Every single year, mid-major arms ascend to the front of the pack. It’s virtually a lock you’ll see a kid throwing gas from a lesser-known school to jettison himself in front of scouts thanks to extremely loud stuff. The bleachers at these schools sometimes fail to even house the enormous amounts of scouts and analysts that flock to their confines.
In 2020, it was Burl Carraway out of Dallas Baptist. 2019 saw Seattle’s own George Kirby, a product of Elon University. Jackson Rutledge was also selected in the first round that year out of San Jacinto; a junior college. 2018 of course featured another prominent Mariners arm in Logan Gilbert, the 14th pick in that draft. Gilbert, a product of Stetson University. Shane McLanahan was taken in the first round by the Rays that year out of the University of South Florida. And going back to 2017, the Blue Jays selected Nate Pearson out of the Junior College of Central Florida, 28th overall.
Every single year, non-Power Five arms gain immense helium in the lead-up to the MLB Draft. As history shows, those arms, more often than not, seem to pan out. Corey Kluber and Jacob DeGrom are both Stetson alum. Between the two of them? 4 Cy Young Awards. Justin Verlander, a product of Old Dominion, has two Cy Young awards. 2021’s presumed American League Cy Young award winner Shane Bieber was selected out of UC Santa Barbara.
That brings us to 2021 and Lehigh’s Mason Black. At 6-3, 215 pounds, Black already very much looks the part. He’s got high, broad shoulders and a strong lower half with long legs. He’s a weight room warrior.
The track record speaks for itself. In 2019, Black was 92-94 with a developing slider and changeup. All of those figures have taken massive strides forward. More on that shortly. His freshman campaign at Lehigh saw Black post a 4.36 ERA over 33 innings in ten appearances, five of which were starts. He punched out 28 hitters and walked just 12.
Then he turned a corner.
Black worked to clean up his mechanics and get stronger. By summer 2019, he was throwing harder and sporting better command of his pitches. He’d go on to pitch 36.1 innings at the Cape Code League for Brewster, posting a 1.49 ERA and punching out 39 along the way. His walk rate fell too, surrendering just 12 free passes in more innings than he pitch at school.
Black then carried that success over to Lehigh in 2020 where he’d post a 3.68 ERA in just 22 innings, striking out 29 and walking just 8. He’s turned into a legitimate strikeout arm and the walks have continued to fall all along the way.
This summer he’s worked hard to shorten up his arm action to improve endurance and stamina in-game. His operation is now more on-time and, in turn, the velocity is up, as is the break on his secondaries.
Black’s entire operation is impressive, and it’s just what a general manager like Jerry Dipoto will want to see. Everything about his mechanics is explosive. There’s a ton of hip-shoulder separation, his lead leg block is incredibly strong, there’s a good amount of scapular load and elbow spiral. This kid is going to be throwing serious gas as he continues to mature.
His release height of roughly 5-feet-5-inches is super low for an over-the-top guy. It’s an awfully low arm slot that’s still coming out from behind his ear. Some of this is aided by Black’s extension down the mound which, at roughly 7-feet, is elite for a guy his size.
An extension-to-height ratio of 1.12 is very, very good. Gilbert has an extension-to-height ratio of 1.15. Kirby’s extension-to-height is even better at 1.16. Emerson Hancock doesn’t have quite the same extension as the other two, but his 5-foot-5-inch release point is super lower.
Black is the best all three worlds, really. Not only does he possess the extension, but he parlays that with a super low release height. The byproduct is a fastball with impressive perceived velocity that can really sneak up on hitters, exploding at the plate.
Now, how does Black’s stuff work in collaboration with his operation? Let’s dive in.
Tools (Future Value)
This may be bold, but I’m pretty firm in my conviction here. Black was 92-94 his freshman year. Then he was 93-95 at the Cape. In 2020, Black was 93-96/t98. This summer, he’s bumped 99. All along the way, his mechanics and arm action have improved and optimized. Given his length and extension, so long as the velocity keeps trending, I do think Black will be a guy that is 95-98 at the next level, touching triple digits now and again.
The same thing has happened to Kirby, and while they’re different pitchers, a line can be drawn. Kirby was 92-95/t96 his final year at Elon. He was shoving 96-99 at Tacoma this summer.
The real story behind Black will be what fastball shape he commits to at the next level. In 2019, the heater spun on a 1:30 axis. By fastball standards, that’s considered the “dead zone”. It doesn’t ride, and it doesn’t sink. It’s squarely in the middle. You can imagine a fastball with perfect 12:00 shape will ride super hard up in the zone. A fastball with 3:00 shape will sink and run down in the zone. 1:30, right in the middle, doesn’t have as definitive a shape.
So this is where he can improve.
This summer, Black has been closer to 1:50. You don’t need to be perfect by any means when throwing a fastball. 1:50 would play really well. This axis will really run in on righties and sink under their hands. He’s achieving 13-15 inches of horizontal break right now with that shape. It’ll certainly play.
But there’s a caveat.
For guys with a low release point, the general frame of thinking is you want shape with more lift up in the zone. If you’re throwing from that low of a slot, you can imagine how a pitch at the top of the zone would look. Tons of riding life.
The inverse exists as well. If you’re a guy with an extremely high release point, sinkers will have more perceived drop as they’ll be coming to the plate on a much steeper plane. Thus, a philosophy exists: Optimally, low-release pitchers will see more success with pitches with heavy ride. Conversely, high-release pitchers will see more success with pitches that run and sink.
As it stands, Black is caught in the middle. He’s an extremely low release pitcher that throws a sinking fastball. This certainly isn’t to say that won’t work. It’s just to say there’s different looks he could give hitters in the future. Kirby and Gilbert both possess fastball that really ride and eat at the top of the zone, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Black go in that direction as well, should he end up with Seattle’s pitching development program.
To his credit, Black has been working on a 4-seam heater with 1:00 orientation, though that is a work in progress. Should it become deployable, his stuff could explode into a whole different tier.
As it stands, you’re talking about a guy who throws a heavy fastball at close to 100 mph with good command. Regardless of how he plays with the shape, he’s going to find success.
The slider is a little more straightforward. Black just started truly throwing his slider when he arrived on campus and it’s really gotten better at every stage. He has an innate ability to spin a baseball. His breaking ball is ordinarily in the 2500-2700 range, certainly above average at the big league level.
As it stands, the slider has a good bit of horizontal movement, back lacks depth. It’s a firm offering at 83-86 mph. Ultimately, Black will go one of two directions with the pitch. On one hand, he could add velocity and bump the pitch into the 88-89 range, turning it into a stiff cutter. The other option is continue to work with his release point and wrist orientation to create more depth on the pitch. Because he doesn’t have a formidable curveball just yet, I think the latter is the most appropriate course of action for the time being.
Regardless of the direction he goes, his ability to spin a baseball, tunnel the slider off an already firm fastball, and command a breaking ball leads me to believe there’s an above average slider in Black’s future, maybe even plus depending on the direction of the development.
As it stands, Black’s changeup may be his best secondary offering. The feel and track record he has for the pitch is strong. His off-speed pitch has a ton of separation in the 82-83 range, though it currently lacks the conviction of the fastball and slider. The shape is good, but lacks the late break you see in most plus changeups at the next level. This is almost certainly a product of his grip and release, something that should develop in time.
In his own words, Black currently has a get-me-over curveball that isn’t yet a formidable out pitch. The offering hasn’t been deployed in-game. For this reason, given his ability to spin a baseball, we’ll say it’s a below average future offering, though that could obviously change. He could also end up ditching the pitch altogether.
If I had to place a bet on who the fourth college pitcher selected might be in the 2021 MLB Draft, I think Black would be as good a bet as any. The fastball is already super advanced, the body projects well, and the secondaries continue to progress. Black is slightly farther along/more advanced than Wake Forest’s Ryan Cusick in just about every way. So long as the health holds and the command is strong, Mason Black may very well be the guy Dipoto and Scott Hunter have circled on their very preliminary 2021 big board.