Raymond Black received a phone call from the San Francisco Giants in June of 2011. It was draft season, and the defending champions just selected current No. 1 prospect Kyle Crick, as well as middle infielder Joe Panik and future big-league backstop Andrew Susac. With their seventh-round pick, San Francisco took Black — a flame-throwing reliever out of the University of Pittsburgh.
He impressed coaches and staff at his first spring training in 2012, and was admittedly "wound up" at the opportunity to put on a professional uniform.
So why hasn't the 6'5" right-hander logged a single inning in nearly three years since the draft?
"About seven innings in, about a week before breaking for teams, I felt a pretty sharp pain in my shoulder," Black said. "I lost a lot of velocity and after about four months of rehab, we decided that the best route was going to be to do labrum surgery."
Black tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder, resulting in a surgery that, unlike the high success-rate of Tommy John surgery, yields far fewer happy endings.
"When my surgery was over, they gave me roughly a 33 percent chance of coming back to throw," Black said.
Thirty-three percent pales in comparison to Tommy John surgery, replacing the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow, which boasts a 90-percent success rate — a procedure Black had done in high school. That being said, it's remarkable that he's back at spring training, nearly two years after the surgery, hitting 100 miles per hour on radar guns for the first time in his life.
"I've flirted with it," Black said. "A lot of guys were busting me for touching 99 a couple times but 100 just seemed to elude me.
"It's been so long since I've pitched against competition that I think that first game I had the butterflies," he said. "It gave me a little bit of extra adrenaline rush."
Because of the low success rates involved with repairing a torn labrum, doctors typically suggest patients avoid surgery, instead enduring months of strategic rehabilitation. This is what Black elected to do — bypass shoulder surgery and hope to recover naturally, but four months passed without progress. Surgery was inevitable.
Black's rehabilitation should have lasted 12-13 months, similar to Tommy John, slating him for a return to action in time to pitch with a short-season squad in 2013. But more setbacks moved his return to this spring, making his goals for the new season clear.
"My goal for spring training was to come out this year and basically not get released because I hadn't thrown in two years," Black said. "I want to show them that my recovery time is better so they can trust me on a full season."
Confident that his recovery time is now anywhere from one to two days, instead of an unmanageable four to five like it was last summer, Black has made quick work to impress pitching coaches.
In a one-inning outing facing teammates in an intrasquad game, Black threw an, at times, wild 95-98 mile-per-hour fastball that was unhittable. And a low-80s slider was devastating, freezing young Jonah Arenado after seeing nothing but speed.
Black then lit up 100 on guns four days later against the Arizona Diamondbacks High-A group in a scoreless outing comprised entirely of fastballs — in front of ESPN's Keith Law, no less.
SF reliever Ray Black hit 100 mph three times in the high-A game here in Scottsdale— keithlaw (@keithlaw) March 13, 2014
"It was a difficult situation being in rehab, especially for that long," Black said. "I almost felt like I had been left behind. It's a hard pill to swallow watching the game go on without you."
Seven contests remain in a 14-game minor league spring training schedule, spanning over the next eight days as players fight for spots on four full-season squads. Black feels good about his shoulder, and his chances.
"I'm excited," he said. "Hopefully they'll give me a chance to break with a team."