At 21, Emerson Hancock is enjoying life with the big club. The Mariners like the word their first-round pick from Georgia uses to describe his pitching style: “Attack.”
Given what the Mariners organization wants out of its pitchers, the words of Emerson Hancock must sound like poetry.
“I didn’t like walking people,’’ he said after a recent practice at T-Mobile Park. “Growing up, playing travel ball or playing in high school, my mentality was always just go right after people, attack.”
The approach might have been the biggest reason the Mariners took him with the sixth pick in the first round of the draft in June after a stellar career at the University of Georgia in his home state. He wants to attack, control the zone, be efficient — phrases right out of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s organizational sermon.
“My freshman year, it got a little erratic for me,” Hancock said. “I worked more than I should. It still wasn’t a very high number (of walks) but it just kind of got away from me. I knew that I was a better pitcher with commanding the zone and controlling it.
“It kind of really helped me that sophomore year and this past year.’’
Mariners scouting director Scott Hunter can’t be more thrilled.
“Not only is he a special player, he’s a special kid that is wired just like those other (top picks),’’ he said. “He cares about winning. He not only does things well on the field but off the field as well . . .
“He had an unbelievable track record in the SEC. We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to select such a special talent with the sixth pick.’’
A 6-foot-4, 205-pound right-hander, Hancock is just 21, but because of the tumult caused by covid-19, he finds himself grinding immediately with the big boys. Since the minor leagues were canceled, Hancock is one of the chosen 60 who began the journey Friday at a hastily arranged Summer Camp to see whether MLB can salvage a 60-game season from the wreckage of the pandemic.
“Up here in Seattle and going through Summer Camp with the guys, it’s an incredible experience so far,” he said.
A native of Cairo, Georgia – his father coached football and his mother taught speech language – he was a natural fan of the Atlanta Braves, with third baseman Chipper Jones and pitcher John Smoltz his favorites.
“It was so much fun to watch Chipper play,’’ he said. “I thought it was so cool how he was a switch hitter. It was really cool to watch as I grew up.’’
Batting and fielding, however, were not Hancock’s things.
“I always pitched growing up,’’ he said. “I didn’t know I would pitch in college. I just did it because I had a really good arm and I kind of grooved in high school. I got kind of less athletic in the field. I just kind of realized that, if I went to college, I’d have to learn how to pitch.’’
Hancock pitched so well in high school that the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him after his senior year. Fortunately for the Mariners, he chose college ball.
“I just decided that I wanted to go to college,’’ he said. “I had a visit (to the campus in Athens) a month before the draft and got to watch them play a series and got to meet some of the guys and just fell in love with the environment.
“Being a kid in south Georgia, I dreamed of playing at the University of Georgia and representing them in any way I could. I just needed to go to school and grow up mature and be thankful for the people who helped me there.’’
He struck out 206 batters in 192 career innings, including 34 in 24 innings this spring before the shutdown. He had a 1.99 ERA in 2019. His fastball is 94-97 mph and has a quality curve, slider and change-up.
Hunter thinks his change-up is the best: “A kid who throws in mid to upper 90s and has all four pitches and just doesn’t walk people, is really a special case in our minds.”
Mariners scouts watched him live and on video, with some saying he would go first in the draft. A rival scout told a reporter that Hancock was the 2020 class’s most polished pitcher.
“I was so impressed with him,’’ Hunter said about a January visit. “I spent about two hours with him. and our scouts talked to him on the phone. The maturity, and the whole person and player, is really remarkable….
“We targeted him. We didn’t think it was going to be a hard decision.’’
As any longtime Mariners fan knows, unfettered enthusiasm has been heard before about highly regarded young pitchers. The outcomes have been underwhelming for pitchers taken with top-10 picks.
Mike Moore was the No. 1 pick in the 1981 draft and reached the majors the next year. But he had losing seasons in six of seven years with Seattle, going 66-81 overall. He also was 9-19 with a 4.71 ERA in 1987. He signed with the Athletics after the 1988 season and in 1989 was 19-11 with a 2.61 ERA when Oakland won the World Series.
Bill Swift was the second pick in the 1984 draft. He was 30-40 from 1985-1991, with just two winning seasons – 7-3 in 1989 and 6-4 in 1990. He was traded after the 1991 season to the Giants, where he had a 10-4 record with a 2.08 ERA in 1992 and 21-8 with a 2.82 ERA in 1993.
Mike Campbell was the seventh pick in the 1985 draft. He was 8-16 in a couple of seasons before being traded to Texas. Brandon Morrow was the fifth pick in the 2006 draft and was 8-12 before being traded to Toronto in 2009.
Then there was Danny Hultzen, the second pick in the 2011 draft. Injuries derailed him, and he never reached the majors with the Mariners. He pitched three innings for the Cubs in 2019 and is on their 60-man roster.
Felix Hernandez was not part of the draft, but was signed at 16 as an international free agent in 2002. He became arguably the best Mariners pitcher, winning the Cy Young Award in 2010.
Mark Langston was drafted in the second round in 1981 and had an excellent career before he was traded for Randy Johnson, who was even better and now in the Hall of Fame.
Hancock, however, has nothing to do with that mostly dubious draft history. What he does have is a $5.7 million signing bonus and a room with a view in a Seattle hotel, from where he sees the future in incremental bits.
“Just learning the ropes and trying to find a new routine that fits me, and just kind of utilize all the resources we have here,’’ he said. “Going through that learning curve of meeting people.
“I’m very blessed for the Mariners believing in me.’’
Asked when he thought he would reach the majors, Hancock said, “I’m not going to put a time frame on it. Just really be with some people who really help me develop, and committed to help me in any way possible.”
The Mariners have enough slightly older prospects in line that Hancock almost certainly will be assigned to the 30-man taxi squad when the MLB season is scheduled to begin July 23.
He’ll likely spend August and September playing intrasquad games. Unless the Mariners, by some inexplicable good fortune, feel the need to go on the attack.