PHILADELPHIA -- Vic Black's daily routine at Triple-A Las Vegas always began normally enough, with a game of catch out on the field. Gradually, Black would move back, until he was standing on the first-base foul line. Finally he would take aim at the left-field scoreboard, making a few throws of over 300 feet.
Like many pitchers, Black swears by his long-toss routine, calling it a significant reason he has averaged more than 96 mph on his fastball since returning to the Mets this week.
That velocity, in turn, is what has transformed the Mets relief corps from one of baseball's worst groups to one of its best. With Black, Jenrry Mejia and Jeurys Familia now regularly manning the back end of games, Mets relievers entered Friday's play leading the Majors over the last week with an average fastball velocity of 94.0 miles per hour.
"If guys come in and they're just throwing hard, it's such a pain for hitters," Black said. "It just changes the whole complex of the way they approach their ABs. There's a lot to be said for velocity. A lot of guys are successful without it, but it gives them an extra variable to worry about."
The transformation has been striking. It was just last year that Mets relievers ranked 27th in the Majors in fastball velocity, as well as dead last in strikeouts and strikeout rate. This year they are in the middle of the pack in those categories, rapidly rising toward the top. In Thursday's win over the Phillies, Black and Mejia combined to strike out six of the final seven batters they faced.
"Everybody realizes it doesn't matter how hard you throw as long as you're locating," manager Terry Collins. "But when it's 95 and 98, it's hard to hit."
The key, for the Mets, has been youth. Relying on veterans Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth early this year, the Mets copied a blueprint they had used with little success in previous seasons. They have now scrapped that plan entirely, leaning on Black, Mejia and Familia for critical outs on a nightly basis.
"I know it's certainly been exciting for everybody to watch," Collins said. "Word spreads fast in this league. Certainly other teams are going to be anxious to see these arms, because everybody is."