Mythology and sports have in common that they both have the effect of making our mortal existence feel a little more grand. Be it depicting us as the creations or companions borne of the machinations of the deific, or by the creation of companionship and competition among the closest to demigods that live among us modern mortals. Perhaps that is why it is so easy to reach into that realm of myth and metaphor as we attempt to frame those mighty mortals and their deeds in the sports we choose to follow. The Seattle Mariners community is no stranger to this, a previous trio of pitching prospects once notably evoking the moniker of Cerberus. Last year before his MLB debut, Emerson Hancock was cited by Kate Preusser as being one of three of a reminiscent mini-Cerberus that had been pitching for the Arkansas Travelers.
A trio of pitchers in Bryce Miller, Bryan Woo, and Emerson Hancock that were called up one by one, in that order, to fill in the ranks of the Mariners major league rotation as injury made that a necessity. The trio mostly accomplished their titular goal of keeping the Mariners rotation from reaching into the depths of Hades. Miller became a rotation mainstay most of the season, Woo as well but with a little more IL time, and Hancock filled the need Woo left when he was on the IL perfectly taking his turns in the rotation until he was healthy, only to then hit the IL the rest of the season himself. With a shoulder injury. Yes, that shoulder.
For those not in the know, Emerson Hancock came into the Seattle Mariners organization as the 6th overall pick in the 2020 draft with a lot of optimism tied to his profile. In the time since his pro career has been one noted by repeated injuries to the same shoulder, and peripheral numbers that have less than inspired, at least in comparison to his initial pedigree. Having finally reached the big leagues and having that path once again sidelined by the same shoulder is obviously less than ideal. The history is one of brief stints, and being shut down out of caution, but the repetition in the same area is still worrisome.
For what it is worth, reports not long after the injury were that it was just a shoulder strain with no tear or structural damage. He received an injection to aid in the healing process that in theory if effective, would have allowed him to recover quick enough to make the most of his offseason. Some worry can be alleviated with the nature of that last specific injury, but with so many injuries to the same shoulder in such consistent fashion, it has me wondering there is something in Hancock’s mechanics himself that his body refuses to tolerate, although I will leave further thinking on that to those more savvy at pitcher analysis than I am.
Up until the injury in August, Hancock put up mostly solid and consistent work in 2022. In AA, he had the occasional blow up game, four different starts where he gave up six or more runs, but he also had fifteen starts where he only gave up sixteen earned runs total across them. The work was impressive enough that he was called up to make his major league debut on August, 09, 2023 in a home game against the San Diego Padres. He would pitch two games going five innings each, and in his third game he only lasted the two before being pulled with injury.
In his debut he went for 5.0 IP, only gave up one earned run on two hits, allowed three walks, but issued three strikeouts. Hancock will at times struggle with his command, but has some good stuff on his pitches, and can generate some impressive whiffs when he does manage to find the desired location. He works a fastball/splitter combo that relies heavily on working the fastball up, a flashy slider, and a decent changeup.
His stuff was on display when he lured Fernando Tatis Jr into chasing the shadows on an inside pitch, his first major league strikeout.
Again, when he struck out Trent Grisham by dotting the outside edge.
And in almost the exact same spot he fooled Tatis, he managed to trick Ha-Seong Kim.
Of course, the issue does remain with the command, and that showed in more than just the three walks in his debut. In his second game, on the road against the Royals, he started finding too much of the zone which led to him giving up pesky contact. That pesky contact led to a run scored and the bases loaded, and that led to, well, this:
Hancock maybe found the bottom of the zone well enough there if he had found a corner, but that middle against a player like Bobby Witt Jr, with the bases loaded? Well, the phrase rookie mistake literally applies here. Ultimately, his twelve innings across the three games were too small of a sample size to pull much of interest metrically. One heavy mistake isn’t damning, and the strikeouts of even the big names he managed don’t necessarily mean much until he can prove it’s repeatable. Still, it is easy to see his path to that success when he’s catching Bregman looking and getting Alvarez to golf swing at a pitch way too low and inside.
On the character side of things, on two separate occasions Hancock shared his thoughts on his debut. First, the night of his first game. Again he spoke on his debut in an interview with Jonathan Mayo. It is worth noting that on both occasions he talked about giving his team a chance to win and wanting to show up for them, which you may chalk up to standard athlete speak, but he also spoke about learning from his teammates, and seemed humble about his journey above all else. Growth through perseverance, why, isn’t that the stuff of myth?
But perhaps the Cerberus myth shouldn’t apply. Not only is that an element of the Mariners past, it also falls short of a separate Greco-Roman entity I feel better fits the Mariners present. I speak of the hydra. The Mariners pitching development has mostly been notorious for their ability to churn out relief pitchers seemingly from nowhere, as if two would rise where one would fall, but their rotation strategy isn’t far off. Barring injury, Emerson Hancock will likely start out of spring once again in the minors, lined up sixth in the rotation behind a returning Miller/Woo in 4th/5h. Of course, Hancock in particular maybe embodies the hydra best individually: every time his shoulder is struck down, he has managed to rebirth himself and stay in the fight. Even the hydra couldn’t keep regenerating forever, and Hancock still has a long way to prove himself on the big stage, but in 2024 if a Mariners pitcher does indeed fall, it may be Hancock that rises in his place - and perhaps in his second labor, this time the hydra will prove victorious.