The majority of Pirates fans haven’t had many chances to see Vic Black pitch. They’ve probably seen the numbers, highlighted by a 1.65 ERA and an 85:29 K/BB ratio in 60 innings in Altoona last year. They might have heard of his fastball, which usually sits in the 96-98 MPH range, and has touched triple digits. He’s been on top prospect lists, is named as one of the top relief prospects in the system, and was added to the 40-man roster over the off-season. But most hadn’t seen him pitch until his outings in Spring Training.
The outing on March 8th was aired on TV in Pittsburgh. Pirates fans got to see Black pitch that night, but the results weren’t like above. The right-hander was wild, walking two batters, giving up a home run, and even sailing a pitch into the backstop. Pirates fans may have noticed his unusual delivery, where he takes the ball out of his mitt, pounds the glove, rears back, and throws. It’s an unusual approach that Black has taken for the last year. It looks complex and long, and looks hard to repeat.
After one more outing in the majors, Black was optioned to Triple-A. Once he got to Pirate City, he worked with West Virginia pitching coach Jeff Johnson. The two looked at his video and saw that the glove pat was getting too big — with his stance being about two or three inches wider this Spring. They focused on shortening the glove pat in the bullpen, and in Black’s first outing in minor league camp he looked like the Vic Black who put up the 2012 numbers in Altoona. He started out with a strikeout on a 97 MPH fastball at the knees. That came two pitches after an 83 MPH slider at the knees, which was borderline and went for a ball. Black was consistently throwing 95-97 MPH today, working with his fastball and slider combo.
“If one thing is slightly off, it gets huge as I go through my delivery,” Black said of the widened glove pat. “So I just fix something by two to three inches, and that makes all the difference in the world with being right back around the zone.”
So how did Black get that unusual delivery to begin with? It’s not something he had when he came in the system. It’s something that has developed in the last year. Black explained how the delivery came about after his first outing in minor league camp.
In 2011, Black was only throwing 88-90 MPH, down from his 96 MPH when he was drafted. He was coming off an injury, which held him out for almost all of the 2010 season. That fall, during the instructional leagues, Black was throwing a bullpen in front of pitching coach Mike Steele. He was behind the mound throwing warm ups, patting the glove before each throw. Each pitch was being fired to the plate with more velocity than Black was showing with his regular delivery. As Black described it, the conversation went like this.
“Why don’t you do that?” Steele asked.
“What? Take the ball out of my glove Steely? Someone’s going to disagree with this,” Black responded.
“No, we don’t care. We just want you to get outs.”
That’s how the glove pat started. I was getting reports that off-season that Black was hitting 98 MPH. That wasn’t totally unbelievable, since he had hit 96 in the past. But I also saw him topping out at 91 in West Virginia a few months earlier. This explains the change, and that change seems to have worked for Black’s velocity, as we can see by his numbers in 2012. The video below shows the glove pat from last Spring.
“It’s a rhythm. It’s a timing thing for me, so we implemented it,” Black said of the delivery. “Widened out my set-up, and I just became a part of it. It’s something that triggers looseness and for me to go once I get it. It’s the easiest way for me to replicate what I do.”
Black has some control problems, even when the delivery is working as it should. He had a 4.4 BB/9 ratio last year, which was actually an improvement over his 2011 numbers. That was somewhat negated by his 12.8 K/9 ratio, and his low .189 BAA. The problem is that when his delivery gets slightly off, he struggles to even find the plate, which is what we saw on March 8th.
It might not be a solution, but something to help that could be a two-seam fastball. Black started working on the pitch over the off-season, and was throwing it in the Arizona Fall League. On days where his four seam fastball is working, he stays away from the two-seam. When he can get ahead with that and the breaking ball, there’s no need for the third pitch. He does use the two-seam in situations where he needs a quick out with a ground ball, such when he’s behind in the count, or when he has a runner on base.
“I just need a little movement,” Black said of the two-seam fastball. “If I throw it in the zone with the purpose for them to swing, I feel like I’ve done my part. If they miss it, then great. But the thing is, I want them to swing. I don’t want them to take it. Because I don’t want to throw any more pitches.”
Black has the stuff and the mentality to be a late inning reliever. The only downside is that he struggles with his control. That can be managed by keeping his delivery shorter, and using the two-seam fastball effectively to get quick outs and keep his pitch counts low. He’ll start off in Indianapolis this year, and could be in the majors by the end of the season. In the future, he could have a shot at one of the late inning roles in the majors.
“We’ve got some good guys,” Black said of the relievers in the majors. “I’ve seen [Mark] Melancon throw a bunch. I watched [Jason] Grilli throw a lot last year. Those are guys that you model your game after in a sense that, that’s where you want to be. Those are the situations you want to be in. [My] stuff’s different. Grilli throws different than I do. I throw different than Melancon. We’ve all got different stuff. [Jared] Hughes. They’re all late inning guys that are aggressive. They go after hitters. They try not to give them a chance. That’s the attitude you’ve got to have, and I feel like I’ve got that. Every chance to learn from them, see them, and then one day hopefully get a chance to pitch behind one of them or in front of one of them. It doesn’t matter, but to be in that same area in that same park with those guys would be great.”