The strikeout is one of the best outcomes a pitcher can get. It gets the hitter out (usually), doesn’t place anyone on base (usually), and doesn’t require that the defense make a play (again, usually… the exception to all these being if the catcher can’t hang on to strike three).
Chicago Cubs pitching prospect Corey Black has long been known as a strikeout pitcher, even moreso since he moved the bullpen full-time in 2015 (his strikeout rate hasn’t dipped below 25% since then).
There is another very good outcome for pitchers, though. One that is less talked about, but arguably just as valuable: a groundball. It takes three pitches to get a strikeout, but by inducing weak grounders to a good infield defense, a pitcher can also get out of an entire inning with just three pitches. There is the risk that a weakly hit ball could sneak through the infield for a single, but on the whole this happens rarely enough that we can consider a groundball a win for the pitcher.
Corey Black has not previously been considered a groundball pitcher. Previously. That may have changed at the end of 2016.
Black opened the season in Tennessee, and on the whole he pitched pretty well. His 22.2 innings over 20 games yielded an ERA of 3.18 and a strikeout rate of 9.93 K/9. He did not allow a home run. Unfortunately, he gave up walks at a 5.96 BB/9 pace, and was decidedly not a groundball pitcher. His GO/AO was just 0.77.
And then he went to Iowa, and for the most part, we saw the same thing. A high strikeout rate (10.98 K/9) offset by a high walk rate (6.23 BB/9). But the GO/AO leapt up to a good 1.68.
Most of that jump is thanks to August. In his 12 innings in August Black struck out 16, walked 8, and posted a stunning GO/AO of 3.75.
If he can keep that up, if he can continue to post a very high groundball rate to go with his high strikeout rate, his walks are going to be much less of a problem. A walk followed by a line drive could easily turn into a run, or at worst a man in scoring position. A walk followed by a groundball to short is likely to result in nothing worse than a man on first, and possibly a double play. If Black could cut back on the walks altogether that would be better still, but a with a high groundball rate he may well have a Major League career despite that flaw.
Unfortunately, 12 innings is not enough to say for sure that Black has found a way to regularly and reliably get groundballs. It will certainly be something to watch in Spring Training, but we already have a small indicator that this may be something he can continue.
Black pitched this year in the Winter Leagues, and he did very well there. In addition to converting 12 of 13 save chances and finishing his 21 innings of work with an ERA of just 0.43 and a WHIP of just 0.86, he struck out 17, walked 8, and … we don’t have a GO/AO. But we do know that he got five batters to ground into double plays. Considering you can only have one double play an inning (except in very unusual circumstances), five double plays in just 21 innings is fairly impressive.
As just a high strikeout/high walk guy, Black might have a hard time staying in the Majors. Throw in a high groundball rate, though, and that profile shifts. Black becomes a much less risky bet. And if he can reduce that walk rate over time, we may yet see Black challenge for a role at the back of the Cubs’ bullpen one day.
For 2017, I expect Black will get a very long look in Spring Training, but will ultimately head back to Iowa. When the Cubs need help in the bullpen later this year, Black could well be an option. His mid-90s fastball gives him an excellent foundation for a successful career in the bullpen, but his long term success will come down to his control and his secondary stuff. Along with his groundball rate, those will be the factors to watch in Spring Training and in the early portion of the minor league season.