Prospect Watch: MiLB’s Hardest Thrower? And Other Stories

Each weekday during the minor-league season, FanGraphs is providing a status update on multiple rookie-eligible players. Note that Age denotes the relevant prospect’s baseball age (i.e. as of July 1st of the current year); Top-15, the prospect’s place on Marc Hulet’s preseason organizational list; and Top-100, that same prospect’s rank on Hulet’s overall top-100 list.

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Ray Black, RHP, San Francisco Giants (Profile)
Level: Low-A  Age: 24   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 4 1/3 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 9/3 K/BB, 6.23 ERA, 1.48 FIP

Summary
Black might have the most velocity of any minor leaguer.

Notes
This is about as close as we’re ever going to get to a real-life version of Rookie of the Year, except Ray Black isn’t twelve years old–he’s a few weeks shy of twenty-four.

Black was drafted in the 7th round of 2011 out of Pittsburgh, but he came down with a torn labrum right before the draft and needed surgery. Black was reported to work in the mid 90s in college, but with labrum tears being what they are, it would have been a success to get him back on the mound with anything approaching reasonable velocity. This was especially true after Black experienced a series of setbacks. An injury that was supposed to just sideline him for the 2012 season also ended up keeping him out for all of 2013. He finally made his professional debut on April 3, 2014, some 34 months after being drafted…and promptly went back on the disabled list after throwing one inning. Today, Ray Black has a total of five professional appearances and 4 1/3 pro innings to his name, all with Low-A Augusta.

I’ve seen two of those innings, one on May 10 and one on May 13, both against Hickory. You might think Black would be a mere shell of the solid prospect he was as a collegian after his repeated setbacks, but, well, you would be quite wrong. Here’s his first outing. You’re really going to want to watch it, because it might be the most electrifying inning of pitching I’ve ever witnessed:

I calculated it out, and Black’s fastball averaged 99.4 mph in the above outing. That last pitch is the only 101 I’ve ever seen, and he’s the only person I’ve ever seen hit triple digits more than twice in a game (for the curious, the other 100s I’ve seen are Mauricio Cabrera (once), Daniel Webb (once), and Jandel Gustave (twice)). On our leaderboards here at FanGraphs, the only MLB pitcher seasons that involved an average fastball velocity of 99.4 or higher (since the start of our data in 2002) were by Aroldis Chapman in 2010 and so far this year. Even if he’s not at that range consistently, Black would almost certainly show up on the first page of that 8214-entry-long leaderboard if he were to get the call to the majors with his present arm strength.

It would be one thing if Black were just a wild slinger with nothing but raw velocity, but he isn’t. His delivery is actually fairly clean–his arm stroke is quite long and fires through release with utterly violent speed, but the arm action is fluid, he uses his lower half decently enough, and he finishes relatively well. The delivery does provide a lot of deception, though, due to the elongated arm action and the raw arm speed, making the fastball actually play above its velocity. Thus, he can miss a lot of bats with the fastball alone.

But that’s not all–Black has a plus slider, too! The one that freezes poor Jairo Beras for a strikeout in the above clip is terrifying enough, but Black broke it out more extensively in the second outing:

This time around, Black averaged “only” 97.5 mph with the fastball, touching triple-digits only once, putting the heater’s average velocity for the two outings at 98.45, which would rank thirteenth in our database of velocity seasons. My favorite thing about the above clips, though, is the first pitch to Van Hoosier. Black looks like he’s just lobbing it in there, and it’s still 97!

Black’s slider comes in at 85-89 mph with big tilt, and paired with his fastball, it’s absolutely devastating to righthanders. He seems to just throw the heat against lefties, but the slider could be an effective weapon against them too if he can work it inside like a cutter. He also flashed one slower breaking pitch, a slurvy curve with the same pronounced, wipeout horizontal action as the slider, at 79, giving him a third speed to utilize.

All in all, Black is an obvious future closer if his arm stays attached and he can stay around the strike zone. It’s anyone’s guess on the first count–there’s obviously a long history of triple-digit guys running into injury problems, and Black has quite the checkered past in that regard. But other than the torque and sheer arm speed of his delivery, he doesn’t really raise any mechanical red flags to me. Given his age, stuff, and injury history, the Giants have every reason to push Black quickly and see if they can get MLB value out of him while he’s still intact. Hopefully he’ll stay intact for a long time, though, because this grade of stuff is always a treat to see.

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Yhonathan Barrios, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates (Profile)
Level: Low-A  Age: 22   Top-15: N/A   Top-100: N/A
Line: 16 IP, 15 H, 9 R, 16/8 K/BB, 3.38 ERA, 4.06 FIP

Summary
A converted infielder who hasn’t even pitched for a year, Barrios brings easy mid-90s gas and other intriguing raw ingredients.

Notes
At the outset of 2013, Barrios was a punchless switch-hitting Colombian infielder repeating the New-York/Penn League after a .196/.255/.217 performance in 2012. Eleven games of .143/.194/.250 hitting later, he was yanked from both his team and role and sent to the Gulf Coast League to convert to pitching. Making his debut on the mound just eighteen days after his last contest as a position player, he threw a scoreless inning on July 27 and only allowed one run across ten games and eleven innings for the season, enough to get him assigned to full-season ball for 2014.

Barrios looks more like an infielder than a pitcher–his listed height of 5’11” may be generous, and he’s maybe just a few pounds over his listed 180. When he came in to close out a game on April 17, he started lobbing the ball in in the low 80s in warmups. I wasn’t expecting much…and then he did this:

It’s not Ray Black-level heat, but it averaged exactly 96 mph there, all with nice life and coming out of an easy, fairly low-effort motion. The sinking action on the pitch has allowed Barrios to post a stellar 65.3% groundball rate so far this year, too.

He didn’t show any offspeed pitches in the above outing, getting three impressive outs on the fastball alone, but I got to see Barrios again twelve days later. Like Black, he didn’t have quite as much velocity the second time around–it was a cold, windy night–but he still worked at 92-97 mph, and this time, he flashed a slider and changeup. He throws three changeups in this at-bat (one of which I mistakenly call a slider in the video)…

…and he mixes in a couple of sliders here…

You can see both pitches have some interesting movement on them, and the changeup has very good velocity separation, but he really slows his arm speed on both pitches, a flaw he’ll need to work on as time goes on. Since he’s so new to pitching, that can easily be excused–the point is that he has the potential to have other solid offerings to complement the fastball. Since he’s just 27 innings into his pitching career, it’s still too early to accurately project Barrios, but it’s quite clear that he could be an impact reliever if things come together as he gains experience.

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Carlos Estevez, RHP, Colorado Rockies (Profile)
Level: Low-A Age: 21  Top-15: N/A  Top-100: N/A
Line: 22 2/3 IP, 25 H, 16 R, 24/5 K/BB, 5.16 ERA, 2.81 FIP

Summary
Estevez is another high-upside relief arm who may have a broad enough arsenal to move to the rotation.

Notes
As I wrote here this past offseason, one of the great joys of prospect-watching is when a random no-name reliever enters a game–typically someone neither I nor many scouts have even heard of–and suddenly makes everyone pay attention. There’s no greater example of that than the Black anecdote above, and Barrios is a powerful example too, but Colorado’s Carlos Estevez is another pitcher in this category.

No, he’s not just fun for the sole reason that he shares Charlie Sheen’s birth name. Now, Estevez is the only one of the three players in this piece who has a remotely normal backstory–he was signed out of the Dominican at age 18 in May 2011, threw in the DSL that year and 2012, came stateside for short-season work in 2013, and now is in Low-A as a 21-year-old. That’s all fairly standard, and while he’s hummed along in his four-year career, he’s never really put up huge numbers–in short-season ball, his walk and strikeout rates were always around average, as were his ERAs, FIPs, and whatever other indicators you’d look at, really.

But–stop me if you’ve heard this before–there’s stuff there. I saw Estevez throw on April 12 and quickly found a lot to like.

There he is, reaching up to 96 with his fastball. Estevez only hit that number once in the outing, but worked comfortably at 93-95. An athletic 6’4″, 210-pound pitcher with some projection remaining, he has a loose, easy arm action and gets great leverage and plane from an overhand arm slot. You can see his delivery’s a bit long in the back, but he has the athleticism to repeat and throw strikes, as evidenced by his 5.2% walk rate this year.

To complement the fastball, Estevez throws this pitch:

The 73-77 mph curveball isn’t always crisp, but it has good shape and is a real plane-changer from the fastball. It’s a solid-average pitch right now and could develop into a plus offering in the future. Estevez also tosses a cutting 84-85 mph slider that isn’t half bad, and he even threw one playable 83-mph changeup in my viewing.

Given his size, athleticism, mechanics, and fairly broad pitch mix, Estevez might have a chance to do something that’s more or less out of the question for Black and Barrios–start. It’s actually quite mystifying to me why he’s been deployed exclusively as a reliever since coming stateside–it’s not like he had abysmal production when starting in the DSL, nor are there any obvious deficiencies that would prevent him from being an effective starter at the Low-A level, nor is there a long injury history to worry about. It’s a move the Rockies should consider–if it pays off, they may have a potential third or fourth starter on their hands, and even if not, it’ll give this talented arm more reps and development time before he settles in as a quality reliever.



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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.


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Jon
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Jon

Is this the list of pitchers who will have TJ surgery before the year is over?

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