Bullpen prospect Black says yoga has helped his pitching

Rob Biertempfel
| Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, 7:27 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Vic Black's fastball touches 100 mph and has enough movement to make batters step lightly at the plate. When he doffs his cap, it reveals a mohawk haircut. He describes his approach to pitching as “an aggression” — and smiles as he says it.

But this nasty-boy reliever who hopes to someday land a job in the back end of the Pirates' bullpen doesn't get his power from lifting weights. The difference-maker, Black said, is yoga.

“The only time I sweat is when I do yoga,” Black said. “Some people say yoga is too girly. Well, a lot of the stuff I used to think was weird, I'm fully sold on now — breathing and stretching.”

Black practices yoga four days a week in the offseason and fits in occasional workouts in-season. His routines include one called Metal, which focuses on core strength, and another called Fire, which is held in a room heated to 98 degrees with 60 percent humidity.

“It's like working out in a jungle,” Black said.

After being on a consistent yoga program for more than a year, Black said his flexibility has never been greater. The payoff is evident in his fastball, which is about 4 mph faster than it was when he was a supplemental first-round pick in 2009 out of Dallas Baptist University.

“If I don't do the yoga, I feel the difference in my body immediately,” he said. “And yoga has given me a chance to work on the breathing. If you don't breathe right, your performance is lessened, I believe. With yoga, you allow your body to work in one motion.”

Black made two starts for low-A West Virginia in 2010 then missed the rest of the season because of a shoulder injury. When he returned a year later, Black was converted to a reliever.

In 51 outings last year for Double-A Altoona, Black went 2-3 with a 1.65 ERA and 1.150 WHIP. He had 13 saves and averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

Black, 24, likely will begin this season at Triple-A Indianapolis. If he can master his control problems — he averages 4.7 walks per nine innings in his career — Black could project as a set-up man in the majors.

For much of last season, Black's out pitch was his slider. He has an over-the-top delivery, which gives the pitch so much sharp downward break that it's almost a hard curveball. He'll also mix in what he refers to as an “accidental cutter” that can catch batters off guard.

“I cut the ball sometimes, but it's by accident. I don't know why I do it. It happens about every third pitch.”

During a game last season, Black faced his friend Tommy Joseph, who plays in the San Francisco Giants' system. Catcher Tony Sanchez called for a fastball, and it morphed into a cutter. As the ball veered way off the plate, Joseph swung through it and Sanchez lunged as it sailed to the backstop.

“Vic keeps you on your toes,” Sanchez said, laughing at the memory.

Black's delivery has even more quirky motions than his cutter. He pitches exclusively out of the stretch. As he begins his motion toward the plate, he taps the ball back into his glove — like an outfielder before making a long throw — and finishes his delivery with a small hop.

“The glove tap is kind of unheard of, but it's a timing issue,” Black said. “Every pitcher has a timing trigger and that just happens to be mine. It also ends up screwing up the hitter's timing, so I'll take it.”

Black's unorthodox delivery, upper-90s fastball, darting slurve and hit-the-deck cutter make for a pretty tough package.

“It's not that tough to catch him, but I wouldn't want to be a hitter,” Sanchez said. “He has a lot of movement on the mound, so I can see how a hitter would be a little intimidated. It works. It gets guys out. They don't want to dig in and get comfortable.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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