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corey black daytonaWhen Corey Black joined the Cubs organization after the Alfonso Soriano trade, he came with some questions. Those questions immediately led to him being branded in some quarters as a reliever in the making, maybe a good reliever, but without a real chance of being a starting pitcher long term.

That branding has persisted since the trade, despite the fact that the pitcher who played for the Cubs performed significantly differently than the pitcher who played for the Yankees. As a Cub, his numbers suggest a future in the rotation is much more plausible than we may have originally thought.

Before we dive into those numbers, we have the disclaimer. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes soon) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes soon). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player. After this, there are only two more Prospects Progress pieces planned for this winter.

Corey Black, RHP
Born: August 4, 1991
Acquired: The Cubs picked up Black from the Yankees in exchange for Soriano. The Yankees drafted Black in the 4th round of the 2012 draft out of Faulkner University.

Season Summary

Black is best known for his fastball. While it has touched 100 MPH on occasion, the best reports I can find have him throwing it consistently in the mid-90s. He pairs that pitch with a promising but developing array of secondary pitches, headlined, it seems, by a quality change up and a slider that shows promise. The raw stuff is there, and it shows on his stat lines with both his teams.

There is the potential for sample size related concerns in comparing Black’s Yankee numbers with his Cub numbers, but they are not large ones. He had 25 innings as a Cub, and that’s right around the amount I like to see before diving too deeply into the stats. Naturally, his 82.2 innings with the Yankees are a stronger sample, but in a way that only highlights the contrasts.

With the Yankees: 9.58 K/9 –  4.90 BB/9 –  4.25 ERA –  3.27 FIP –  1.26 GO/AO –  1.500 WHIP –  0.2 HR/9.

With the Cubs: 10.08 K/9 –  3.60 BB/9 –  2.88 ERA –  3.96 FIP –  1.53 GO/AO –  1.280 WHIP –  1.1 HR/9.

The jump in K/9 is not that large compared to some of the other differences, and I could believe that is the result of statistical variance. The difference in BB/9, though, is huge. As a Yankee, Black appeared to be a guy with control issues. As a Cub, he didn’t. The difference is that stark. Ideally I’d like to see the walk rate decline a little more, but 3.60 is a perfectly tolerable (if a little high) figure.

The higher FIP with the Cubs is explained in no small part by the higher HR/9, and that difference might be the most significant and telling of them all. It is not common for a guy to go from a very low 0.2 HR/9 to a somewhat high 1.1 HR/9 in the same season without injuries being involved. But in this case, injuries aren’t a factor. With the exception of that home run rate, his numbers across the board became markedly better as a Cub, not worse.

So how do we explain this tale of two pitchers and what does it mean going forward?

The second half of that question is tricky, but I think I know the answer to the first: Derek Johnson.

The Coaching Difference

When Black was traded to the Cubs and changed minor league teams, he did not change leagues. His numbers with the Yankees and his numbers with the Cubs all came in the Florida State League. In other words, here we have a case where everything is held constant except the team he is playing for. If there is any case this year in which we can hypothesize a coaching-induced difference with a high degree of confidence, Corey Black is that case.

Looking at the two season lines, I think this play took place in two acts that look something like this.

Act 1 – The Yankee System

Black is encouraged to pitch for the strikeout. That means working the edges of the plate and angling for the perfectly placed pitch. As a result, thanks to his good stuff, he gets a lot of strikeouts, and when he does make a mistake it tends to be off the plate. That holds down his HR/9, but also drives up his walk rate quite a bit. He develops a reputation as a flamethrower with some control issues who is likely ticketed for the bullpen.

Act 2 – The Cubs System

The Cubs’ coaching staff changes Black’s approach altogether. Instead of nibbling at the corners and trying for strikeouts, they tell him to attack hitters and make them hit his pitches. Because he has some good stuff, he continues to strike out a lot of batters (and at a slightly higher rate than before). Since he is pitching more over the plate and not nibbling at the corners, his walk rate comes down considerably. Unfortunately, his mistakes are now more likely to be over the heart of the plate and that results in a spike in his HR/9. Those long balls are the exception, though, as his GO/AO climbs to a very solid 1.53.

Is there any truth to that hypothesis? I don’t know. I do know, though, that in Derek Johnson the Cubs have a pitching coordinator capable of authoring such a saga. It explains the statistical difference, and when Black is starting for Tennessee this season we will finally be able to get consistent video of his starts (thanks to MiLB.TV) and can evaluate his approach first hand.

Prognosis

I think Black can start. I know he’s 5’11” and that, in some baseball minds, that means he lacks either the height or the stamina to be an effective starter. But I’m not convinced those inclinations hold up to scrutiny.

As a guy with a high strikeout rate, an acceptable walk rate, and a good GO/AO, Black looks to me like someone who will need to pitch his way out of a starting job. The triple digit potential on the fastball and high K/9 would look nice at the back end of a bullpen should events play out that way (and that wouldn’t be a bad outcome, so long as he is able to consistently get hitters out), but I see no reason to think events must play out that way.

What’s more, I tend to think Black is being somewhat underrated generally right now. He is a clear notch below Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards on the pitching rankings, but if he can rein in the HR/9 rate he showed with the Cubs and continue to trend that BB/9 down, we could find twelve months from now that Black isn’t quite as far behind those two as we originally thought.

I look for Black to open the season as member of the Double A Tennessee Smokies and as part of what should be a very talented rotation. I doubt he makes it to Iowa this year, perhaps very late in the season if he pitches very well, but with a successful campaign he could be competing for a major league job as soon as the spring of 2015.

Final Thought

There is one more element to Black, and Edwards as well, that I think is worth thinking over. In two trades this past summer the Cubs scored two pitching prospects who were, arguably, somewhat undervalued within their own farm system. In both cases the pitchers showed some notable progress after joining the Cubs. And in both cases, the pitchers were somewhat undersized. Edwards does not have enough weight on his frame to keep some scouts and analysts confident that he can hold up as a starting pitcher long term, and Black is shorter than many experts find ideal for a starter. Coincidence, or trend?

Is it possible that the Cubs have identified a means of scoring some high ceiling pitching prospects at a discount?

Many in baseball still buy into the “size matters” thinking when it comes to pitching prospects, but there is research that indicates this thinking is, at best, flawed. I wonder if the Cubs are taking advantage of that entrenched but flawed thinking to acquire some pitching prospects who have a depressed value only because of their size. If that is the case, and I cannot emphasize enough that two data points do not make a trend, then we should probably take a very hard look at other pitching prospects the Cubs may acquire in the future. It may not be a tremendously significant vector in terms of improving the pitching talent in the minors, but it would be an interesting approach if true. For now, this is a story that bears further watching.

  • mr. mac

    He was kind of the forgotten man, but this brings a little hope that there was value in the Soriano deall. Well done as always, Luke.

    • WGNstatic

      I sure hope so. It is crazy to compare the Garza and Soriano deals. WAR is of course far from an ideal metric, but if you use FanGraph’s WAR, then Soriano was a comparable to superior value compared to Garza (and, Soriano for the Yanks at $5M looks like a bargain while Garza was a rental), but look at the return for the two players. By many rankings, Black would be considered to be a lesser prospect than any of the 4 guys the Cubs got from the Rangers. I know there was more to the deal than that (10-5 rights most notably along with Soriano’s reputation as an albatross contract), but still…

  • Cubsin

    If that’s the latest inefficiency, Marcus Stroman looks like a good candidate.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      He’s like the super version of the shorter types whom many people think can’t start. Very interesting case.

  • Cizzle

    Cashman didn’t want to give him up, so he wasn’t THAT undervalued, and I hope Hal regrets pulling the strings.

  • miggy80

    Said this earlier today on another post but I think it reins true here too.

    When it comes to prospects and pitching Derek Johnson is the most important name on that list, and many believe he is one of the best.

    Luke, have you heard any reports or rumors on how Johnson’s first season went with us last year? Was he at CubsCon?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      He was not at the Convention – I believe he was in Mesa working with some of the younger pitchers who were already down there (but don’t quote me on that).

      • miggy80

        Sounds about right. I read that he’s board line obsessive about developing his players.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Judging by the on-field results, I think Johnson’s first season with the Cubs went well. I’m quite happy with progress made by the Cubs pitching prospects this season.

  • itzscott

    Maybe size doesn’t matter to Theo now, but it sure did when he was at Boston: John Lackey, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett.

    I have no problems with guys like Edwards and in the rotation if they can get the job done & stay healthy but it sure would be nice to have a couple of big horses in that rotation also.

    • itzscott

      >> and Black <<

    • WGNstatic

      John Lackey and Josh Beckett

      Clear evidence that big pitchers are injury proof… wait… oh.

      • itzscott

        Say what you will, but these are the guys that got Boston to The Promised Land.

        • Jon

          That, and steroids.

          • ari gold

            That’s right, nobody else in baseball was using steroids. Only Theo’s team. Your hate for Theo is bordering on crazy.

        • WGNstatic

          I am not denying their value in any way, but rather pointing out the fallacy that “horses” are somehow immune to injury. Recall that Pedro Martinez was was pretty useful to the first Red Sox title run (and yes I know that he arrived before Theo took over).

          Those guys helped the Red Sox win because they were good pitchers, not because they were big.

  • Sect208Row8

    I remember reading here that Girardi was pissed they gave up Black. How cool would it be to say ” the cubs traded Soriano straight up for me”.

    • salesguy

      Agree with this, plus just in terms of the deal itself, if we could even get a serviceable starting pitcher, who contributes on a consistent basis for a year and a half of Soriano…Win!

  • YourResidentJag

    With the last paragraph, then, the Cubs shouldn’t be reluctant to make Marcus Stroman the centerpiece of a Shark trade before the season starts and before Toronto falls out of the playoff race.

    • CubFan Paul

      Toronto has been sitting back quietly, letting the pitching dominoes fall. I bet they pounce soon.

      • YourResidentJag

        I’d like to hope.

    • nate1m

      What else is coming back? I like Stroman but it doesn’t sound like Sanchez is coming with him. You’d have to get two of Norris/Osuna/Tirado. I hope there’s a few teams bidding. The Pirates look like a great trading partner but being in the same division sucks

      • YourResidentJag

        Why should more come back? You’re going to get one of Sanchez or Stroman or composites like them from every team….it doesn’t matter when Shark is traded.

  • ruby2626

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t he pitch 2 consecutive playoff games for the Cubs without allowing a run. Those stats don’t seem to be included in the comparison.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Post-season stats were not factored into his season numbers, no.

      But you do remember correctly.

  • CubChymyst

    The Cubs lack that stand out TOR arm that the prospect rankers salivate over, but I think they have built up a good stash of arms that would fit nicely into the 3,4,5 spots in the rotation. If one exceed expectation you’ve got your number 2 starter. Tennessee rotation next year should be good, and all of the College arms they took in the past draft might bring a surprise or 2 along as well. I like what I have read about Zastryzny.

  • SalukiHawk

    Love these value arms: Hendricks, Black…Ivan Pinero is another “forgotten” arm who I think has raw ability to be a back end rotation guy…and an even bigger steal than Black…we gave up Scott Hairston to get him. I know only time will tell for these guys, but Jedstein seem to have an eye for finding these type of guys and increasing their value.

    • SalukiHawk

      Pineyro, not Pinero.

    • jeff1969

      How about Barrett Loux & Marcel Carreno? Two more forgotten guys, one because of a poor season and the other injured all year, but they were a replacement player from Texas for an injured Jake Brigham, and the return from Detroit for Jeff Baker. And then there’s that pitcher they signed from Texas’ waiver wire this winter whose name I am forgetting. Carlos Pimentel?

      • CubFan Paul

        Brett Marshall…

      • ssckelley

        Good question on Loux and I am wondering the same thing.

        Luke, by chance is he one of your remaining 2 reports?

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

          Nope.

          I don’t have any more pitchers planned this year. Loux might come up in a later series, though. We’ll see.

    • baldtaxguy

      Agreed on Pineyro. I can’t prove it, but when word came down that Hairston was traded to WA for a then not-yet-id’d minor league pitcher, I looked at a list of top WA prospects and wished hard for Pineyro. Thought no way WA would do that. Hope we score one or two ML starters from the trio of Edwards, Black and Pineyro!!

  • Fastball

    Pitcher size is a stereo type doesn’t do much for me. Never has and Never will. I have seen a lot of big kids who you look at and think wow this kid ought to be a dominate pitcher. Well they aren’t coordinated enough to be pitchers a lot of the time. Throwing hard as hell doesn’t a pitcher make. So guys 5’11” with a decent build are probably a lot more coordinated then a big tall guy. The rule of the thumb on pitchers is there isn’t one. Ya every scout out there has his prototype that makes them gaga. I think our pitching coaches are probably more top shelf than this organization has had in a very very long time. Also I know that we have drafted a boatload of pitchers the last few years. So as it goes you have a couple top of the draft kids that get all the attention. I bet we have to some really good pitching talent in our organization but nobody knows who they are yet. I don’t think pitching talent is something you kind always find on a stat sheet early on. The problem with pitching is it gets hurt and set back at a very high percentage. So you have high failure or drop out rate. But with the number of kids we drafted the percentages will start falling in the right direction. I would not be surprised if all of the sudden the farm system has a whole bunch of pitchers popping up out of nowhere. Pitchers can take a minute to get things together. But when the light bulb comes on they can come on fast. So I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if we have some kids start jumping out from the pack this season.

  • CubFanBob

    He is a good kid with a chip on his shoulder.

  • Johnny Chess

    Aramis Ramirez is at fault over the whole rooftop thing. You don’t want to go down that road so Let’s, Aramis was signed by the Brewers who as we know are famous for Brats and SAS age. Well, it seems Chicago has a little Hot dawg place which is near? that’s right Wrigley. Now the owner of that establishment just happens to be a Rooftop owner. Needless to say he also spends time where? Milwaukee, that’s right. Now he just happened to be at a Brewers game (3rd base side) when suddenly someone sitting in front of him held up a foam finger. Naturally his view was blocked so he paid a guy $17 bucks to change seats with him. Well he thought he had it made until the cotton candy guy came by. Well, what a commotion then out of the blue Aramis says hey knock it off, that alarmed security who decided to throw this guy out, and as he was being escorted out he threatened to sue and complained that his view was being blocked. It was then that security informed him that the ticket was a contract and gave them the right to remove unruly fans. It certainly didn’t help that he was wearing a Cubs pissing on the Brewers cap. Well by the time he got back home his lawyer informed him that he had no right to expect a 100% view from the seat location he had purchased and furthermore he was not entitled to said view in the first place. Moral of the story rooftop supporters, Just be glad you can see at no additional cost to you.

    • DarthHater

      Repetitive story, bro.

  • http://bleachernation.com woody

    Marcus Stroman is only 5’9′ and he throws in the mid 90’s too. So we have Black at 5’11″and they say he’s too short. Edwards is too skinny. Seems like if a guy isn’t built like Samardzija then nobody wants him. Travis Wood is a good example of a guy that’s learing to pitch. If Samardzija ever can master pitching as opossed to throwing he will be a TOR guy. Hendricks throws in the upper 80’s, but changes speeds and has more than one out pitch. Too much being made of the prototypical body type.

    • CubChymyst

      Hendricks does not have more than one out pitch.

  • NorthSideIrish

    I sent Black a link to this article…

    Corey Black ‏@CblackCHC 17m
    @riley_daddy just give me a chance to prove height isn’t everything

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Dig it.

    • On The Farm

      If Black can pan out as a SP, and with how the Texas trades like pretty Cubs-sided, how long until this website is full of Theo was a genius for all of these moves people?

      • hansman

        The argument will just be that Theo could have built 85+ win teams WHILE accumulating all of this talent.

        • Revery

          I don’t know. Everyone better be careful…there is a lot of optimism in this thread.

      • Jon

        You mean, there could be more?

        • On The Farm

          Scary right?

  • dumbledoresacubsfan

    Sonny Gray isn’t tall–and is lucky to be tagged at 5’11 (really, guys, he’s not tall), and we saw just how good he pitched. I just don’t understand why people put so much stock into a guys size in baseball.

    • Edwin

      It’s probably because since some of the better pitchers in the game today are tall, people assume that’s what a “good” pitcher looks like. When people think “Dominating Pitcher” they think Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright. Guys like Gray are considered more of the outlier.

      • dumbledoresacubsfan

        Yea, I can fly with that–when you reason that people tend to think of the tall guys as “dominating.”

        However, what Luke mentioned is what many people (seemingly baselessly) argue: “I know he’s 5’11″ and that, in some baseball minds, that means he lacks either the height or the stamina to be an effective starter.”

        An “effective starter.” I don’t see height or weight having THAT much of an impact on a guy.

        • CubFan Paul

          “An “effective starter.” I don’t see height or weight having THAT much of an impact on a guy.”

          Stamina.

          • dumbledoresacubsfan

            Is attributed to how healthy and in shape you are.

            • CubFan Paul

              Sounds impactful.

              • dumbledoresacubsfan

                And has nothing to do with height or weight.

              • dumbledoresacubsfan

                Unless you’re grossly overweight or underweight.

                • CubFan Paul

                  So people with perfect BMI have great stamina. Got it.

                  • dumbledoresacubsfan

                    Ha, no. But you’re proving my point.

                    Even people with perfect BMI lack good stamina. Meaning people with crappy BMI can have good stamina. Meaning stamina has nothing to do with height or weight and about conditioning.

                    • dumbledoresacubsfan

                      To clarify the “and about conditioning” part: stamina is dependent on a person’s conditioning and health. So size doesn’t matter.

                    • CubFan Paul

                      “So size doesn’t matter”

                      Keep telling yourself that

                    • Jason P

                      Good one.

                    • dumbledoresacubsfan

                      Size only matters in the sense that it makes it harder or easier for the person to get in shape and build stamina. Therefore, you could theoretically have a very large or very small person with great stamina.

  • Mouse1

    Dude, that is some really good analytics. Really, really good stuff!

  • Edwin

    It’s not whether short (or in Edwards case, skinny) pitchers can or can’t succeed, it’s about whether they’re more or less likely to succeed. It sounds like height doesn’t matter too much. Weight might.

    • dumbledoresacubsfan

      Just saw this after responding to your above. And yea–put that way, I’m okay with that argument. Still don’t back it, but I’m okay with it.

      • Edwin

        I think either way, height/weight should be way far down on the list of concerns. When I look at Black, my first worry is his control, which seems to have gotten better. That’s a good sign.

  • cub4life

    Brett,

    I just read that AJ Burnett has decided to pitch this coming up season and test the FA market…..is there any chance that the Cubs will take a flire on him?

    • http://www.michigangoat.blogspot.com MichiganGoat

      I thought he was under Pittsburg’s control?

    • http://www.michigangoat.blogspot.com MichiganGoat

      Nevermind he just said that he’d either retire or return to the Pirates.

  • Napercal

    Great analysis. Tremendous food for thought. Two questions: 1. How bad/dysfunctional was organizational consistency under Hendry?; 2. Has Johnson been given the leeway to implement his/the Cubs pitching approach throughout the system? We’ve heard quite a bit about the new Cub approach to hitting and the possible effect it had on Castro. Is there a similar approach now deployed with respect to pitching?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      The biggest organization problem under Hendry, so far as I can tell, was lack of investment. The small size of the front office had echos on down the system.

      It looks to me like Johnson has been given the keys to the pitching prospect kingdom. Compare Tony Zych pre-Johnson and post-Johnson for a very visible example of the difference. His delivery completely changed.

      More subjectively, but I think pitching prospects in the system are tending to more pitch for quick outs, and not focusing so much on just strike outs. I’ll need more data before I can make that conclusion with confidence, though.

      • Napercal

        Thanks for the response. I coach high school pitchers. They love to throw hard but the pitches pile up because most of them have mediocre control at best. They’d rather pitch 3 or 4 innings and have 10 strikeouts regardless of walks than pitch 5 or 6 with 2 or 3 strikeouts and no walks. It’s the difference between pitching and throwing. God makes you a hard thrower; you make yourself a hard pitcher to get a basehit off of.

        • dumbledoresacubsfan

          You make a good point right there. Some pitchers have the innate ability to K people up all the time.

          We had a guy with wicked stuff who was just able to strike people out. However, he hit about 3 batters a game and had no clutch.

          What you said is perfect. Coach that to your pitchers and bench them when they’re not doing their jobs.

      • Edwin

        I think it’s generally a balancing act, and you did a great job of illustrating that. The hard part is being able to trade those K’s for enough fewer BB’s to make it worth the possible increase in HR and balls in play.

  • Picklenose

    This year Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux are being inducted into the hall of fame. Both pitched very effectively at 6 ft, 170 lbs. (per baseball-reference.com). Height may give a pitcher an advantage, but it does not rule out the shorter pitchers completely.

  • CubsFaninMS

    Luke:

    I want to commend you on the article. Good insight and well researched. I’ve gained a much greater perspective on Corey Black than before.

  • dAn

    Luke, I agree that Black is underrated. Nice article.

    I also think you hit the nail on the head, in terms of the Cubs’ strategy for bringing in talent. They want to bring in guys with high ceilings, and so they’re very strategic in who they target in trades. Pretty much everyone they target has a high ceiling, but also something that makes them somewhat undervalued or expendable. IMO there are more than “two data points.” For example:

    Rizzo and Villanueva were blocked by other prospects.
    Edwards, Black and Torreyes were considered small.
    Olt and Vizcaino had physical issues.
    Wood and Ramirez had some inconsistency and recent struggles which tarnished their luster a bit.
    Etc. (I’m sure there are a few I’m missing)

    In all cases, there was something that made them more expendable than they otherwise would be, but all those guys had upside, too. The Cubs have been acquiring these types of guys in volume with the idea that a few of them will pan out.

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