I can still feel those experiences. And our whole staff has experiences. Whatever happens out here for one of these guys, there’s a 99 percent chance one of our staff has experienced it.
MadFriars: As someone whose pitching has been the subject of a lot of armchair biomechanics experts, how do you look at trying to integrate some of that information into the way you teach and develop kids out here?
Mark Prior: I think [Junge] will be doing some of that, because I’m heavily interested in doing it, I just don’t know that I’ll have the time during the season and I don’t want it to wait until the offseason. So that will be some of what he’ll take point on, trying to learn from the science, maybe outside the game some, maybe overseas.
For me, I did some things that weren’t the norm, but they worked for me. I’m not saying we won’t advise them or help them understand that they can or can’t do some things with the amount of work that they’re going to do compared to when they were in high school or college, but the workload intensifies. But I don’t want to say hey, you can’t do this. I want to be open to different ideas.