Dave Fleming

DMZ · January 15, 2006 at 5:14 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The Rise and Fall of Dave Fleming

A look at a historical Mariner figure using modern tools

Dave Fleming had the lowest ERA of any Mariner starter in 1992, when at the tender age of 22, he went 17-10. He was a big left-hander drafted in the third round of the 1990 draft from the University of Georgia. At Georgia, he’d been an All-American and helped his team win a national championship. In 1989, Fleming went 13-3 with a 2.08 ERA. While he’d debuted in 1991, he only pitched in nine games, so it’s reasonable to count that stellar 92 as his rookie season. His most notable trait for me was that he’d throw a crazy slow looping curve I loved watching (Livan Hernandez will try this sometimes, and it still cracks me up) that would produce funny reactions from batters (“Did he really just throw that?”). I was a big fan.

His success in 1992 didn’t come out of nowhere, either. In Baseball America’s Top 10 prospect list for 1991 had him as the fifth-best prospect in the Mariner system (#6? Bret Boone) and for 1992, he was #6 (#5? Bret Boone) in a year where he was behind Roger Salkeld, Shawn Estes, and Mike Hampton in a pitching-deep year.










San Bernardino



























Minor league total






That’s pretty sweet, though it doesn’t give us a huge sample size. Players who put up a 4.4 K:BB ratio over a season at any level are good.

Fleming’s major league career then takes a strange course after that first year. The next year he was only average, then then quickly got much, much worse. He was traded from the 1995 Mariners to the Royals (for Bob Milacki). He pitched in nine more games and then was out of baseball by 26. Five seasons.






























Or, another way:

1990-1* 1044 .214   .058 .209
1992 946 .237 .014 .063 .118
1993 737 .256 .020 .091 .102
1994 561 .271 .030 .116 .114
1995 374 .225 .051 .168 .107

* estimated composite, based on
available minor league information

What ended Fleming’s career? In 1995, the Mariners thought that something was wrong with Fleming’s mechanics, though Fleming felt there was something wrong with his arm (or so Fleming said later). He was traded to the Royals, they found a rotator cuff tear. Surgery ended his season and career: he attempted to come back first with other teams and later, independent teams (accounts differ on what happened post-surgery, and what teams he played with when. This is likely editing for highlights more than actual confusion, but worth noting).

Looking back, it’s not hard to see that he was injured in 1995. But it’s interesting how neatly the deterioration is, and how it gets worse each year. He walked more and more batters, and they hit home runs off him with ever-increasing frequency. Even when his strikeout rate returned to what it had been in 1994, there was little else left in his game. But the surgery was described as a “small tear” and general looseness: would a developing tear, over years, account for his ever-growing performance problems? Even if you chop those minor league rates severely, it’s obvious in particular that his control went downhill quickly, which would seem to be a red flag for injury issues.

We can’t know. We don’t even know how little the small tear was, or how the surgery went and what they did. Given that Fleming was a college pitcher from a team that won a national championship overuse is an obvious suspect: the Mariners managed to get the last two good years out of his shoulder and then that was that.

But it’s more complicated: Dave Fleming was badly overused that first season. He finished 15th in Pitcher Abuse Points (using the latest refined version). His average start went over a hundred pitches, which by itself isn’t cause for alarm, but he and threw 140 pitches in one start. His breakdown for the year:

100 or less: 11 starts
101-109 pitches: 5 starts
110-121 pitches: 9 starts (this is where we start getting into the harmful)
122-132 pitches: 6 starts
133 pitches or more: 5 starts

Bill Plummer rode Fleming extremely hard that year on his way to a 34-98 finish (and a well-deserved firing). Fleming threw six complete games, some of them for no real reason. He finished a two-hitter against the Indians with a 6-0 lead, which I can understand, but his next start, he then threw a complete game against the Orioles.

This gives us a much more complete picture – Fleming pitched a ton for his college team, and while we don’t have pitch counts, it’s reasonable to assume that Georgia in the late 80s worked him pretty hard, as did almost every college program. He went into the M’s system, and his first full year on the roster he’s effective and also whipped all season long. After this, he was never quite the same and sinking fast. Three years later, shoulder surgery ended his career.

We can’t know how Fleming would have done if colleges had been more enlightened, or if the Mariners had babied their 22-year-old stud. But I can’t help but look at those years and wonder whether 1995 might have played out differently if there’d been another quality starter in that rotation from the start of the season. And I wonder too, when I was at those games in 1992 and cheering for Fleming to finish his shutout (he had four, still tying Randy for the franchise record) was I seeing a great talent, wasted pointlessly?

Update below the break
So I asked Will Carroll, BP’s medical dude and author of “Saving the Pitcher” about whether declining BB/HR rates tend to indicate shoulder injuries (or anyting), and he replied:

I don’t have anything solid on walk and HR rates being correlated to
injury, but I do have that an injured elbow is often first manifested
by a loss of control. That could certainly lead to walks or leaving
the ball somewhere it wasn’t intended. That could also lead to
mechanical problems.

I have to have a baseline. When mechanics change for the worse,
there’s only three reasons:
1. Injury
2. Bad teaching
3. Increased effectiveness.

I can’t imagine collegiate programs were any better in the 80s than
they are now and now, they’re arm destruction machines.

The slow slide is the very definition of an insidious onset elbow
injury, with later shoulder involvement to guard the injured elbow.
When the original injury started is impossible to pinpoint in most of
these cases. Glenn Fleisig compares pitching injuries to smoking —
you don’t get lung cancer when you first take a puff and some people
never do. Still, we don’t go handing out smokes to kids, no matter
how cool it makes you look.


34 Responses to “Dave Fleming”

  1. Jim Thomsen on January 15th, 2006 6:14 pm

    You’ve inspired me, Derek. I’m going to track Fleming down and interview him.

    Great stuff. I love batting around Mariner history. I’m proud to say I’ve been along for the full ride.

    Bill Plummer must have had a fetish for slop-tossers — he squeezed an apocalyptically ineffective Tim Leary (30 walks, 12 Ks) and Brian Fisher (47 walks, 26 Ks) for the last bit of DNA in their walking corpses. Not to mention that he was forever fiddle-farting with flotsam like Dave Schmidt, Randy Kramer, Jim Acker and Juan Agosto. These guys were getting run in and out of town like a dyslexic fire drill.

    Some may argue, but 1992 was, in my opinion, the most painful year in the Mariners history, because they pissed away every bit of progress they made in their first post-.500 season in 1991.

    Meanwhile, Randy Johnson was cheerfully scaring the living crap out of every opposing batter he faced ….

  2. Jim Thomsen on January 15th, 2006 6:25 pm

    The tragedy of Dave Fleming continues:

    From a 2004 Newsday story:

    “Then there’s the matter of money. Though never rich by major league standards, former Seattle Mariners pitcher Dave Fleming once enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle. In 1995, the final season of his five-year career, Fleming earned $750,000, well above the league minimum. It was the payoff of a career that started with a bright flash but ended with a dull thud. In 1992, his first full season in the majors, Fleming won 17 games for the Mariners, including 11 in a row. So hot was the rookie left-hander from Mahopac, New York, that The New York Times once ran the headline, “Who Is David Fleming? When Will He Lose?”

    “It was great,” says Fleming. “I could pick up and go on a vacation to Disney World and not even think about it. The money you make–from your contract, from endorsements–is just crazy.”

    But following the ’95 season, Fleming bounced around from training camp to training camp and independent league to independent league, never again returning to the majors. He was 25 years old.

    Today, Fleming is a fifth-grade teacher. He mows his own lawn, shovels his own driveway, and his wife, Ivy, works several days a week as a waitress at a local restaurant, to bring in cash to help with their two kids. The family might still go to Disney World, but not without cutting coupons and looking online for the cheapest rates. “It’s a shock to the system, I won’t lie,” he says. “I’m not sure how a lot of guys deal with it.”

  3. John D. on January 15th, 2006 7:33 pm

    1992 A bad year ? – (# 1) “Some may argue, but 1992 was, in my opinion, the most painful year in the Mariners history, because they pissed away every bit of progress they made in their first post-.500 season in 1991.”
    Record-wise it was; but the worst record in the AL, got us the # 1 draft choice – ALEX RODRIGUEZ.
    BTW, BILL PLUMMER managed in A ball last year(Lancaster of the California League).
    ABOUT THE COLUMN – Good job, Derek. I thought, as Fleming dazzled, that we might be seeing the end of a heavy workload. Check some of the pitch counts of today’s college pitchers: LINECOME, for instance. (The goal of the college coach is so different from the goal of the minor league coach.)

  4. Rusty on January 15th, 2006 8:44 pm

    As I gained appreciation for more modern statistical analysis of pitching, I had assumed Fleming’s 1992 season was probably just an example of being lucky on balls in play average. However looking at his minor league stats and his SO/K/HR stats of 1992 it would seem that Fleming might have been better than I had thought.

    228 innings, presumably half in the Kingdome, and only 13 HR’s looks pretty good.

    Derek, thanks for this retrospective piece, and Jim, thanks for the update article.

  5. Roger on January 15th, 2006 9:29 pm

    How does one reconcile what appears to be a typically heavy workload of a college pitcher with the truism that college players pan out much more often than high school players do? Or is there nothing to reconcile?

    Nice entry. You’d think that while 750K ain’t a whole lot of money, it’s enough to have put quite a bit aside. (On the other hand, I was just talking with a buddy who, between he and his wife, have made on average $250-300K a year for almost a decade. Their savings? About $100K. Two mortgages on their house, too.)

  6. toonprivate on January 15th, 2006 9:39 pm

    Thanks for the research/update/history/analysis. The M’s have just ALWAYS been great with young pitchers, haven’t they? I fear for Felix…

  7. jhelfgott on January 15th, 2006 9:42 pm

    Interesting post, Derek. If you’re thinking about expanding this feature to other failed Ms prospects, I’d be interested to see something about Marc Newfield.

  8. Jim Thomsen on January 15th, 2006 9:47 pm

    Other failed prospects who interest me:

    Mark Merchant
    John Cummings
    Jim Converse
    Jim Maler
    Donell Nixon
    Patrick Lennon
    Mike Gardiner
    Mike Campbell

  9. DMZ on January 15th, 2006 10:14 pm

    Roger Salkeld was an amazing prospect who suffered arm injuries that cost him a career. You can go look up his minor league stats, they’re jaw-dropping. He’s the guy I always think about when discussing talents that never were because of arm injuries. Man, Salkeld was good.

  10. Jim Thomsen on January 15th, 2006 10:33 pm

    Oh, YEAHHHHHHHHHHHH. I got to see him pitch in Tacoma when Calgary came to town in 1992, I think, and once in Seattle. Dude could have been Roger Clemens. He had it all. There’s a whole list of guys like that … Robby Beckett, Mike Capel, Brien Taylor, Ben McDonald ….

  11. Edgar For Pres on January 16th, 2006 12:11 am

    I think that Fleming was the player that got me into the Mariners. He just happened to come along at just the right time and gave me something to cheer for. He will always have a special place in my mariner memories. It was also the first in a line of disapointments that has made me a true mariners fan.

  12. Jim Thomsen on January 16th, 2006 1:36 am

    It’s clear that the Mariners didn’t even consider that Fleming might be pitching hurt.

    From a June 12, 1995 story in The Seattle Times:

    “I have no answers for this,” said pitching coach Bobby Cuellar, who has tried mightily to rid Fleming of the problems that started last season. “He is back to where he was weeks ago before he went to the bullpen. He is short-arming the ball, pushing it, instead of extending his arm and cutting loose.

    “Getting through this is something he has to decide he wants to do.”

    That last line makes me think of the current Mariners questioning Gil Meche’s toughness.

    And that Cuellar quote about short-arming the ball instead of extending and cutting loose sounds a lot to me like a hurt pitcher trying to protect his arm … even if he’s not aware that’s what he’s doing. I wonder what Will Carroll would say about that.

  13. rlharr on January 16th, 2006 1:38 am

    Looking at those stats, Fleming had an extremely high strikeout rate through 1991, but it fell by nearly half in 1992. Is this just the fact that major leaguers aren’t fooled as easily by a curve as minor leaguers, or could have 1992 been the year where his problems began?

    In partial answer to #5 (Roger): I’ve seen the hypothesis that college pitchers are better gambles (though still gambles) because they are halfway through ‘the injury nexus’. The assumptions behind this hypothesis are that the attrition rate for pitchers is much higher before age 25 than after. If you draft a college pitcher, he’s gotten pretty close to 25 without an injury already. If you look at his cohort going into college, a lot of the guys you might have taken in the draft as high-schoolers going into college have already fallen to injuries. He’s a survivor.

    This is kind of the flip side of the pitcher abuse points (PAP) argument: with PAP you draft a pitcher and then severely restrict his number of pitches until he is 25 (and then continue to monitor pitches afterward). In drafting college pitchers you’re saying, in effect, let’s see who’s arms can take all the abuse and then draft those guys. It works partly because there’s no risk to the team: they’re not paying the guy while he’s being abused and they haven’t yet used a draft choice on him.

    The central questions here is: Why is the ‘injury nexus’ before age 25?
    – Is it because the pitcher’s body and/or technique is still developing and the resulting inconsistency/inefficiency in delivery puts additional strain on the arm? (This would argue for a PAP approach and avoiding potential abused college pitchers.)
    – Or is it a survival of the fittest kind of thing? There are certain pitchers whose bodies/technique are made for throwing a lot of pitches and others whose bodies/technique aren’t. By the time they are 25 most of the ones who can’t take it have fallen by the wayside. (this argues for drafting out of college.)

    There is evidence for both of these. People have found correlations, for instance, between long starts and later trips to the disabled list. But we also have a large number of anecdotal examples of people who were just made to pitch: how many PAP do Livan Hernandez or Randy Johnson have on their arms? Or imagine the PAP of any successful pitcher from the 1960s or earlier. And on the other side we know there are people just not made to pitch: a great many pitchers who have never done anything but relieve (= low PAP in general) fall to injuries as well.

    My personal opinion is that both these factor are in play. I think it is crazy to have a young pitcher pitch too many pitches. On the other hand, I also think you need to bring your pitchers up as soon as they are ready for the majors, even if it means a few more PAP: there is no telling when they may burn out, you should get some use out of them before their arms fall off.

    But to do that the front office needs to make it clear to the field manager that they consider monitoring PAP of young pitchers to be a critical part of the job.

  14. Jim Thomsen on January 16th, 2006 1:41 am

    Another one cut down young and tragically was Timmy Davis.

    From a May 2, 1995 story in the Times:

    “ARLINGTON, Texas – In recent years, the changeup seems to have gone the way of the hook slide and the steal of home.

    If not forgotten, then surely the pitch has been relegated to second echelon in baseball, nice but not necessary in a pitcher’s repertoire; far behind the sinker, slider and split-finger fastball.

    But as thrown by Tim Davis, the humble changeup could wind up in bright lights, an odd thought because the 165-pound left-hander is about as bright-light as Mayberry, RFD.

    Davis, sort of a living change of pace, kept the Texas Rangers at bay and off balance with that pitch into the sixth inning, by which time the Seattle Mariners had gathered four runs en route to a 4-1 victory.

    “Timmy’s changeup is so good, he could throw it 1-2-3 times in a row to one batter and change the speeds on every one,” said pitching coach Bobby Cuellar, who first saw Davis’ special serve in Class A ball in 1993. “He threw it at least once to every batter tonight, two or three of them to some.”

    The changeup is such a difficult pitch to master (mistakes often get hit out of the park), few pitchers throw it for strikes. Most just use it three or four times a game to put the thought in batters’ minds.

    Davis threw 32 changeups in an 85-pitch appearance.

    “He threw me a bunch,” Texas outfielder Mark McLemore said. “He’s got as good a one as I’ve seen. When you don’t see that many of them, it can be a difficult pitch to adjust to and Davis had such a good one, you had trouble adjusting to it during the game.”

  15. Jim Thomsen on January 16th, 2006 1:55 am

    A late 1994 Times makes the case for Fleming as a head case:

    “It is more a case of competing with himself that has Fleming seemingly on the road back to reliability. When the team arrived in New York, the left-hander went home to nearby Mahopac and studied films of his 17-10 rookie work in 1992.

    “I don’t know if I found specific differences as much as I saw I was in a groove then,” Fleming said. “It’s a matter of me getting back into that groove.”

    Having somehow fallen out of it from near the start of this season, Fleming had been pounded with advice to change this or that, mechanically or mentally. “I was looking at too many things, trying too many things,” he said. “But when you’re failing, you start thinking negatively, you lose confidence and start searching for answers.”


  16. Jim Thomsen on January 16th, 2006 1:58 am

    Or was it mechanical?

    From the June 16, 1994 Times:

    “Manager Lou Piniella admits he knows little about pitching mechanics, but he does know something about hitting.

    From that perspective, he tried to figure out why hitters are knocking around Seattle left-hander Dave Fleming (3-9, 7.38 earned-run average) this season. Tuesday, he stood at the bullpen plate while Fleming went through his between-starts workout.

    Piniella may have detected a flaw. He noticed that Fleming was dropping his lead arm low across his body. That gives the hitter a longer look at the delivery so he’s better able to time the pitch.

    Piniella told Fleming to lift his arm higher to hide the ball longer, which also has other benefits.

    “It provides some deception for the hitter, and it also gives him more push off his back leg,” Piniella said. “He can stay down and drive through more.”

    Piniella said that advice was offered from the view of a batter. He added that all the other suggestions he gave Fleming “were terrible. They didn’t work out.”

  17. Jim Thomsen on January 16th, 2006 2:04 am

    Then again, maybe it WAS an injury … the puzzlement at Fleming’s ineffectiveness echoes the bafflement at fellow soft-tossing lefty Greg Hibbard’s inability to get anyone out:

    From the May 25, 1994 Times:

    “His ball is not sinking,” said Mariner Manager Lou Piniella. “He’s not finishing them off. He’s supposed to be a sinkerballer, and I didn’t see too much sink.

    “He’s not getting ground balls. Most of his balls are fly balls and shots in the gaps.”

    Hibbard, as we all know, imploded with injury shortly after and never again pitched in the majors.

  18. Jim Thomsen on January 16th, 2006 2:15 am

    Sorry to be hogging this thread, but just one more fun bit … about DMZ’s favorite Fleming pitch, from the Sept. 2, 1993 Times:

    “If Seattle Mariner pitcher Dave Fleming could come up with a name for his tantalizingly slow changeup-curve, he’d carve his niche in baseball history.

    It’s a modern-day “eephus pitch,” one that Rip Sewell used to throw in the 1940s and ’50s. It doesn’t have the trajectory Sewell’s floater had, but it still dances to the plate at about 60 mph. Little League star Sean Burroughs throws harder.

    Call it the “fleephus.”

    It’s a pitch that takes ample courage to throw to the Detroit Tigers, who have pounded 151 home runs this season. It was particularly deliberate yesterday.

    Spotting the fleephus around his cut fastball, Fleming had the Tigers completely off-balance. He allowed just six hits and no runs in seven innings.

    The Tigers, who have been shut out just once this season, were nearly blanked as well as bewildered. Finally, with two outs in the ninth and Fleming icing his arm, the Tigers rallied for three runs off reliever Brad Holman.

    The victory, Seattle’s second straight, severely damaged the Tigers’ pennant aspirations. They now trail Toronto by seven games in the American League East.

    The Mariners, who trail Chicago in the AL West by nine games, worked their way back to .500 (66-66) for the 23rd time this season. They also are even against the AL East (37-37) and AL West (29-29).

    Milwaukee, with the second-worst record (58-77) in the AL, finishes this home stand with a four-game series, beginning tonight.

    Pitching coach Sammy Ellis said Fleming’s fleephus “was probably in the low 60s, high 50s. It’s a hell of a pitch when he’s throwing it for strikes.”

    Catcher Dave Valle said when Fleming throws a fastball after his fleephus “it looks 99 miles per hour.”

    Valle said Tiger batters who were fooled by the pitch “just had smiles on their faces. It’s like a stickball pitch when you throw it high and it lands inside the little rectangle.”

    Fleming threw his fleephus about 10 times, including two to Cecil Fielder. Both times Fielder was well out on his front foot trying to make contact. He grounded out on it in the first inning and fouled the ball back in the fourth.

    When Fleming decides to throw it, “it’s just a feeling. Instinct, I guess,” Fleming said. “Sometimes I don’t know until I lift my leg.”

  19. David* on January 16th, 2006 7:02 am

    I was at a game when he threw one to big Cecil, it was pretty funny.

    Excellent write up DMZ.

  20. tad on January 16th, 2006 8:21 am

    1992 was bad. And yet the talent is there. In 93 they go 82-80 with Bosio and Charlton being the only big additions. And replacing the corpse of Harold Reynolds with Rich Amaral and his “Glove of Stone!”

  21. marc w on January 16th, 2006 8:43 am

    One of my all-time favorite mariner moments – the only game I’ve seen in Fenway park featured Dave Fleming outdueling Frank Viola for a 3-2 M’s win. The wild game featured prospects like Mike Hampton (who got the save) and Marc Newfield, who was going to be great and who had a tasteful first name.
    The coolest part was that young reliever Jeff Nelson pitched an inning, then Piniella brought in Dennis Powell to face a lefty – but with two more big righties coming up (Andre Dawson and Mo Vaughn, I think), Piniella put Nelson in at Left Field so he could bring him back into the game. Nelson got another out, the M’s got out of a jam, and Fleming got a well-earned win. The fans in the RF bleachers never shut up (except for after a knee-buckling curve to Vaughn – Fleming’s only K), and I’ve never been so happy getting screamed at.

    The M’s then lost the next three games of that four-game set. Such was the nature of mariner fandom in the 80s/early 90s. You had to really savor every isolated moment of joy.

  22. vj on January 16th, 2006 8:53 am
  23. msb on January 16th, 2006 9:13 am

    was Cuellar Fleming’s pitching coach in Calgary?

  24. tgf on January 16th, 2006 9:22 am


  25. Baseline on January 16th, 2006 10:20 am

    Very good write up on Flemming! I love stuff like this.

  26. terry on January 16th, 2006 10:25 am

    Are you trying to say Flemings ERA wasnt 3.39 in 1992? 😛

  27. nms on January 16th, 2006 12:13 pm

    As I recall Derek Lilliquist and Cris Carpenter (who also punted for UGA), who were the co-aces of the Georgia team that beat Washington State to win it all in Omaha, also had similar patterns of decline like Fleming

  28. dan@jackson on January 16th, 2006 4:07 pm

    I’d forgotten that Fleming had a very good year in ’92, a season that should be forgotten.The only pleasant things I can remember from that year was that Omar played a good shortstop and Ken Levine was fun to listen to on the radio broadcasts.

  29. JMHawkins on January 16th, 2006 7:13 pm

    How often do ML pitchers get MRIs? I get the impression it only happens when there’s something obviously wrong with them. Which seems a bit late for preventative measures.

    If I was a GM, I think I would be looking very hard at what it would take to have at least every pitcher on the ML roster, maybe every pitcher in AA or above, go in for an MRI on their throwing arm once every, say, 100 innings.

    Wouldn’t that help detect small injuries (that maybe might just heal with some rest) before they became big, career-threatening surgeries?

    Or am I missing something?

  30. nms on January 16th, 2006 11:57 pm

    do you know the whole Pat Lennon story?

  31. eponymous coward on January 17th, 2006 11:00 am

    The only pleasant things I can remember from that year was that Omar played a good shortstop and Ken Levine was fun to listen to on the radio broadcasts.

    You forgot Edgar’s first batting title.

    But yeah, that was the year of us trading Billy Swift for Kevin Mitchell. Uggggh. Hard to believe a team with:


    collectively being pretty decent and getting some support from Fleming and even Mitchell (when healthy) almost lost 100 games. It’s because the bullpen sucked, Reynolds/O’Brien/Cotto/Briley/Parrish/Valle/ sucked life out of the offense (collective OBP: around .300 from 4 limeup positions), and the rotation behind RJ and Fleming was terrible (Hanson had an awful year at #3, and 4 and 5 were complete garbage between DeLucia and Random AAA Starter Of The Week).

  32. Jim Thomsen on January 17th, 2006 12:21 pm

    #31: Not just Billy Swift, but a very good Mike Jackson and a decent Dave Burba.

  33. Typical Idiot Fan on January 18th, 2006 6:34 pm

    This is the kind of post I like to see. Or, perhaps one I don’t like to see, considering the subject matter. While there still seems to be debate and confusion as to whether the number of innings thrown or the number of pitches thrown (or both) is the greater cause of damage to a pitching arm, the obvious overwork of a pitcher needlessly should be thwarted any chance we get.

    Thus, SAVE FELIX!

  34. Jim Thomsen on January 18th, 2006 11:49 pm

    Yes … save Felix, by not pitching him ever.

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