When 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.
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.
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.
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.