Corey Black is used to being underestimated. Is that odd to say about a fourth round pick by the Yankees in 2012 who then came to the Cubs in the Alfonso Soriano trade the following year? Maybe, but most folks don’t expect much from a pitcher who goes 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds. And sitting out an entire season following Tommy John surgery has a way of removing one from the public consciousness.
But Black’s got a message for anyone who’s forgotten that he was knocking on the door after averaging 10.55 K/9 over his last two seasons at AA and AAA, and that he did so despite pitching through elbow troubles.
“Don’t be surprised.”
That’s what he told me when we spoke recently about his rehab and preparation for the 2018 season. The 26-year-old righty is working his way back from his second elbow reconstruction — his first took place in high school — and only recently began working off the mound again. In fact, he had just started throwing breaking and offspeed pitches the day before our conversation.
Been over a year since I’ve stepped on a mound but boy let me tell you that’s the most comfortable I’ve felt on the mound in a very long time.
— Corey Black (@CblackCHC) January 23, 2018
“Finally getting out there and getting on a mound and just not feeling pain, it was such a relief,” Black told me. “I couldn’t put it into words that day, I couldn’t even speak. The trainers were asking me how I felt and I was like, ‘Dude, I’m speechless right now.’ It’s been two years since I’ve felt this good, so it’s awesome.
“I felt like a completely different person on the mound because I got used to throwing through that [discomfort] for the last couple years. It’s definitely a game-changer.”
To truly understand the joy and relief Black felt after that first session, it’s important to understand everything that preceded it. And I’m talking about much more than just the grueling rehab process, though that’s certainly a big part of it. The issues actually stretched back to well before surgery became inevitable.
“The last couple years, I knew I had some problems,” Black explained. “It started in ’14, the elbow started kind of bothering me a little bit and I got the MRI done and it showed a small tear. It was kind of hit or miss on good days, bad days, good weeks, bad weeks. And it was just frustrating to me, because I knew I was better than what I was actually showing.”
That inability to really go all out and pitch to his full ability was part of what led the Cubs to move Black to the bullpen in 2015 with AA Tennessee. Now he was fighting a mental battle in addition to what had already been a formidable physical struggle. Trying to pitch through discomfort while also adjusting to a new role was not easy, to say the least.
“It kind of sucked for me, going from the rotation to the bullpen, because I had never really pitched out of the bullpen before and I had just started pitching in college, so it was relatively new,” Black said. “For me going out there, I was like, ‘I’ve only got one inning, let’s let it eat. Let’s throw as hard as we possibly can.’
“So the ball starts getting higher in the zone and the balls start leaving the yard a lot more and I didn’t know what was going on. That first year, that transition was really rough for me and it took a toll on the mental aspect. I started throwing backwards, which I never do. I come right at you with the fastball, and I was not that guy.
“So that got me in trouble and then what really helped me was going out and playing in Puerto Rico and not trying to impress the organization.”
Black absolutely dominated for Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter League after the 2016 regular season, posting a 0.43 ERA and 0.857 WHIP while striking out 17 batters over 21 innings (20 appearances). Things were finally starting to fall into place for the flamethrowing righty from SoCal, though the good vibes wouldn’t last long.
“I did really well in Puerto Rico and everyone saw that,” Black recalled. “I’d been struggling for a couple years, so it was really nice to get that momentum. And then my arm was like, ‘Nah, not this year, bud.’ And that took a really big toll on me. I thought I was going to get buried, wasn’t going to have another shot.”
Such a confluence of circumstances might have pushed other pitchers out of the game. But Black credits members of the Cubs organization with giving him the strength and confidence to keep pushing forward.
“It’s really eye-opening to see that [the guys on the development staff] care and they want me to be successful and they’re just waiting for me to be healthy again. It opened my eyes that I don’t need to try and impress people. That’s always been my thing. I’m really hard on myself and I’ve always been the one that tries to do too much.
“I’m 26 now and I’m getting a little older and it’s like, ‘Hey, man, just go out and have fun. Obviously you have the talent and you’ve been here playing for a couple years now. Just go have fun and let everything else that you’ve worked for just take care of itself.’”
That is exactly the kind of emotional maturity Jaron Madison, the team’s director of player development, praised at Cubs Convention this past January. Strong mental skills are a must for any young pitcher, particularly one who’s had to grind through both injuries and a change in roles. If you can overcome those hurdles, getting through a tough at-bat or inning is simple.
We often talk about how development is not linear and how there’s no boilerplate guide for prospect development, but one thing that remains constant is knowing when to stick with what works. For instance, much was made of Dillon Maples’ rapid ascension to Chicago after eschewing the Cubs’ previous instructions and reverting to his preferred approach of pitching backwards.
That same strategy obviously didn’t work for Black, who’s a fastball-first pitcher, though there are similarities in how the two relievers fell back into their own styles. And now that he’s back to full strength, Black will once again be able to let that heater rip with no fear.
Unlike most guys with elite velo, however, Black had no idea how hard he could really throw until he was put on the mound at Faulkner University. Sure, he knew he had a pretty strong arm and had used it at various different positions, but he’d never gotten out of the upper 80’s when he’d messed around with a radar gun prior to that.
“When I first got on the mound in college, I had never hit 90 in my life. First time I went out there, I got out of the inning and the pitching coach just kind of looks at me and goes, ‘Hey, man, how hard have you ever thrown in your life?’ And I was like ’88, 89.’ And he goes, ‘Well you were sitting 94.’ I was absolutely blown away. And I had no stride and didn’t really know what I was doing.
“That summer is when I really learned how to lengthen out my stride and use my legs a little more, and that’s when the velo really started jumping up. And I’m not the biggest guy, so when I’m out on the mound, hitters don’t expect that sometimes and it does jump on them a little bit.”
You can imagine how opposing hitters are surprised when they first see a 96-97 mph fastball explode on them from that smallish frame. Then they get keyed up for the heat and wave helplessly at a changeup that moves almost like a slider, which is another pitch Black has in his arsenal. He used to have a curve as well, but scrapped the inconsistent offering at the team’s urging once he switched to a relief role.
“Since I moved to the bullpen, I learned how to throw my split-change for a strikeout pitch to righties and lefties,” Black explained. “And then with the slider, I’m able to throw it down at a lefty’s feet and they’ll swing over the top of it, then I can throw it for strikes.”
As with any pitcher coming back from extended time off, particularly with such a significant surgery, it takes a while for the feel of those secondary pitches to come back. From the sound of it, though, Black is progressing nicely and isn’t having any trouble with the breaking or offspeed stuff.
Breaking balls and change ups yesterday… 😏😎
— Corey Black (@CblackCHC) February 6, 2018
“The first slider I threw was very awkward; my arm path was kind of weird,” the pitcher admitted. “But after I threw a couple, it felt like I didn’t miss a day. It’s always different off the mound, though, so I think next week I start throwing off the mound.
“I’m very confident that I’ll be ready to go by spring training and hopefully by the end of spring training I’ll be able to break and do what I’ve set out to do and just do really well this year.”
There’s no doubt Black is anxious to get back into actual competition, and that the Cubs are equally anxious to see what he can do with renewed focus and an improved approach. It’s been a while since anyone’s seen Black pitch, but keen observers might notice a slight difference in his motion when they get a look at him this year.
Unlike his high school days, when he was forced to work through physical therapy pretty much on his own, sticking to an expert routine paid dividends beyond just getting the elbow back in order.
“Last year, having a plan and going in there every day, it made me a lot stronger arm-wise,” Black explained. “I don’t have to force it. I’ve always been a max-effort guy and the first couple times I played catch, I was just kind of letting it go. After we started moving back, I realized I wasn’t putting as much effort into my throws and the ball was still coming out just as well as it used to.
“So that’s probably one of the best feelings for me is not having to be that max-effort guy like I used to be.”
If there was a common theme in talking with Black, it’s that sense of calm and of not needing to redline it every single time out there. He knows he doesn’t have to impress the organization or try to strike out every batter with every single pitch. Some of that may be the California cool in him, but more of it is a confidence that only comes from walking through the fires of doubt and failure and coming out whole on the other side.
Trials have a way of stripping away the superfluous and showing us what really matters. Black’s goals for the coming season reflect that, but don’t mistake their simplicity for complacency. He’s ready to get after it, no matter where or how or when that might be.
“Goals-wise, I just want to be healthy the whole season,” Black told me. “If it’s starting or relieving, doesn’t matter to me, I’m comfortable with both now. If you had asked me a couple years ago, it would have been, “I need to be a starter.’ That’s exactly what I would have said to you. Either way, I’m really happy with where I’m at. Just ready to get back out there.”
Where exactly “there” is remains to be seen, but he spent parts of three seasons in Tennessee and finished 2016 in Iowa. Whether he’s able to break camp right away or needs a little more time in extended spring training, there’s every reason to believe he’ll find himself right back in Des Moines before long. And from there, it’s a short trip to Chicago should the Cubs need a little help in the second half.
The key to when and how quickly that happens will be Black’s command, being able to locate the fastball and knowing when to throw his secondary stuff for strikes and when to throw it for strikeouts. For now, though, it’s just a matter of picking up where he left off in Puerto Rico and making the most of his newfound health.
“I’m very confident in how in shape I am and how my arm’s feeling and what I was able to accomplish my last couple outings. It’s been a long time coming and it’s been a long road for me and I’m ready to get out there and show everybody what I can really do.”