SAN FRANCISCO — Just over a year ago, Ray Black was attending farming conferences in the Northeast, preparing for a life spent on the family farm, with hunting and fishing taking up his free time. That is not generally the profile of a pitcher who will freely name-drop Rapsodo and TrackMan in conversation.
And yet there Black was after his first bullpen session in Giants camp earlier this spring, his smile growing wider and wider as he talked about spin rate and FIP and other terms that have become so popular with modern front offices. He laughed as he thought about how far the game has come.
At one point, the only thing that mattered was the triple digits Black regularly registered on the radar gun. Now he wants to know how many times his curveball is spinning, or see high-tech images of his slider leaving his hand.
“I went from the scene in the Rocky movie where he’s beating up on a slab of meat to being Drago with all of his technology,” he said, laughing.
Welcome to baseball in 2019.
The Giants have gone all-in as an organization, poaching Farhan Zaidi from the Dodgers, hiring staffers away from the renowned Driveline Baseball facility in Washington, and beefing up their analytics staff. They had Rapsodo and TrackMan devices set up in front of and behind pitchers during live BP sessions, with a team employee standing a few feet away, dispensing data from his laptop.
After years where the front office was perhaps a bit slow to embrace new methods, the Giants have pressed down on the turbo button in an effort to lap competitors. This will ultimately require buy-in from the clubhouse, and it’s fair to say there’s still skepticism from some corners.
There are also those ready to jump in with both feet, and Black counts himself among them.
The 28-year-old has spent his previous springs in the back corner of the clubhouse at Scottsdale Stadium, tucked just alongside a Dasani cooler. That’s where they put you when you’re too talented to give up on, but often too injured to even take part in normal February bullpen sessions. But Black arrived this spring with no concerns about his elbow or shoulder or any other body part. He made his debut last year, stayed healthy through September, and had a normal offseason.
Without having to worry about rehabbing, Black has immersed himself in a different world. He is fascinated by the data the Giants started feeding their players last season and has embraced more modern methods of training and managing aches and pains.
“I’m trying to be a sponge,” he said. “It’s easy to do, because the traditional ways haven’t worked for me in the past.”
Black has always had numbers associated with his name thanks to a fastball that has touched 103 mph. But late last season, he was presented with a new set of data. During an appearance against the St. Louis Cardinals, he threw three sliders to Yadier Molina to record a strikeout. One of them was particularly filthy, and when Black got back to the dugout, he was met by Michael Schwartze, a baseball analyst the Giants hired last offseason to travel with the team.
“What did you do differently on that slider?” Schwartze asked. “The spin rate was different.”
This has become a common conversation in the dugout, and for relievers it can be especially useful. Black is a three-pitch guy, and his fastball and breaking balls have elite spin rates. According to Baseball Savant, Black's fastball -- which regularly hit 101 mph last season -- also has the fourth-highest spin rate in the majors. At 3,091 revolutions per minute, his slider had the second-highest spin rate in 2018, behind only former Giant Kyle Crick. Black throws a hard curveball, too, and that was also a top-five spin rate pitch, although he didn't use it nearly as much as the other two.
Black has dug into the data, matching specific spin rates with specific pitches thrown in games. He knows that the rate is better when he stays on top of his breaking ball. and his focus this spring is duplicating that as much as possible. He has embraced, tunneling, another phrase that has entered the baseball lexicon, with the goal of making his fastball and breaking balls look similar as long as possible. For a guy with his kind of raw stuff, that could be a frightening development.
The evolution has changed the way Black plans to attack hitters.
“The old school way of throwing your fastball is to throw it down, and that’s what they used to teach you, but I get hit harder when I throw the ball down than up," he said. "I never really realized why until I looked at the spin rate. The life on my ball isn't sinking life, the life is up in the zone, getting that secondary jump up in the zone."
A spring of further development may not matter right away. Black has minor league options remaining, so he could find himself in a roster crunch in a month. But Zaidi has mentioned him as an intriguing bullpen piece, and the staff doesn't care much about the 6.17 ERA Black posted as a rookie. This has been an adjustment for Black, too.
“Nobody has FIP on the back of their baseball card," he joked.
Not yet, but his shows a pitcher who was much better than some might think. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) removes results on balls put into play, where the pitcher no longer has any control, and Black's 3.98 FIP told the story of a more successful debut. So did the spin rates, and as Black dives into the numbers, he hopes they help him take a big step forward in his second year in the big leagues.