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Emerson Hancock looks to take his game to the next level

The big righty from Georgia has had a bumpy road to the majors, but he’s getting a chance to prove he can be a consistent force in the Mariners rotation.

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers minor leaguers Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The third member of the mini-Cerberus that made up the Arkansas Travelers starting rotation in 2023 has been summoned to the bigs. First it was Bryce Miller, called up to replace Robbie Ray; then Bryan Woo filled in for Marco Gonzales, whose status remains unclear with a mysterious nerve issue; now, in an inception moment, Hancock will serve in the place of Woo, who is headed to the 15-day IL with right forearm inflammation. John gave you a scouting report on the mechanics and stuff you can expect to see from Hancock when he makes his debut later today in his newser about the call-up, in which he also mentioned that Hancock’s 2023 season has been “somewhat confounding.” Let’s dig a little deeper into the confoundedness, and what Hancock needs to do to un-counfound things.

Hancock was actually drafted a year earlier (and much higher) than either Miller or Woo, but had a couple of disadvantages: first, he was drafted in the heart of the pandemic, losing out on both his junior year and valuable developmental time. He also carried a significant college workload at SEC powerhouse Georgia. Woo pitched 69.1 total innings at Cal Poly; Hancock pitched more than that in his freshman season, en route to 120 career IP for the Bulldogs—even with pitching just 24 innings in the pandemic-shortened season. (Miller pitched close to that total number of innings, but his workload was more spread out, as he wasn’t a starter in his first two seasons.) That heavy workload, along with the difficulties of training during the pandemic season, caught up with Hancock in pro ball, as he missed about a month in his 2021 season and then was shut down early at the tail end, and then suffered a lat strain prior to the 2022 season that slowed him again.

Finally healthy, Hancock has been a workhorse for the Travs this season, faithfully taking the ball every fifth day; he’s already tied his innings count from last season in Arkansas. He’s also made it at least five innings in 14 of his 20 games, allowing three runs or fewer each time. Unfortunately, the exceptions are, in the words of AGM Justin Hollander, “short and loud.”

However, most of the damage has been contained to about three or four innings; meltdown innings, certainly, but nothing that concerns the Mariners long term, at least not to hear Hollander describe it.

“I think a lot of those innings—it’s really probably three total innings this year—have been more of a cluster luck or bad luck issue, where it’s been some soft hits, some ground balls that got through, some bloopers, and then when someone does get the big hit, it happens to be at the tail of of the soft hits, the ground balls that got through.”

Be that as it may, there’s definitely some trouble of Hancock’s own making in these bad starts combined with the poor cluster luck.

Hancock’s first tough start of the year came at the end of April, when in a game against Frisco, he allowed nine runs and only made it three innings. The trouble started with a couple of runs in the second on a walk, double, and wild pitch. But the big damage came in the bottom of the fourth, and was as Hollander describes: a ground ball single followed by a solidly-struck double, then another two singles on a seeing-eye ground ball and a parachute fly ball. Hancock then walked top Rangers prospect Evan Carter, and followed that up with a grand slam to fellow top prospect Luisangel Acuña (since traded away for Max Scherzer).

This start is maybe the easiest to write off as bad cluster luck and a Big Bad Inning, especially considering the heavy-hitting Frisco lineup, boasting at the time three of the top ten Rangers position player prospects, including top prospect Evan Carter. But it would set up a series of events where Hancock would log two or three solid starts before struggling again, a frustrating lack of consistency for a player on his third season of facing Double-A hitters.

Hancock bounced back from that dismal late April start with a strong start against the Dodgers affiliate, shutting out Tulsa over five innings, but opened May with another tough start against the Cardinals affiliate. Hancock only gave up three runs, two earned, but the damage could have been much worse, as he walked the bases loaded before giving up a ground ball single that wound up being a bases-clearing single thanks to some sloppy play by his defense, and was pulled with one out remaining in the first for his shortest start of the season. The pattern continued over May, with Hancock logging a couple solid starts and then seemingly taking a step back.

There’s a common thread to each of Hancock’s blowup starts: walks. In each of Hancock’s poor starts through June, regardless of how many innings he’s gone, he’s issued at least three free passes. While it’s true he’s suffered from poor cluster luck, with batters sneaking ground ball hits past an occasionally porous infield defense (or infield, full stop, given some of the field conditions during heavy rains in the Texas League), he’s also made his own bad luck by struggling to command his stuff at times, even as he’s shown pinpoint accuracy at other times. Confounding!

Hollander has compared Hancock’s stuff to Bryan Woo, given that both make their living on the fastball up in the zone, but Hancock’s trajectory so far reminds me of an attenuated version of Logan Gilbert’s 2019, where Gilbert rocketed from Single-A all the way to Double-A in his first full pro season. While Gilbert never struggled with his command quite as intensely as Hancock has at times this season, both pitchers have arsenals with pitches that move a lot. (One of my favorite moments was eavesdropping on the catchers at spring training the year after Gilbert was drafted standing around in the bullpen comparing notes on how much his stuff moved. One minor league catcher who speaks primarily Spanish simply fluttered his hand like a bird taking flight in an elegant yet accurate depiction.) Part of Gilbert’s development was—and has been—learning to harness that movement, to command his pitches rather than having his pitches command him.

The movement on Hancock’s stuff was on full display in the 2022 Futures Game, when he pitched arguably the most dominant inning by any prospect in the game, maybe with a little extra bit of oomph from the adrenaline of the bright lights.

That zip has been much more muted in Arkansas this year, with Hancock—when he’s at his best—sacrificing some velocity for more consistent command of the zone, getting batters swinging at the top rail on his fastball or chasing after his changeup. It’s not the top-of-rotation starter profile that many dreamed on when the Mariners drafted him fifth overall—less dominant, more crafty—but the Mariners are happy with where Hancock is right now, with Hollander saying the current version of Hancock is “the best we’ve ever seen him since we drafted him.”

“His ability to make the ball move in different directions really makes him special. He does a lot of the same things that Bryan [Woo] does in terms of the two fastballs, a really good changeup, and he’s got the two different breaking balls as well, really keeping hitters guessing on which way the ball is gonna move and also being able to go back and forth with hitters.”

Hollander also says the team isn’t worried about the occasional stinker of an outing from Hancock this season, noting how much Hancock improved after that spate of tough starts in April and May.

“I don’t think there’s a ‘controlling the damage’ problem with Emerson,” says Hollander, pointing out there’s been almost no one better in the Texas League over the past month to month and a half. And that’s not just like, his opinion, man: Hancock was named Texas League Pitcher of the Month for June, and was one blowup start away from a repeat in July (also the only poor start of his where he walked fewer than three batters, so an outlier in several ways).

“He’s really carved up the Texas League, and done it over the past month in a dominating fashion,” says Hollander.

“He’s definitely ready for this.”