SCOTTSDALE — Javier Lopez likes to joke that part of his success these days comes from throwing his lower-velocity repertoire at hitters who are used to seeing relievers sitting in the upper 90s. It seemed someone on the coaching staff was trolling Lopez when pitchers took the mound for the first time and the lefty found himself a few feet over from Ray Black, the prospect who might be the hardest-throwing right-hander in baseball.
“It was impressive to listen to,” Lopez said Friday. “He was probably only throwing 95. He’ll get there. It’s only mid February.”
“There” is a radar gun reading that's made Black a well-known name in the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse despite the fact that he has never thrown a Cactus League pitch for the Giants, or pitched in a game above A-ball. When your fastball sits at 100 mph and ticks up to 103 at times, you’re going to draw eyeballs.
While veterans and coaches are eager to see Black face competition, the right-hander was thrilled just to be pushing off a bullpen mound beyond the right field wall at Scottsdale Stadium. This is the first time in Black’s professional career that he has been fully healthy at the start of camp, and while the Giants will still be cautious with the prized arm, there will come a point where they need to simply see what Black can do when pushed. The time is coming fast, and Black, who has not pitched on back-to-back days since getting drafted in 2011, said the schedule will change this season.
“This year, they’re taking the reins off me,” he said.
General manager Bobby Evans cautioned that the Giants will still do things with Black that they don’t necessarily do with others, but the reliever is currently ticketed for Double-A, and when you’re on the 40-man roster and can hit triple digits, the jump from Richmond to San Francisco doesn’t necessarily have to be a big one.
“He’s been healthy all year,” Evans said of the decision to let Black go back-to-back. “Ultimately up here at the big league level, you have to be able to do that.”
Black will need to show more than health. He struck out 51 batters and gave up just 13 hits in 25 innings for the San Jose Giants last year, but Black also walked 25. In two minor league seasons, Black is averaging an astounding 18.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings, but he’s also walking 6.1 per nine. There were some signs of progress in the Arizona Fall League. Black walked six in nine innings, but he also struck out 16 in a league featuring the best prospects in the minors. Black made the Fall Stars game and Giants officials who saw him late last year say he took some positive steps with his command.
For years, Black hasn’t been able to fully focus on improving as a pitcher. His medical file includes Tommy John surgery, shoulder surgery, a torn meniscus and a broken pitching hand. Black was in camp last year and his arm felt healthy, but a lat strain kept him off the field. He has become so accustomed to the trainer’s room that the Fall League assignment was initially a concerning one. Black wondered how his body would hold up while pitching that late into the season, but he said it actually ended up being a positive.
“I didn’t get quite as much time off this winter, but it actually made it easier to transition back into throwing,” he said. “The more I throw, the better I feel. Instead of me worrying about staying healthy, now I’m worried about pitching and being a competitor.”
Black, who posted a 2.88 ERA last season, is adding a sinker to the otherworldly fastball, hard slider and curveball. His hope is to get quicker outs, and the initial signs are positive. Prospect Aramis Garcia caught Black’s first bullpen session Thursday and said the sinker already looks like a good pitch.
“I was super impressed,” he said. “Having to worry about four pitches (when facing) him is going to be tough.”
The players in camp will get a reprieve, but you can bet they’ll line up on the dugout rail if Black gets in a Cactus League game. On a staff that’s quietly filling up with hard throwers, Black’s fastball is unmatched. The 25-year-old might not be fully dialed up to Aroldis Chapman territory yet, but on the first day of throwing, manager Bruce Bochy made a point of quietly getting an up-close look at a player the Giants hope can be part of future bullpens.
“That’s some kind of arm speed,” Bochy said. “I’ve heard about him for two years. It was just good to finally see him out there.”