Why there is plenty of reason to be excited about a top pitching prospect

Feb 26, 2024; Scottsdale, Arizona, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Mason Black (82)
Feb 26, 2024; Scottsdale, Arizona, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Mason Black (82) / Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The SF Giants injuries are starting to pile up with starters Alex Cobb, Robbie Ray, and Tristan Beck as well as long-relief options Sean Hjelle and Ethan Small are all set to begin the season on the IL.  The Giants’ pitching depth losses could be Mason Black’s gain, though, as FanGraphs’ Roster Resource currently projected Black to be in the Opening Day rotation before the Blake Snell signing.

Why there is plenty of reason to be excited about a top pitching prospect

In an ideal world, Black probably would not have been a serious consideration for the big-league club until the second half, but none of us live in that world.  Even though Black is not a household name, there is reason to believe he can capably fill in until some other guys begin returning from injury and could potentially be part of San Francisco’s plans well beyond that.

Black, the No. 9 prospect in the Giants’ system per MLB pipeline, was taken in the third round of the 2021 draft out of Lehigh University.  A bit of a knock on him is that he doesn’t possess a plus out-pitch, with his primary mix featuring a mid-90’s sinker, a sweeper-like slider, and a gyro-slider that Baseball America (subscription required) says “helps him steal strikes and can be landed in the zone more easily than [his] sweeper.”

The 2023 season was an eventful year in his development, pitching to a combined 3.71 ERA with 155 strikeouts in 123.2 innings between Richmond and Sacramento.  That conglomeration doesn’t really tell the full story of the year he had, though.  His first ten starts in Double-A didn’t go according to plan, posting a 5.89 ERA in those appearances with the Flying Squirrels. 

Black credited his Richmond pitching coach Paul Oseguera for helping him make some mental adjustments that led to a night-and-day improvement in his next six starts.  He pitched to a 0.34 ERA with 38 strikeouts over those 26.1 innings, earning him a midseason promotion to Sacramento. 

The pitching prospect did encounter similar growing pains upon his promotion to Triple-A.  His 3.86 ERA in those 60.2 innings was perfectly fine, but his 5.33 FIP was two full runs higher than the 3.23 FIP he put up in Double-A. 

A big part of that step backward was trouble with limiting free passes.  His 4.60 BB/9 at the Triple-A level was much higher than the more acceptable 3.0 BB/9 he put up in Richmond.  His Home Run to Fly Ball rate, groundball percentage, strikeout rate, and BABIP also all trended in the wrong direction in that limited sample.

So it would seem that the 24-year-old could benefit from more experience at the minors’ highest level before making the ultimate graduation to San Francisco.  He does still have all his minor league options remaining seeing as he’s yet to make his big-league debut, so more time in Sacramento is inevitable for him at some point this year. 

Black is also in camp as a non-roster invitee (NRI), meaning the Giants would have to make a corresponding move to add him to the 40-man roster for him to be able to break camp with the club.  Nick Ahmed and Daulton Jefferies are two other guys likely to make the team who would also have to be added to the 40-man, but both of those guys have major-league experience already.

The results in a very small sample of 10.1 spring innings haven’t been all that kind, where he’s given up eight earned runs (6.97 ERA) and three homers while striking out just six.  Pitchers tend to be especially rusty in spring training, of course, and there has been an encouraging sign in those innings that leaves plenty of room for optimism. 

Black hasn’t walked a single batter yet in those 10.1 innings, which is all the more impressive considering he hadn’t faced live batters in months. Hopefully, that is a positive sign that some of the control issues he battled with in Sacramento are behind him. 

Even though the punchouts haven’t shown up for him yet this spring, he’s also struck out at least 10.66 batters per nine at each minor league level, so his stuff should still play well.  Steamer projects Black for 79 innings of 4.16 ERA ball with 8.59 K/9 and 3.24 BB/9 at the major league level in 2024, which quite honestly the Giants would be thrilled with as a placeholder. 

The Snell signing likely pushes Black one spot lower on the depth chart, but there is still a lot to like with the young pitching prospect. He is likely slated to begin the year in Triple-A now, but could be a realistic option for the Giants by the middle of the season.