We covered Dilson Herrera earlier, so next we’ll tackle the other prospect the Mets received in the Marlon Byrd-John Buck trade, Vic Black. Black’s a very different prospect in that he’s 25 right now, and 2014 will be his age 26 season. So where Herrera’s upside is largely tied into his youth, Black probably isn’t going to change much. But that said, it would be a mistake to consider Black a low-upside gamble.
The Mets drafted Black late in 2007, back when he was new to pitching and still mostly just a projectable body. But he filled out and added velocity at Dallas Baptist, propelling him into first-round consideration in 2009 despite a lackluster college career. That velocity is still evident today: he throws regularly in the mid-90s and has been known to touch 99 with the heater. And best of all the ball has some nice movement to it; long arms and a way over-the-top arm angle create lots of sink. He also pairs it with a great slider that acts more like a curve ball--sometimes Black himself will refer to the pitch as his curve, but more often than not, it’s called a slider. The pitch will typically come in around 81-84 with plenty of depth. It’s a definite swing-and-miss pitch, and the primary reason why he has as many whiffs in Triple-A as he does.
While much about Black is the same, one key difference between now and when he was drafted is that there’s no longer any pretense of him starting. Originally, some scouts saw his durable frame and projected him as a starting pitcher, but after arm injuries ruined his 2010 season, that thought went out the window. And that’s for the best, because it seems unlikely in retrospect that he’d have succeeded as a starter. By becoming a full-time reliever, he can throw as hard as he likes and reduce wear and tear on his right arm.
Here’s an important question, however: if Black has that good of an arm and that good of a breaking ball, why isn’t he in a big league bullpen yet? Part of the reason certainly lies with the pitching depth the Pirates had accumulated in that bullpen, but part of the fault certainly falls on Black. His command just isn’t that good. He has difficulty spotting both his slider and fastball, resulting in far too many walks, even if minor league hitters aren’t good enough to consistently connect with either offering. And looking at his mechanics, it’s easy to see why this might be the case. They’re far from terrible--he takes a healthy stride, and the arm action isn’t too bad--but he difficulty with repetition. He’s perhaps the only pitcher I’ve ever seen who starts with his hands separated before pounding the ball into his mitt and then starting his delivery. It probably has an advantage in that it can be jarring to the hitter. However, because he’s already moving forward at this point, he often needs to rush through the rest of his delivery to make sure that his arm catches up to his body’s forward momentum. It’s difficult to time, and sometimes the rest of the delivery will fall apart as a result, particularly his glove side, which will sometimes jerk down, which can impact command.
If a pitching coach can improve Black’s tempo and improve the consistency in Black’s glove-side mechanics, he can be a dominant reliever, a top setup guy or a closer. Of course, if it were easy, it would have happened before Black turned 25, and I have to believe that someone has at least suggested calming down his delivery’s setup before, likely to negative results. Mostly, you just have to trust Black to improve with more experience, something that may or may not happen.