The first three years after college is typically spent getting into and establishing oneself in what could very well be the career you spend the majority of your life in. Now imagine that career being the game you love, being one of the few who gets to hear your name called during the MLB Amateur draft as a pitcher. Then imagine spending 34 months being physically incapable of throwing a single pitch in a game that counted.
That is exactly what Raymond Black had to go through, but he is no stranger to set-backs and injuries. In his senior year of high school, Ray had to undergo Tommy John Surgery. Luckily the University of Pittsburgh, where he had chosen to play college ball, honored his scholarship despite the injury.
In his first season at Pitt, there were probably more than a few people who questioned whether or not honoring the scholarship was a good move, as Black posted an ERA over 17.00. Despite the rough year, he went on to play in a summer league where he was saddled with the closer job, going into every game knowing if the game was within three runs, the ninth inning was in his hands. He thrived in the role, posting an ERA under 2.00.
He returned to Pitt that following season with a new level of confidence, and posted and ERA of around 4.00, which may not be all that great of a number, but was one heck of an improvement over the previous season.
After a career college ERA over 10.00, Black was selected in the seventh round of the 2011 draft. The Giants clearly saw something in the hard throwing righty and signed him just a few days before the deadline that August. Because there were only a couple of weeks left in the minor league season, the Giants organization decided not to send him to one of their minor league affiliates, but instead let him make his debut in a pro uniform in Fall Instructs.
The following spring, Black was ready and looking forward to getting his pro baseball career started, but not long into the spring, he developed discomfort in his shoulder, which he pitched through for a bit before the pain finally became enough that he had to sit down. The Giants worked with him for a few months of rest, rehab, and multiple attempts at a throwing program, to no avail. Black had to go in for surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Heading into surgery, he was told the chances of him playing baseball again were about 1 in 3 and about a 7% chance he would ever be able to rise to the level he was at prior to the surgery. The surgery wiped out the rest of the 2012 season and all of the 2013 season.
Black admitted to me that during the rehab process, even watching the game of baseball on TV was hard because his days were spent going into the training room for physical therapy and strength training while he spent his summers living out of a hotel in Arizona with the temperature regularly in triple digits.
Finally healthy, Black went into Spring Training of 2014 with one goal: stay healthy. In his first outing, he was clocked between 96-98 MPH and “remembered thinking, ‘I still have more in the tank’”. The next time out, he pitched one inning and his fastball was all over the place, taking more than 30 pitches to get through his single inning of work, but the guys behind home were getting excited. After he came off the mound, one of the guys working the radar gun ran up to him and asked him if he knew how hard he was throwing. All he could say was, “tell me I hit 100,” and he had. Ray Black had gone from watching guys from the trainer’s table in triple-digit heat for two years to a guy throwing triple-digit fastballs.
Black told me, “You look back at everything you have been through, where literally eight months before I was thinking about giving it up, to hitting that number (100 MPH) that very few people in the world can do. It made that process so much sweeter. It made it worth it.” And Black still hadn’t even thrown a single regular-season pitch in professional baseball.
He opened the season in Low-A where, after his first pro inning, his shoulder exploded into pain. “It felt like I got shot,” he says of that day, and he was sure his career was done. He went in for an MRI just waiting to hear that he had re-torn the shoulder, but the doctor told him the shoulder was structurally fine and he had just broken up some scar tissue.
He was held out for a month but was able to come back and was regularly hitting triple digits on radar guns across the South Atlantic League. He got a late season call up to the California League in High-A, where he finished his first minor league season with just 35 1/3 innings, but that is 35 1/3 more than he had in the previous two and a half years he had spent as a pro. His number were staggering, striking out more than 18 batters per nine. That means more than two-thirds of all outs he has recorded as a pro have come by way of the strikeout.
Black spent that October seeing guys from his draft class, Joe Panik and Andrew Susac, help the San Francisco Giants win a World Series title. Seeing guys who entered the organization the same year play in the World Series while he was just putting together his first taste of competitive baseball in three years and having topped out at High-A would be enough to dampen anyone’s spirits, but not Black’s. “As bad as the injuries have been, it has given me new perspective on the game,” Black said, “Guys will tell me the minor leagues are a grind and the bus trips are a grind and I say no, this is not a grind. The grind is sitting in a hotel room for two years in Arizona when it is 120 degrees, not being able to play baseball.”
Black was rewarded for his positive attitude and determination by being added to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft. He admitted, “I didn’t even know it was my Rule 5 year until after the season,” but the Giants saw enough promise in Black to protect him from the draft.
Black is now in big league camp, and when asked about the more spacious big league clubhouse, he said “the past two springs I wound up sharing a locker on the on the minor league side, so just getting my own locker was kinda nice.”
He is again struggling with an injury, a strained lat, so he has not been able to appear in any Spring games yet this year, and when talking about his injury past, even he admits that “it’s no secret” that he has struggled to stay healthy. The goal this spring is for him to be healthy enough to break camp with a full-season club. When asked if he has an expectation or goal as to which team that is, he said, “It doesn’t matter if it is High-A, Double-A, Triple-A, or even Low-A.”
Black sports a triple-digit fastball, a high-80s slider, and even a slurve he is working on that he likes to sit around 82 just to keep hitters honest and off balance. With health, he has the profile of a guy who could be a successful closer, and knowing that he was once given a 7% chance to reach the high 90s with his fastball and instead added velocity, I would not be one to bet against him.