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Ray Black is baseball’s most polarizing reliever

Injuries, control issues, and velocity make for quite an interesting analysis.

San Francisco Giants v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Baseball is constantly changing. Look at it from a pitching vantage point and it may be changing even more. New strategies are popping up. Relievers are pitching more than ever. Velocity has a steady, significant increase throughout time.

These never-ending changes put a different perception on relievers. They’re changing too! For example, the percentage of batters faced that ended the plate appearance in a strikeout or walk in 1960 was 24 percent. In 2018, it was 32.5 percent. This has been an ongoing trend throughout the history of modern baseball and for the most part, there’s no ending in site.

And while non-contact plate appearances have became more of a familiar site in today’s game, there’s one reliever that takes it to a whole other level. Giants reliever Ray Black, a 28-year-old right-handed flamethrower has gone through every level of baseball going face-to-face with strikeouts and walks. Going back to his college days, two seasons at the University of Pittsburgh, he had a whopping 11.05 ERA in 36.2 innings, striking out 48 and walking 41. But even with those numbers, he was still drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 MLB Draft, mostly thanks to a fastball that sit in the upper-90s.

Heading into professional baseball, Black was a project prospect and nothing more. This grew truer when he had to sit out his first two professional seasons, recovering from his second Tommy John Surgery. He debuted with the Giants Low-A affiliate in 2014, posting promising results (50.8 K%, 3.73 ERA, 1.45 FIP). And then in High-A in 2015 (45.5 K%, 2.88 ERA, 3.74 FIP). Then came Double-A in 2016, where he appeared in 35 games, circling around three 7-Day DL stints before he finally landed on the 60-Day. He then followed up with three total appearances in 2017, all rehab appearances at the Rookie level.

Black returned to pitching on a more consistent basis last season, starting out by dominating in 10 Double-A outings (52.6 K%, 0.90 ERA, 0.53 FIP), moving up to 26 more of them in Triple-A (46.9 K%, 3.16 ERA, 2.11 FIP), before finally making his major league debut with the Giants in July.

One major, and I mean major, caveat I haven’t focused on yet is his control issues. Among relievers with at least 20 innings this year, Black ranked in the bottom third in walk-rate. But with an 80-grade fastball that sits 98 and can touch 104 and a wipeout slider, he makes up for this by being impossible to hit. Black induced a .202 opponents batting average this year through way of soft-contact. His fastball generated one of the lower exit velocities in all of the majors last season.

Twenty lowest fastball exit velocities in 2018

Rank Player Results Fastball EV
Rank Player Results Fastball EV
1 Adalberto Mejia 45 80.8 MPH
2 CC Sabathia 283 83.0 MPH
3 Roberto Gomez 25 83.2 MPH
4 Ty Buttrey 27 83.4 MPH
5 Joakim Soria 106 83.4 MPH
6 Darren O'Day 28 83.5 MPH
7 Jose Leclerc 69 83.5 MPH
8 Jackson Stephens 98 83.5 MPH
9 Kenley Jansen 176 83.6 MPH
10 Brent Suter 230 83.7 MPH
11 Ray Black 34 83.8 MPH
12 Adam Cimber 156 83.8 MPH
13 Zack Wheeler 294 83.9 MPH
14 Dan Altavilla 27 83.9 MPH
15 Will Harris 115 84.0 MPH
16 Kazuhisa Makita 62 84.0 MPH
17 Erik Goeddel 50 84.1 MPH
18 Sean Doolittle 86 84.2 MPH
19 Paul Fry 61 84.4 MPH
20 Taylor Guerrieri 25 84.5 MPH
Minimum 25 results Baseball Savant

The combination of velocity and spin on his fastball was essentially unmatched.

To add onto that, he throws an 85 MPH slider that had the second highest spin rate in all of baseball this past season. Hitters slashed .143/.280/.286 off the pitch this year with a 35.3 percent strikeout-rate.

This slider he used to strikeout Matt Chapman here should almost be illegal.

Projections-wise, things are looking up for Black next season. It seems likely he’ll have himself a spot in the Giants bullpen, and perhaps a big one. Per Steamer Projections, only nine relievers are projected to post a lower FIP than Black. Only six pitchers are projected for a higher K/9 (Kimbrel, Hader, Betances, Chapman, Diaz, Knebel).

Ten lowest reliever FIP projections for 2019

Name Team FIP
Name Team FIP
Edwin Diaz Mariners 2.57
Craig Kimbrel 2.72
Dellin Betances Yankees 2.80
Aroldis Chapman Yankees 2.90
Felipe Vazquez Pirates 2.91
Josh Hader Brewers 3.00
Corey Knebel Brewers 3.01
Andrew Miller 3.07
Blake Treinen Athletics 3.09
Ray Black Giants 3.10
Steamer Projections

Out of all the players in baseball, relievers by far present the highest volatility. That volatility becomes higher when you have a history of injuries and not being able to throw the ball the ball over home plate. But this is what makes Black entertaining. It’s what makes him baseball’s most polarizing reliever.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.