SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The locker is tucked into the corner of the clubhouse, near a door that leads to the dugout and a refrigerator holding dozens of bottles of Dasani water. It’s not where you’d expect to find a pitcher who throws 103 mph, but then again, Ray Black is not your normal prospect.
The scouting reports say Black’s fastball can sit at 100 mph and tick upwards on good days, but they also include a familiar note: “When healthy.” Black knows that thus far this is the defining characteristic of his career, not the fastball that some say is the most explosive in the minor leagues. The 24-year-old right-hander nods knowingly and smiles when asked about medical issues that have cost him four full seasons since his junior year of high school.
“It’s extensive,” he said. “I run out of paper on the orthopedic sheet.”
The list of injuries begins with baseball’s big one, except in Black’s case, Tommy John surgery was actually only his second-biggest obstacle. Mets orthopedist Dr. David Altchek performed the elbow reconstruction on Black when he was still in high school. He had blown out his elbow while trying to show off his strong arm during showcase tournaments.
“I was trying to do too much,” he said.
Black, a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, redshirted his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh and then tore his right meniscus during an offseason workout before his sophomore season. Two weeks later, Black and a roommate went to get food at a spot a block from their apartment. They were jumped, with Black suffering a broken right hand during the attack. The injury was part of an unfortunate theme for the right-handed pitcher.
“Everything has been on the right side of my body,” he said.
That includes the biggest setback, a torn labrum that cost Black his first two professional seasons after the Giants selected him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft. As two members of his draft class — Joe Panik and Andrew Susac — rushed to the big leagues, Black rehabbed from a shoulder procedure that’s considered more serious than Tommy John. Drafted in June of 2011, Black didn’t pitch in a game until April, 2014. But he never questioned what he was chasing.
“I’ve been through the ringer,” he said. “But I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I embraced it. I look at it as a challenge.”
Finally healthy in 2014, Black didn’t just glimpse at the light at the end of the tunnel. He barreled towards it, armed with a fastball that topped out at 99 mph before the labrum surgery and now regularly hits triple digits. When listing a prospect’s peak velocity during an outing, the Giants front office only counts strikes. Black's chart shows that he regularly topped out at 101 in the zone last season for A-ball clubs Augusta and San Jose, once pounding a zone at 102. Several scouts told the right-hander that 103 flashed across their radar guns.
“It’s real,” said Ty Ross, Black’s catcher in Augusta. “The fastball is special, and it’s a heavy pitch, too. You don’t see very many comfortable guys up there at the plate. He’s a big guy with good tilt on it, and his slider got tighter. You see guys swing and miss at (off-speed) pitches and they aren’t close because they’re geared up for 100.”
Black, listed at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, throws a slider and is working on a cutter that can give him some distance velocity-wise between his fastball and secondary offerings. The results last year were overwhelming. Black struck out 71 batters in 35 1/3 innings last season, allowing 17 hits and walking 16.
“It was awesome to be back out there,” Black said. “I don’t want to say I had low expectations, but I went into the season with a different goal than what other guys had. For me, I just wanted to stay healthy. I wanted to pitch the whole season and prove that I could still do it. The results are icing on the cake for me.”
Black did finally make it from April to September, but it was a cautious journey. For the most part he pitched every third day during the season, only breaking from that routine in his final two outings, when he pitched twice in three days for the San Jose Giants. The organization then put Black on the 40-man roster, getting him into big league camp for the first time.
Black could open the season in San Jose or get bumped up to Double-A Richmond, and assistant general manager Bobby Evans said Black could move “incredibly quickly” if he can stay on the field. And therein lies the rub. The Giants worry that Black gets so amped up — as he did during those high school showcases — that he overdoes it on the mound, leading to the injuries. At the moment, he is sidelined by a lat strain in his back — right side, of course — that he suffered as he aggressively prepared for his first big league camp. Black is limited to throwing at a distance of 90 feet but could be off a mound in the next week. He hopes to get six or seven spring innings under his belt before starting a second healthy season.
Despite the long orthopedic sheet and the lost seasons, that light, Black said, is still sparkling at the end of the tunnel.
“You work with what you’ve got, and some guys get there on work ethic and some on talent,” he said. “I’d like to believe I’m going to have both when I get there. That dream is always alive.”