Ray Black on 100-Plus Heat, Health, and Embracing Analytics

Ray Black hasn’t received much attention here at FanGraphs. That’s understandable. The 28-year-old San Francisco Giants reliever has consistently been clocked at over 100 mph, but only when he’s not on the shelf. And he’s spent a lot of time on the shelf.

Black had Tommy John surgery as a high school senior, a knee issue in college, then missed his first two-plus professional seasons after undergoing labrum surgery. A seventh-round pick by the Giants in 2011, Black didn’t take the mound until 2014. More obstacles followed. Notable among them were a second elbow surgery — this time to remove a bone spur — which resulted in him missing almost all of 2017.

This past season he missed a lot of bats — and not just down on the farm. Black made his long-in-coming MLB debut in early July and went on to fan 33 batters in 23.1 innings. He was even more overpowering in the minors, logging 66 punch-outs in 35.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Not surprisingly, velocity played a big role in that success; he reached triple digits numerous times.

His heater and a return to health weren’t the only reasons he reached the big leagues this summer. With the help of San Francisco’s minor league pitching coordinator, and the Giants analytics staff, Black has become a bit of pitching nerd.

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Ray Black on technology and his slider: “The increase of technology in the game is incredible. StatCast. TrackMan. The Rapsodo machines. They show you your release point, the way your fingers come off the ball — all of this in super slow motion. You can break it down to so many frames per second.

“After one game against the Diamondbacks, they showed me the side-by-side of my fastball and my slider. If I throw my slider correctly, it’s mimicking my fastball — I’m keeping it on the same plane long enough that the hitter can’t recognize it. The technology can basically tell you if you had a good one or a bad one, and I had it working that day. This was after I got sent back down to Triple-A in late August.

“I’d given up a walk-off home run on my slider, in Cincinnati [on August 17]. When I went back and looked at that one, side by side with my fastball, I could see a big hump. I looked at the velo as well, and it had gone from an 88-90-mph pitch down to an 83-84-mph pitch. It was slurvier, with a hump, and it got tagged.

“I’d punched out the side in the tenth, then came back out for the eleventh. The first batter I faced [Phillip Ervin], I threw a 1-1 slider, just trying to get ahead. That was entirely my fault. I wasn’t being aggressive enough with the pitch and paid the price. When I got to Triple-A, I realized that I needed to tighten it up again.

“To correct that, my release point had to be a little more out front, like my fastball, and my finger placement on the ball had to be a little more on top — again, similar to my fastball. Instead of getting around it, and from that first motion having it look almost like it’s popping out of my hand… what I worked on was throwing a fastball down and away, then throwing off that same plane, down and away with my slider.

“I want the pitch being tighter and harder. That goes back to when I learned my slider — I would think cutter. I wouldn’t break my wrist quite as much. I wouldn’t try to make it big. I wouldn’t try to make it super nasty. I wanted it smaller, so I would keep my wrist a little bit stiffer. It’s was more about extension and feeling it out.

“This year my slider was as high as 92 [mph] and as slow as 83. I’m usually most happy with it at 88-89. It works at 92, but at that velocity it needs to be down and away. If I’m facing a righty and throw one 88, and it’s center cut, there’s that little bit of extra time for him to clear that front shoulder and he might roll over. If I throw one 92, off a 98-mph fastball — especially inside half — it looks similar to the hitter, even though the radar gun says there’s a six mph difference. A fastball down and away plays a lot slower than a fastball up and in. The perceived velocity to a hitter really does change.”

On learning to optimize his four-seam fastball: “I’m a high-spin-rate guy (2,640 rpm this year). Hitters have said it looks like it jumps. You’ll hear things like, ‘Man, this guy’s fastball has life behind it.’ Guys have different life to their pitches. Some guys throw sinkers and their life is sinking down. Other guys have a high spin rate. That’s my game. I try to beat hitters up, with my four-seam. I will try to keep hitters honest with some fastballs down, but usually it’s fastballs up and sliders down.

“I don’t know how accurate the minor-league guns are, but I’ve been up to 104. This year I think I was up to 101 in the big leagues. Velo is important to me. I’m a power pitcher. I’m a power arm. At the same time, it’s really more about the life you have on your fastball. The radar gun can fool you. I’ve played with guys who throw an 88-mph fastball and blow people’s doors off with it. You go, ‘How did he do that?’ Right? Again, there are spin rates, and guys have different life to their ball.

“There are times where I’m 96-98 and can get a fastball by good hitters. Then there are days where I’m 100-101, but don’t feel the same life behind the ball. I see guys taking better swings and I get hit. So really, I’m worried more about that life than I am the number on the gun.

“Julio Rangel was our new pitching coordinator, and he talked a lot about spin rate down in minor league camp —I wasn’t in big league camp this year. He talked about things like perceived velocity and not being scared to pitch up in the zone. That resonated with me. I’ve always thought to myself, ‘Why do I get hit more when I’m throwing down than I do when I’m up? or ‘Why do I get hit more when I’m pitching away, rather than in?’

“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on things like that. I missed last year because of elbow surgery, and when you’re in Arizona rehabbing you’re going to think about how you can get better. I did research. Every pitcher is different and I think I’ve found what works best for me.

“If I can locate a fastball in, out, up, and down, at 100 mph, that’s almost four pitches in itself. Then, if I can throw that off-speed, that secondary pitch, for a strike consistently … that opens up the game for me. I don’t need to develop a changeup, or a two-seam, or a knuckleball. I don’t need to invent a new pitch. I just need to fine-tune what I have and stay healthy.”

On moving forward from his health issues: “I’ve thrown caution to the wind at this point. You hear guys say, ‘I just want to make it,’ and I clawed to get there. I did everything in my power to get there. I’ve gone through more surgeries, and more rehabs, than most guys do on their way to the big leagues. Physically and mentally, I feel better than ever, simply from having accomplished that goal. But I’m by no means done. I want to continue to grow, continue to play. No one gets to the big leagues and says, ‘OK. I did that. I’m done now.’ I want to get at least a couple more years out of this.

“The organization has been great with helping me figure out what my body does differently than other people’s bodies, and what that means for me. I bet I do more rotator cuff than 95% of the pitchers in baseball. I have to get after it in a different way. Guys are dead-lifting and squatting the house, and I’m in the gym crushing shoulders and scaps. I’m trying to improve the flexibility in my lower half, so that I can put more stress on my legs and take some off of my shoulder. I’ve learned a ton about the physiology of my body over the last few years. I know more about shoulder and elbow anatomy than I care to admit.

“Health has obviously been my biggest issue. I was blessed with the ability to throw the ball hard. I threw 90 in high school, and 96-97 in college. I’ve thrown over 100 multiple times. Stuff has never been the problem. Basically, my focus went from getting better on the field to, ‘How am I going to get healthy enough to be on the field?’

“I went into this season with doubts. I told my wife, even before my first day of minor league camp, ‘I really don’t know if we’re going to get through this.’ My arm still wasn’t feeling great. To go from that, in March, to playing in the big leagues in July… I didn’t think that was going to happen. I honestly didn’t.

“I still get mad out there. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, I’m a fire-baller and I get mad when I don’t do well, just like I get happy when I do great. At the same time, my emotions have changed. A bad day has gone from giving up a home run to realizing that I could be back in Arizona doing more rehab. You have bad games in baseball — you have bad days — but at least you’re playing baseball. You gain a lot of perspective when you’ve gone through what I have.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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williemaysfield
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Wow. What a great article. I coach at the high school level and young players need to hear this kind of approach and the type of dedication it takes to get to the next level. Not only talent but fortitude.