Meet Ray Black

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen | Getty Images

by: Rich Daniels

We as baseball fans are privileged in a way these days unlike any before us, but most fans don't seem to notice the burgeoning trend materializing right in front of them. 

Uber Relievers. 

Relief pitchers that defy the physics typical to the game in eras past. These are guys that please the ears of fans as much as their eyes with the smacking of ball to mitt. Pitchers that used to be anomalies and are now appearing concurrently rather than once a decade. Pitchers that don't tickle the century mark on velocity, but live there.

Aroldis Chapman is known to just about any baseball fan above the age of ten minutes. The man with the "106" tattoo to commemorate his hitting that number on the speed gun in a game. He of the late inning heroics for the Reds, then the Yankees, then the Cubs and now the Yankees again. His meta-human fastball has punched out 771 strikeouts in 465.3 career innings and earned 228 saves.

Chapman WAS the anomaly but, due to more men like him sonic-booming their ways to the big leagues, has now become the gold standard for Uber Relievers. 

A second URP has hit the scene in the marbled form of 21-year old Jordan Hicks of the St. Louis Cardinals. 

In just his third professional season Hicks has blazed his way to the big club with his fastball sitting at 99 mph and touching 103 mph. In the minors Hicks started the majority of the time but has been a full time reliever for the Cardinals and has performed as well as anyone could have expected.

In 42 appearances Hicks has compiled 46.2 IP, a 2.70 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP and 41 strikeouts. The young right-hander has been lighter on the strikeout numbers in the minors, too, but consistently effective nonetheless.

So now there is an established star (Chapman) and a second man making his name. The old saying goes that if something happens once, it's a fluke. If it happens a second time, it's a coincidence.

But if it happens a third time, that's a trend.

Meet Ray Black, relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.

A twenty-eight year old product of the less-than baseball powerhouse University of Pittsburgh. His 6' 5" frame has produced strikeout totals nearly double of innings pitched throughout the minors including 58 in 31.2 IP (with only 2 wild pitches) at Triple-A Sacramento.

The primary reason is Black's fastball which also sits at 99 mph and has stretched to 104 mph before. After rehabbing an injury, the rangy right-hander has been called up to the big club to be the latest Uber Reliever. After a jittery debut appearance on Sunday, Black responded with a scoreless inning with two strikeouts on Tuesday.

The Giants are known for hard throwers coming out of their bullpen, but Black offers an added dimension that, like the two aforementioned URP's, almost eliminates a hitter's platoon advantage through sheer velocity. 

The "Uber" tag goes to relief pitchers for a reason. 

There are starters that stay in the high 90's in velocity and even dip into triple-digits from time to time, but they're exposed to multiple at-bats for hitters each game. This opportunity allows for a familiarity to grow in a hitter's preparation to face hard-throwing starters and, as everyone knows, it's said that major league hitters can dial in on a bullet if they see it enough times.

The learning curve to build against relievers, however, is much longer. The three or four at-bats a hitter can get against a starter in one night is stretched out to a couple of series separated by a week or more against a reliever making it much more difficult to formulate an effective plan of attack. 

So while you enjoy the elite performances of Chapman and follow the development of Hicks, keep an eye on Black too. His success will signal the fruition of a new era in baseball.

There are others on the way to join the URP Club as well, namely James Norwood who just made his big league debut with the Chicago Cubs this week. Keep your ears tuned and your eyes on the speed gun numbers when you go to the ballpark because one of these products of thorough scouting and meticulous development could be right in front of you.

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