Try to put yourself in Ray Black’s shoes for a moment. You’ve spent your whole life being able to throw a baseball incredibly hard. You’ve thrown in game fastballs at 104 miles per hour (once, a gun said you hit 105, but that was one radar gun one time, so you know better than to count it as absolute truth). You’ve struggled through injuries — your last one kept you off the field for a year — but your career has always progressed, and your stuff has always been so good that it’s almost an insult to just call it major league-caliber. Call it elite. Call it electric. Call it All Star-level.
Now it’s August 2017 and you’re pitching in Rookie ball, coming back from a bone spur in your elbow. Your fastball, which should be in the triple digits, is coming in at 86-87. Even though the doctors have cleared you to play, you’re still feeling elbow discomfort. Maybe it didn’t heal right. Maybe it never will. Maybe your stuff’s gone. Maybe every pitch you ever throw again will hurt. Maybe it’s not going to work out. Maybe it’s time to call it a career.
Fortunately for everyone, that’s not what ended up happening. Last offseason, Black was giving baseball lessons to kids, and as he threw with them, he discovered that the elbow pain was gone. He’d been working out all offseason like he was going to return, but once he knew he could throw pain-free, he ramped up his throwing program, really started to test himself, and passed with flying colors.
And now Ray Black and his monster fastball are back, and the organization has started to take notice. Bruce Bochy said on Friday that Black was “on the radar,” and it would be easy to assume that now that he’s healthy and throwing well, he’d be leaping at the possibility.
“First I’m hearing about it, to be honest,” Black told me on Saturday. “For me this year, [the] huge thing is what I can control. I can’t control who gets called up or what moves get made in the Giants organization. Best I can do is I’m here to help the Giants in in any way. If it’s in Sacramento, if it’s in San Francisco, whatever it may be.”
It’s been a long, painful journey for Black getting to the doorstep of the majors. Even before he was a professional, he had Tommy John surgery during his senior year of high school, and a couple of off-field injuries — a torn right meniscus and a fractured hand — as a college sophomore.
Black was drafted out of Pitt in the seventh round in 2011 despite high ERAs and high walk numbers — at the time he threw 94-97, and scouts tend to love big fastballs and big projectability — and did well in instructional league that fall, but in spring training in 2012, he injured his shoulder and had to have labrum surgery. After a two year recovery process, he came back in 2014 and pitched well for Augusta. Then there was the strained lat muscle in 2015, then the bicep injury in 2015, and finally in late 2016, the bone spur that would cost him a solid year and leave him contemplating retirement.
But Ray Black has worked his way through all that, and has rededicated himself to staying healthy. “My entire routine this year, everything is based around health. From my diet to my sleeping patterns, to workouts. I have to do a little bit more than other guys,” he said. “A lot of guys that have had labrum, Tommy John surgery, they’ll tell you ever since the surgery, they had to do a little bit more to stay on the field, to stay feeling right, to stay healthy.
“For me, it’s been across the board, my whole lifestyle has changed. Diet has been a real big change for me. Sleeping is huge as well for recovery. I’ve got everything from essential oils and diffusers going at the house to fresh juices every morning and different types of spices that help with inflammation.”
And everything he’s doing has worked beautifully this year. Black has struck out 56 batters in 30.2 innings across AA and AAA this year, he’s dramatically cut down on his walks, and perhaps most importantly in terms of health, he’s finally been allowed to pitch on back to back days. For years, the Giants were cautious with Black’s arm, and he was on a schedule (a fairly notorious one, if you were a regular reader of Minor Lines) of pitching about every third day.
This year, he’s worked on one day of rest multiple times, worked more than one inning multiple times (the only such appearances of his career other than a brief dalliance with starting in San Jose in 2015), and pitched in back to back games twice, and he’s having his healthiest season since 2014. “I feel better [pitching back to back games], to be honest. I never thought I’d say it, but I really do. My arm’s been rebounding a lot better this year.”
So Ray Black has passed his durability test. He’s always passed the stuff test. And over the offseason, he even passed the dreaded Oh Hey I Just Lost 15 MPH Off My Fastball test. So is he ready for the big leagues? “I think so,” he said. “I think anyone’ll tell you yes. I feel like there’s always things to be worked on, there’s always things to be done. But where I’m at right now, I’m comfortable throwing.”
Coming up in Part 2 later this week: Less on injuries, and more on Ray Black as a pitcher, his stuff, and throwing a baseball just absurdly fast.