When you ask scouts or other evaluators about Augusta's Ray Black, and the responses range from positive expletives to just pure giggling, you know there's something special on the GreenJackets roster.
The scouting response to Black has been tremendous this season. I sit behind home plate among scouts during most of his home outings. At the beginning of the season, Black would throw his first fastball and the usual reaction from scouts was an expletive, followed by confusion as to who the guy is, followed by scrambling to write perfect notes.
Now, scouts have adjusted as the word spread. They ask in advance if Black is going to pitch that day. They have pencil in hand before he even takes the mound for warm-up tosses to AC/DC's Back in Black. The reponse now centers around wishing he was in their system.
Black had one of his best outings Tuesday night against Kannapolis, striking out the side in a perfect ninth inning. He didn't have the usual good feel for his breaking ball, missing a couple times to his glove side. He did have a loose arm, pumping fastballs from 95-100 and touching 101. He hit triple digits four times.
Black has a 51.1 strikeout percentage. That's the highest percentage among pitchers at one level with a minimum of 20 innings thrown in professional baseball. The next highest is Arizona's Silvino Bracho for South Bend in the Midwest League at 48.5 percent.
Black has failed to strike out a batter in an outing just once in 23 appearances. Of the 22 games where he had at least one strikeout, 16 were multi-K performances. He has struck out the side six times.
Black's ERA is 3.27. He has allowed 12 hits and eight walks in 22 innings, both of which are very good. The ERA might seem a little high considering the dominance in every other aspect, but most of that is the result of balls finding holes from a .333 BABIP. Class-A hitters rarely square up his pitches.
His fastball has ranged from 94 to 102 this year. Some radar guns have registered as high as 105, but the guns were admittedly a little frayed. I wouldn't be surprised if he's capable of reaching that high, however.
Black's breaking ball is a hard downer in the mid-80s. He shows exceptional feel for it considering his power arm. It hits the zone more often than one might expect. While his fastball is elite, the breaking ball flashes double-plus. All of this is from a delivery with little effort considering the velo. He has a clean arm motion and drives to the plate well. He has tinkered with an off-speed pitch that I've seen him throw a couple times, but it's not much more than a project at this point. I don't see a need for it anyway.
Why isn't Black in the San Francisco bullpen already? This back story I wrote in May is a good place to start. He's endured a major labrum surgery and Tommy John surgery, and he remains on a schedule of pitching every three days in Augusta.
He could be doing this schedule at a higher level, but in my opinion, the level probably doesn't matter for Black. He has two pitches capable of getting major leaguers out right now. The Giants are taking it slow with him at a lower level for now.
Black turned 24 in June and will need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft in December. He should be a sure bet to make the 40-man roster after the season, because I highly doubt the Giants would take that risk. Other teams would likely pounce and stick him in the major league bullpen.
Once the reigns are lifted from Black, which would likely come after this season, I feel he will progress quickly. He has what it takes to pitch in the majors now. There could be an adjustment period after lifting the three-day schedule. There could also be an adjustment period to pitching at a higher level, because Black can get amped and overthrow at times. There's never a guarantee to a relief pitcher's success.
But if I'm making a bet on a Class-A relief pitcher with the talent to make an immediate impact at the major league level, I'm putting it on Black.