When spring training broke camp, the Pirates decided to promote Victor Black aggressively to the Double-A level, despite just 6.2 innings in high-A. Black, Pittsburgh’s first round supplemental pick in the 2009 draft, had only compiled 71.2 innings over parts of three seasons since getting drafted. Several injuries, including a shoulder and bicep injury, halted the prospect’s development.
“At first I was concerned when he got here at the start of the year because he really hadn’t earned it because of the injuries,” Altoona Curve’s pitching coach Jeff Johnson said. “But once I saw him pitch and stuff — he certainly belongs here, if not higher. The stuff is really good.”
Black was moved into the bullpen during the 2011 season and quickly learned how to adapt to the role of a reliever. He was eased into working out of the ‘pen on three days rest, then two, to get him comfortable to be able to pitch on back-to-back outings and the irregular schedule that relievers go through.
Since joining Altoona, Black has been very impressive. The right-hander has posted a 1.23 ERA over 36 appearances. He’s waked 21 batters while striking out 57 over 44.0 innings. The Amarillo, Texas native has been used in the late innings for the Curve notching seven saves in the process.
“I feel like I’ve done well,” Black said. “Fitting in wasn’t the thing I was worried about. I felt like I could compete here and do well once I got back on track and healthy. As far as the team, that coming in was my biggest deal. I got to be able to help out a team as much as I want to get back on track for myself. When you take that focus off, and you go to the team route with it, you start doing much better because the focus is off yourself. Overall it’s been an unbelievable experience. I’ve been blessed.”
Staying healthy is going to be key for Black’s progress through the system. Black has a violent delivery which raises concerns about future arm issues. The 23-year-old will be Rule 5 eligible this offseason, so continuing his success this year could put him on the fast track to the Major Leagues. Black is already at a career-high 44.0 innings, but said his arm is feeling the best it has in years when he pitched at Dallas Baptist, where was the DBU ace during his Junior year.
The experience at this level is helping Black develop into an intriguing late inning reliever in the future for the Pirates. He has shown the ability to stay calm on the mound even if he runs into trouble. Over his last 10 appearances, Black has allowed just one earned run over 12.0 frames with 16 punchouts and a .154 opposing average against. That’s coming off an even more impressive month of June where he tossed 10 scoreless innings holding the opposing teams to just five hits while striking out 13.
Black has seen his velocity back in the high-90’s now that he’s fully healthy. He was throwing 92-94 during the 2011 season, then saw the velocity jump over the off-season, hitting 98 MPH during the Fall Instructional Leagues. What’s been key for Black’s success this season has been his wipe out pitch — his slider.
“He’s learned how to throw a slider that can strike people out, which is big,” Johnson said. “I’m very happy with his ability to come back from sub par at-bats. He’ll walk a guy on four pitches straight, then get a double-play ball or he’ll go 2-0 on three hitters in a row, but he can throw that strike 2-0. There’s no panic. A lot of guys will get behind in the count and start to panic, try to make a perfect pitch. He doesn’t do that. That’s a great sign.”
One thing Black needs to focus on is his control. He can get a little wild at times, and that’s led to a high walk rate this year. He’s walked 21 batters in 44 innings this year, including 10 in 21 innings over the last two months.
“The other thing we try to work on is strike one,” Johnson said. “If he gets strike one, his stuff is so good he will dominate hitters. That’s really where we’re headed now. How consistent can you be on the first pitch…He’s 96-98 about every time out. His stuff is really unique. It’s hard to see. It’s really fast. His breaking ball is a put away.”