The baseball cliché says you can never have enough pitching. For the Mariners and their past three drafts under director of amateur scouting Scott Hunter, they’ve amended that trope to “you can never take enough talented power pitchers out of college in the first round.”
Holding the No. 6 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft — their first top-10 pick since 2014 — the Mariners on Wednesday selected right-handed pitcher Emerson Hancock out of the University of Georgia.
“With Emerson, we’ve targeted him from day one, and we couldn’t be more than happy and thrilled to get a player like this,” Hunter said. “This is a kid that just fits into everything we are doing.”
The Mariners thought they might not get their target when Baltimore stunned the draft by taking outfielder Hjeston Kerstad with the No. 2 overall pick, throwing their projected picks askew.
“There was a moment where we said, ‘Oh, what could happen here? Could someone take Emerson at three or four?’ ” Hunter said. “And that’s where we were really probably a little nervous, but once we got through the fourth pick we started talking with his adviser to make sure that we can land him with the sixth pick. It’s been exciting. It’s easy to dream on Emerson Hancock because of the person, but also the ability to work ethic.”
Hancock expected the Mariners to take him if he was available. He’d had multiple meetings with Hunter and understood their interest.
“I thought it was perfect,” he said. “I thought it worked out just the way it all was supposed to. I’m very blessed for the Mariners believing me, and it’s great. Now I’m ready to get to work.”
It was the third consecutive year the Mariners have selected a hard-throwing college right-hander with its first-round pick. The run began with the Mariners taking Logan Gilbert out of Stetson University with the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft. Last year, the Mariners drafted George Kirby with the No. 20 pick out of Elon University.
If you throw in lefty Justus Sheffield and right-hander Justin Dunn, touted prospects that are expected to be in the rotation this season, and recent high draft picks Isaiah Campbell and Brandon Williamson, the Mariners have a cadre of young starters in their minor-league system.
“Three years ago, I remember saying not only do we want players that have great ability that can impact on the field, but off the field as well — players that are wired a little different,” Hunter said. “This kid (Hancock) is definitely that. Not only is he a special player, he’s a special kid that is wired just like those guys. He really cares about winning, and also doing not only right on the field and off the field.”
Gilbert, the club’s top pitching prospect, is expected to make his MLB debut during the 2020 season, when/if it starts after being shut down because of coronavirus concerns. Kirby is considered on the fast track to the big leagues, though the minor-league season being shut down is a hindrance.
Hancock is considered more talented than both of them.
“Attack hitters; I go right after them,” he said of his pitching style. “I don’t like to walk people. I try to be efficient with my pitches. I want to go long into the games. Really for me, I just might keep going right after people. I don’t like to try to get into deep counts, I get ahead on people and like to try to put them away.
“I love to compete. People can see some fire every now and then coming out of me, but that’s just kind of who I am as a pitcher.”
He has fastball that touches 99 mph and comfortably sits at 95. His spin rate on that fastball averages around 2,500 RPMs. By comparison, Astros All-Star Justin Verlander has an average spin rate of around 2,500 RPMs on his fastball while averaging 95 mph.
Obviously, Hancock has a long way to go to be Verlander, but the raw talent comparisons have been made. His best secondary pitch is a sinking change-up that generates swings and misses from both sides. He has a plus slider thrown around 80 mph that needs refining, and an improving curveball — the weakest pitch in his arsenal.
“We also went over his just pure pitch usage,” Hunter said. “He actually throws so many strikes that if we start using his fastball in different areas of the zone, we expect an even bigger uptick in his swing-and-miss rates.”
As a high-school star in Cairo, Georgia, he was regarded as a first-round talent. He increased his standing while with the Bulldogs, succeeding in the always-tough Southeastern Conference. When he was dominating hitters as sophomore last season, most scouts and analysts projected Hancock to be the first player taken overall.
He went 8-3 with a 1.99 ERA in 14 starts, which ranked eighth-best in Georgia history. Over 90 1/3 innings, Hancock struck out 97 and issued only 18 walks. Opposing hitters batted just .185 against him. He allowed one run or fewer in nine of his 14 starts as a sophomore, including four games in which he did not allow a run. He did miss two weeks during the 2019 season with what was labeled a minor lat strain.
Entering the 2020 season, there were massive expectations for Hancock. But he struggled in his first outing of the season against Richmond and in his third outing against Georgia Tech, allowing a total of 10 runs on 17 hits in 9 2/3 innings. He threw 14 1/3 shutout innings with 20 strikeouts in his other two outings.
With the rest of the college season canceled due to the spread of the novel coronavirus in mid-March, Hancock never got a chance to remove any doubts. Hancock, who turned 21 on May 31, was still 2-0 with a 2.75 ERA in four starts during his junior season with a team-best 34 strikeouts to just three walks.
As often happens with projected No. 1 picks, questions about his lack of a high-level breaking pitching, and his arm slot not generating enough swings and misses with his fastball despite the velocity, began to permeate.
That benefited the Mariners, who at the start of the season felt Hancock wouldn’t be available.
“I think the biggest thing for Emerson was the expectations were so great going into the year after what he did in 2019,” Hunter said. “I mean this was a kid that was going to go 1-1. It’s almost very similar to how Logan Gilbert got here. He had a couple of so-so outings. Next thing you know, Logan Gilbert, who’s supposed to go in the top five picks falls to us at 14.”
The draft was shortened to five rounds because of financial losses caused by the pandemic. The first round was held Wednesday, and the rest of the draft will be held Thursday starting at 2 p.m.