If you’ve been watching Ray Black’s minor league career, you’ve noticed two issues that were keeping him from the majors. The first, which we talked about on Tuesday, is the injuries. The second has been walks. Black’s walk totals his first year in Augusta were a little high (4 BB/9), but nothing that he couldn’t work on. His walk totals the next couple years, in San Jose and Richmond (around 9 BB/9), were an issue. But if you ask him, the walks and the injuries were always closely related.
“The further you’re away from the mound, the more difficult it becomes to repeat mechanics,” Black said. “Unfortunately, in my past years, I had difficulty rebounding, being able to get the ball multiple times a week, four times a week.”
But the difference isn’t just pitching enough to get into a mechanical groove. He used his time away from the field to make adjustments in his motion. He looked at video from Augusta to see what he was doing differently there than at the higher levels, and worked with some of the organization’s pitching coaches to make changes in his delivery. “I’m a rotational guy,” he said. “A lot of guys get rotational sometimes and consistency’s difficult when you’re spinning off so much. I worked on my direction and staying taller on my back leg. Everything else kinda fell into place.”
Those tweaks have paid off. Black’s walk rate since moving up to Sacramento is at 3 BB/9, easily the best mark of his professional career. And it hasn’t come at the expense of strikeouts either. As you’d expect from someone with a 100 MPH fastball, he’s racking up the K’s, currently striking out more than 15 guys per 9 innings.
Of course, he’s not pitching with a fastball alone. Black also throws a slider and a curveball, though for a while, they came in at similar enough speeds that the only way to tell them apart was the tilt of the curve. But he did some work tightening the slider up, which upped its velocity, and so while the curveball will come in in the low 80s, the slider will be around 88-91, and that difference in velocity makes both pitches much more effective.
88-91 was about the speed of Robb Nen’s slider, by the way.
But it’s the fastball that is his calling card, of course. When you routinely throw 100, that’s what people are going to notice. When you’ve never had a teammate throw harder than you — Ian Gardeck could throw about as hard in San Jose, and that’s the best any of Black’s teammates has done — it’s hard not to focus on that velocity. But how much time does he spend worrying about it? And most importantly, when he’s on the mound, does Ray Black glance back at the radar gun to see how fast he’s throwing?
“I try not to,” he says with a laugh, because, well, you’re not gonna be able to stop yourself every time. “It’ll throw you off. Your teammates are gonna let you know about it, [when they] catch you gazing back there.”
Pure velocity also isn’t the most important thing for him. “I usually try to stay locked in, looking forward. I could usually tell more of a life to my fastball than the velocity. There’s days where I feel great and it might come in at 96, 97, 98, but I could feel that it’s got a little bit of life behind it, a little bit of carry to it. Then there’s other days that I might be throwing higher velocity, but the life isn’t the same.”
Interestingly, Black doesn’t feel that going max effort on a pitch actually gives him more velocity. For him, it’s much more effective to throw with your mechanics in tune. “Every once in a while I try to hump up, maybe in a 1-2, 0-2 count, and I really don’t see too much of a difference in velocity, to be honest. Most guys’ll tell you that. They try to overthrow and they throw slower and they miss their spots. The ones they try to throw easy come out easy, but it’s actually harder on the radar gun.”
Over the last few years, Black has learned a lot more than just avoiding overthrowing. For example, he feels the same way about relievers walking people as you do: “Walks always seem to hurt guys. They always seem to score. Every time you put a guy on base, he scores somehow.”
He’s also learned to throw his off-speed pitches in fastball counts. While at lower levels, it was mostly possible to get away with just pure velocity, in AAA triple digit fastballs are more common, so he knows he needs to mix up his pitch selection. He’s gotten more comfortable throwing off speed stuff in a 2-1 count instead of a fastball, and when batters are geared up for 101, that’s gonna be a tough AB for them.
But the biggest mental adjustment is just working on what he can control. “Once a ball’s released, you can’t really control whether a guy’s gonna hit it or not. You can’t really control whether he’s gonna swing or not,” he said. “I think for me, mentally, just trying to realize what I can and can’t control has made a huge improvement for me as a pitcher. Just controlling my tempo, controlling my breathing, controlling my emotions a little bit better. These things help me stay in the zone, and these things will lead to success.”
Right now, Ray Black can only control how he does in Sacramento, but if he keeps pitching like he has been, he’ll find himself in San Francisco sooner rather than later. And after such a long journey through injuries and the minor leagues, what would that mean to him?
“I’ve put a lot of faith in baseball,” Black said. “I’ve always truly believed that God gave me an ability to throw, that I can throw this hard for a reason, and I’ve always felt like eventually I was gonna get my shot. My faith has really helped me stay on track and just kinda continue through the whole process, the surgeries, the ups and downs, and the setbacks, the years in Arizona. It would mean everything to me to get there, to get that opportunity.”