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The whole deal with Emerson Hancock’s fastball

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Why there’s hubbub about Seattle’s top pick’s heater, and what will likely be done about it.

Sidespin, more like Diedspin
ESPN

Emerson Hancock is the highest-picked pitching prospect the Mariners have snagged in nearly a decade, and he is a doozy. Logan Gilbert and George Kirby have a multitude of exceptional characteristics, to say nothing of the many pitchers behind them in Seattle’s system, but in picking at No. 6 overall the Mariners were awarded a chance at a dominant college player with present characteristics in line with MLB’s top-tier pitchers. When 94-95 is a low-stress baseline for a pitcher, they have the capacity to dominate a game every time they take the mound, and that’s exactly what Seattle thinks Hancock has the potential to do for years to come. Still, there’s been one consistent area of concern with that fastball: it gets hit more than it should.

The Mariners have seen this at times from pitchers like Yovani Gallardo, or to a briefer extent, Justus Sheffield, where low-to-mid-90s fastballs play down for a reason or another. For Gallardo, it could’ve been any number of reasons: poor command, unintimidating offspeed, the creaking of his bones in a particular way tipping his pitches one way or another. For Sheffield, it’s something well-understood. His four-seam fastball spins far less than the average pitch of its velocity, and as the ball spins relatively slowly it fails to cut through the air resistance it encounters as well as other pitches of its ilk, and sinks instead.

ROOT

While this isn’t inherently bad, an increasing library of research (and prioritization by teams and coaches) suggests fastballs with something resembling pure backspin will lead to more swings and misses than those with less spin, or more diluted/side-spinning offerings. Moreover, pure “spin rate” isn’t all that matters. The way the ball spins in relation to its release, often referred to as “active spin”, is most impactful if the ball’s rotation in its flight matches its release angle. Active spin most notably manifests on four-seam fastballs with the aforementioned “pure backspin”, which are in vogue across MLB and the sport at large. The reasoning is rooted in physics: the closer a four-seam fastball gets to pure backspin, the more directly resistant to gravity it will be, and the more “carry” or “rise” it will have. More important than the minutiae, the more likely hitters will be to swing through it.

Baseball Savant has leaderboards for active spin, and sitting atop them for fastballs is Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young winner. On average, 98.5% of the spin Verlander’s fastball gets goes into directly supporting its flight path, with just 1.5% of the spin “wasted” and not helping the ball carry deceptively over the swings of batters expecting the pitch to drop. It’s insanely efficient, and allows Verlander’s already above-average fastball to be even more deceptive and dominant. So, when you read the words “pure backspin”, it looks something like this.

Sorry Omar
Baseball Savant

Despite having a well above-average spin rate in addition to his excellent velocity, Hancock’s fastball has been contact-oriented, either by dint of happenstance or design. His low-3/4ths arm slot lends itself to a sinking fastball, and that’s just what Hancock’s four-seamer has been. The slow-mo video of Hancock from the ESPN broadcast gave a perfect angle to highlight this situation:

Note the angle of release, from his elbow through his wrist.
ESPN

If you grab a wiffle ball and try to throw it like Emerson Hancock throws his fastball, that sucker is going to dive into the ground as it encounters air resistance at a sharp spike, and likely run to your arm side in the process. Actual baseballs don’t move like wiffle balls, but they encounter air resistance all the same, with less dramatic but still vital results. Hancock’s fastball has solid run, and a fair bit of sink, but neither characteristic lends itself as well as backspin to the glorious currency that governs MLB’s pitching economy: whiffs.

On the same broadcast, former FanGraphs scouting expert Kiley McDaniel alluded to this exact phenomenon. As he discussed Hancock’s comparatively “hittable” fastball, this graphic flashed on screen.

A nice, attainable comp for the second RHP taken this year.
ESPN

Oh! That’s fun! Beyond how nice Northwest Green looks rendered in that graphic, you can see clear as day the way Hancock might be seen as a font of untapped potential even now. The Mariners, then, have a task ahead of them: finding a way to maximize the immense talents of their already-successful first round pick without disorienting him from the processes that got him to where he is today. Hancock has lived low in the zone, as so many pitchers are taught to, and his excellent command has churned out magnificent K/BB numbers, albeit somewhat elevated hit rates.

Clearly, the Mariners believe Hancock has a set of transparent eyeballs in his noggin, as Mariners Amateur Scouting Director Scott Hunter has stated already:

The full quote, from Shannon Drayer’s article on Hancock, specifies one way they see bringing about those better outcomes:

“The pitch usage, where he puts his fastball, we expect a bigger uptick in his swing and miss,” said Hunter.

The implication seems clear: Emerson Hancock the Seattle Mariner will throw more high fastballs than Emerson Hancock the Georgia Bulldog. Building a better mousetrap isn’t an overnight process, but crafting Hancock’s already-excellent repertoire into one with a modern, high-spin fastball that can consistently hit the top of the zone or above should make him a force to be reckoned with. This is also where Seattle’s reputation of success in pitching development may begin to work to their advantage, lending the organization credibility with their young ace from the other side of the country.

Pitch design isn’t an exact science, and it requires Seattle’s coaching staff to earn and retain Hancock’s trust. A lack of rapport or trust at the big league level lead to issues with a few of Seattle’s veteran pitchers in recent years, but with younger starters like Gilbert, Kirby, Ljay Newsome, Juan Then, and even Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and Marco Gonzales at the big league level, they’ve made progress in establishing credibility, to say nothing of their churning bullpen prospect assembly line. Two weeks ago, R.J. Anderson of CBS Sports spoke with Hancock’s University of Georgia’s pitching coach, Sean Kenny, who mentioned the club was working with Hancock on these sorts of adjustments this spring, with Hancock understanding but struggling initially to alter his long-engrained tendencies.

“We were really trying to get him to understand his analytics and pitch to it. We were trying to get him to pitch up in the zone a little bit more, because it’s north of a 2,500 RPM fastball, which puts him in the top five, 10 percent in the big leagues. Trying to get him to use his high-spin fastball up in the zone ... that’s hard for a guy like him because he’s so good at pitching down in the zone where he wants it.”

Kenny expressed optimism that Hancock was getting more comfortable, but it’s no easy thing to alter over a decade of training.

I don’t expect Hancock to come out with a drastically different motion in a few months to a year, but I suspect Seattle works on subtler, more targeted changes. If Hancock can alter his wrist angle slightly at release even (far easier said than done), the axis of his fastball changes dramatically, but the M’s will want to ensure he doesn’t lose his command, velocity, or comfort with his other pitches in a different release. It seems clear the Mariners understand Hancock’s present, as well as their desired future for him and his fastball. The next couple years will tell us whether, together, they can make that future a reality and make good on this pick.