TACOMA — As the smoke cloud began to overtake the South Puget Sound late Friday morning, making the scenery beyond the walls of Cheney Stadium into hazy outlines and air quality the equivalent of the feeling of licking an ashtray, it seemed like the long-awaited sight of Emerson Hancock pitching to batters might be delayed once again.
But because he had steadily built up to this moment since reporting to the Mariners’ summer camp July 1 and was throwing only a one-inning live batting-practice session, Hancock still made his much-anticipated “debut” before the intrasquad game scheduled for the day was canceled due to poor air quality.
“It felt good to get back there and get that adrenaline going,” Hancock said. “It’s been a while.”
It was the first time he’d pitched to hitters since March 6 against the University of Massachusetts, his last outing for the Georgia Bulldogs before NCAA baseball was shut down due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Facing infielder Noelvi Marte and outfielders Taylor Trammell and Alberto Rodriguez, Hancock displayed hints of that talent that made the Mariners feel like they got a steal selecting him with the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft out of the University of Georgia.
Hancock’s fastball sat around 95-97 mph with a biting breaking ball at 78-79 mph and an outstanding change-up with nasty, fading movement to the arm side at 85-87 mph.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto sat in the unoccupied scouts’ seats of Cheney watching Hancock intently.
“The stuff is awesome,” Dipoto said via text message. “I was particularly impressed with how polished the change-up looks.”
Hancock said his feel for pitching was missing due to the layoff.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It was really hard to get a feel for that. That’s just something you have to work on. It’s not an excuse. I was just so happy to get back out there and get some adrenaline going, face some hitters, and we have lots of stuff to work on, but I’m taking some positives away from it.”
Hancock pitching off the mound against hitters is the main positive considering COVID-19 ended the 2020 minor-league season before it started. Wanting to have Hancock get familiar with their programs, the Mariners invited him and three other 2020 draft picks — outfielder Zach DeLoach and infielders Kaden Polcovich and Tyler Keenan — to be part of the 60-player pool and participate in summer camp and continue to work out at the alternate training site.
“I’ve just been able to learn, and I think that’s the biggest thing going in is just kind of learn from all these guys and there’s so many good players,” he said. “Within the first week of being a Mariner, I get to be at T-Mobile Park and I get to be across the locker room from (third baseman) Kyle Seager. I mean, it’s just an opportunity a lot of people don’t get.”
After his college season was shut down, Hancock returned home and waited for the MLB draft. Besides a round of golf, it was all he could do.
“During the shutdown I tried to stay in shape as best I could be as soon as the season was over,” he said “I tried to throw about four or five times a week, and I was lifting at least three times a week, but we just didn’t really know what was going to happen next. I tried to get myself in the best shape possible.”
In June 2019, he was considered a possibility to be the No. 1 overall pick. His stock dropped slightly due to a couple of shaky outings to start the 2020 season, the Mariners were happy it did. So on June 10, the first day of the delayed and shortened 2020 draft, the Mariners couldn’t make the No. 6 pick fast enough when Hancock was available.
It was the third consecutive year they’ve taken a college pitcher in the first round, giving them a stable of young power arms.
They invited him to summer camp and had a throwing progression in place that would’ve seen him face live hitters much earlier in the delayed minor-league season. However, Hancock’s arm didn’t feel great coming out of his first full bullpen session of summer camp. Given the starts and stops of Hancock’s year, the Mariners didn’t take chances.
“He felt tender after hitting it too hard in his first bullpen session back in summer camp,” Dipoto said via text. “As a result we shut him down and have exercised an abundance of caution in building him back up slowly.”
Hancock’s throwing progression for his college season started before December to build up for a season starting in February. He was at full go when NCAA baseball, and really all of sports, shut down. The dialed-back throwing during the shutdown and then trying to pick it back up again in a professional setting is just not normal.
“Whenever we ended it was heading into the first weekend of SEC play,” he said. “That’s when you’re primed and in your best shape possible heading into that season, and you shut things down and then you try to get things going back up. But this has worked out pretty well.”
He was patient through the process, starting over after the setback and building himself back to this point.
“The process has been great,” he said. “I can’t thank the trainer and our coaches here enough for just kind of putting the work and time that they have into me.”
Hancock wasn’t certain of his next outing. But if he follows a path similar to George Kirby, the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2019, then an inning in an intrasquad game would be next.