Before we get things going, I will start again with a hot take: Mason Black is the best pitcher in the SF Giants' 2021 draft class.
Mason Black is the best pitcher from the SF Giants 2021 draft class
If I said that during the pre-season, it would be met with massive criticism. After two months of regular season play, however, that statement might not be far-fetched. After all, Black was promoted to High-A after a stellar campaign in San Jose where he lead the California League in ERA, WHIP, and the opponent's batting average at the time of his promotion.
When Black got selected by the San Francisco Giants in the third round last year, it was not met with a lot of fanfare as he was sandwiched between College World Series MVP and first-round pick Will Bednar, NCAA leader in K/9 and second-rounder Matt Mikulski, and highly-touted California prep pitcher and fourth-round pick Eric Silva. Sure, Black won the Patriot League Pitcher of the Year honors with a 3.11 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 72.1 innings, but it was considered to be a down year for Black with a career-worst rate and a general regression of his pitches, particularly his secondaries. As such, he was considered to be a reach pick as he was listed near the top 150 in both Baseball America and MLB.com, about at least 60 spots higher than where he was actually drafted (85th overall selection).
" So a year ago, I was watching Black along with Jake Tillinghast (now with the O's scouting dept.) when we were learning about the 2021 draft class and Black really reminded me of Justin Masterson. You know that big-bodied, long arm action that has a low to true-3/4 release that results in his mid-90s fastball having a hard sink and a solid slider that can get slurvy. Now, Black shortened his arm action and is one of the hardest throwers in the class where he can reach 99 MPH in short bursts but will still sit in the mid-90s while still having the control issues that kind of made him a hit-or-miss pick."
I also noted that even though Black might be a couple of years away from fully unlocking his potential, I like the stuff and his frame. Black did not pitch at all during the 2021 season but when I was watching more of Black's progression from 2019 up to 2021, I considered Black as one of my four potential breakout prospects because there is top 30 prospect potential if he could unlock a couple of things that will result to throwing more strikes, particularly honing his refined arm action.
So, what is there to like about Mason Black, you may ask? Let's start off with his frame. As a former catcher in high school, Black has a thick lower half and an overall big and strong frame fit to handle a starter's workload. Let's talk about his mechanics. Black is not your typical drop-and-drive pitcher as his torso does not drop a lot but he generates plenty of extension (105% of his total height) that results in a shorter distance to home plate and gives his pitches an extra tick or two of velocity. It is also known as perceived velocity.
Let's talk about the journey of his arm action. In the early stages of his college career, Black had a very inefficient arm circle where his throwing shoulder dips and creates a wide circle at the back. He looked very natural in throwing with that arm action though. In 2021, he tried to shorten his arm circle in an effort to take his game to the next level. It did help to hold his velocity deep to his starts but it looked unnatural and stiff and it was the most likely cause of the regression of his control and secondary pitches. He basically scrapped the short arm action and reverted back to his more natural, bigger arm circle this season but with positive tweaks. He now does not dip his throwing shoulder and keeps it square to his torso, and his posture is also taller. That revert to his more natural throwing motion and then tweaking the other parts of the body resulted in Black finding the strike zone much better this season compared to when he was an amateur (3.6 BB/9 in college, 2.0 BB/9 in pros).
Black's refined arm action made his pitch arsenal play to its full potential. Black has two types of fastball: the four-seamer with a true four-seam grip that touches 98 MPH but will sit in the 93-96 MPH range with a spin axis of close to 1:00 and a very high spin efficiency which is impressive considering he is throwing from a low 3/4 arm slot and a near-five-foot release height. His two-seam fastball in the low-90s is being held like a split-finger fastball and is thrown in the same arm slot as the four-seamer. It has plenty of comeback action and the sinking movement is late enough to have hitters swing on top of it and generate a good amount of groundballs.
Mason's main secondary pitch is his slider thrown in the mid-to-high 80s. The way he grips his slider is very unique. Imagine a knuckle-curve grip where your middle finger is running along the seam. Instead of tucking your index finger in, you don't tuck it in but only slightly pull it back where the tip of your index finger is the only one touching the ball. Now, throw it like how you would throw a fastball. That's Mason Black's slider grip. It's unique in plenty of ways as it went from a bullet spin in college to a sweeper action in the pros. Black also has a changeup that flashes plenty of fading action but his feel for the pitch is inconsistent. He also has a curveball but it looked like it is scrapped as I have not seen him throw any curveball this year.
Aside from the stuff and the improved strike-throwing, there's another aspect of Black's game that I am impressed with: his brain. Black is not just your ordinary college student who got to college on an athletics scholarship. He studied Bioengineering at Lehigh which is no joke coming from a fellow engineering graduate (I am a chemical engineer). Sure, the lessons that are being taught in the classroom could not be applied on the mound as engineers, but if there is one thing that every engineer carries over in their careers, it's critical thinking. Being able to problem solve your way out of sticky situations on the mound and absorb, understand, and apply the data of cutting-edge pitching technologies are crucial aspects of the game that are very challenging. Still, Black has the mental capability to do so.
I listed five things in my latest Patch Notes on my Patreon that Black could improve on:
- Black throws his slider in the dirt in two-strike counts a bit too often that hitters are not biting on it. It could be thrown a little bit higher in the zone to better entice hitters as long as it tunnels with his fastball.
- His two-seamer is more of a contact pitch and not a true swing-and-miss offering.
- The changeup needs to be thrown more as it has shown enough to become a true third pitch for him.
- He is more control than command as he can fill up the zone and execute but often runs into well-located pitches due to coincidence than locating his pitches at will.
- His fitness could be an issue as he gets older due to his frame which could result in strike-throwing issues.
These things are not exactly career-changers but these are very fixable as it only takes dedication and a change in approach to rectify it.
The Giants have built a rather infamous reputation of finding better talent in the third round than in the first round during the Farhan Zaidi era (third-rounder Grant McCray over first-rounder Hunter Bishop in 2019, third-rounder Kyle Harrison over first-rounder Patrick Bailey in 2020, third-rounder Mason Black over first-rounder Will Bednar in 2021). Black had all the ingredients when he was an amateur to blossom to a first-round talent but he took a wrong turn in his draft-eligible year that resulted to him being drafted in the third round. Black and his team did the right thing of noticing what went wrong in 2021 and he not only reverted back to what worked when he was younger but also laying more bricks in that strong foundation to better harness his first-round stuff. Now, we are seeing the Mason Black breakout and I am very delighted to see it happen. It just goes to show that college and the pros are a different beast and if you don't keep yourself evolving your game for the better, you will get left behind as people ahead of you keep on evolving as well. I all welcome you to the Mason Black hype train and tickets are still widely available but it might run out soon though with more dominant outings by the man from Lehigh.