Emerson Hancock’s presence was daring. He set his eyes on an opposing hitter and nearly everyone watching in Foley Field could pinpoint what was coming, including the batter who waggled his bat with nothing but hope. It then became a four-step process: a wind-up, 96 mph pitch dotting the corner, swing-and-a-miss and a trudge toward the dugout with the infamous shrug to express a puzzling demeanor.
Hancock, Georgia’s Friday night starting pitcher as a sophomore, grew up idolizing a professional who carried many of the same qualities. Justin Verlander, a 36-year-old grizzled hurler for the Houston Astros, could hit triple digits in his hayday and had opposing Major League hitters wondering how to make contact. He was (and still is) untouchable.
At an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), Hancock was Verlander-esque. He threw 6.1 innings in a one-hit effort with a career-high 10 strikeouts. And nine of those strikeouts came in three innings which had the aforementioned four-step process on repeat.
That’s not to say Hancock is a Cy Young winner, nevertheless, he’s trying to invent his own style.
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“He is Emerson Hancock,” said junior outfielder Riley King, who is amazed at the depth of Georgia’s pitching staff and regarded it as one of the nation’s best. “He is just one of a kind.”
It led to an expected result as ninth-ranked Bulldogs (6-0) beat the winless River Hawks 6-2 (quite the mascot, and it might’ve one-upped the Dayton Flyers from a weekend ago) on Saturday to fuel a series sweep. Georgia handled Sunday’s doubleheader with 13-5 and 12-5 victories.
“I did a pretty good job of getting ahead, and I thought that helped,” Hancock said. “I was able to get to 0-1 on those guys and mix in some off-speed.”
Hancock has earned two starts in the young six-game season, and will receive many more as the Bulldogs’ frontline arm. His freshman season was surrounded by ample chatter. There were many who knew that the Cairo native could bring his Southwest Georgia-bred velocity (and drawl, for that matter) and translate it into production collegiately.
He’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t the smoothest of first-year campaigns, and the statistics back it up. Hancock was one-of-three weekend starters, because his potential flashed to Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin and pitching coach Sean Kenny, who leads the sophomore’s development. But the 5.10 ERA was an alarming number and an unsteady command (34 walks, led the team) in 2018 was a contributing factor.
“Your body gets tired and everyone goes through a rough patch, and that experience gives perspective as you go through your sophomore year,” said junior shortstop Cam Shepherd, who saw a performance increase in his second season. “That tough time can motivate you.”
Those shaky starts didn’t come without strong ones, though. Hancock had three seven-inning starts and a shutout performance to open his Georgia career. It gave him a taste of potential, and now it’s translated into consistency and emergence into a true ace. His ERA is without flaw at 0.00 and has allowed three hits through 13 innings.
His improvements are result of his progressions over the summer, which took an atypical route from his teammates. He didn’t play in the Cape Cod League or join his friends in the Coastal Plain League with the Macon Bacon or Savannah Bananas. Instead, Hancock put about 20 pounds onto his frame and went to work during fall practices. That method checked out.
Now, Georgia has solidarity atop its rotation. There were questions around the staff’s stability in recent years, and Hancock provides an answer. He’s not a mid-tier pitcher in the SEC anymore, but one who instills fright in those who stand 60-and-a-half feet from the mound and brings dominance (although Hancock does it humbly). He’s shown upper-echelon qualities, similar to that of Alex Faedo and Brady Singer, former Florida pitchers whom Stricklin called “imposing” and were first-round picks in consecutive MLB drafts.
Hancock fits the mold, and that’s starting to be seen. He is ranked as the fifth-best prospect for the 2020 draft according to Perfect Game after being drafted in the 38th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017 and declining earlier selections to honor his Georgia commitment. Hancock is the third-best college prospect on the list and the second-best pitcher — behind Tommy Mace … from Florida, if you didn’t already guess.
“He’s certainly talented enough to be (my best pitcher),” Stricklin said. “He has a long way to go and that’s the exciting thing about it.”
Hancock concurs with his coach that there are plenty of ways to make improvement. His most-evident need thus far is pitching through fatigue. It’s early in the season and it takes time for a pitcher to become acclimated to a workload, and that showed as UMass Lowell made fairly-consistent contact in the fifth inning.
It was a surge led by two walks and a single — Hancock’s lone hit allowed — while there was a tangible dip in velocity. He escaped the inning with a highlight play from second baseman LJ Talley, but it gave the Bulldogs a reference point on where to make improvements. Some of those include adding more weight and refining a new cutter-like pitch which has a velocity in between his fastball and curveball.
“He has a huge ceiling,” Stricklin said. “He had some failure (as a freshman), and that’s a good thing. We almost have him for two more years.”
If Hancock’s season narrative is led by performances similar to his first two starts, Georgia knows what it will be getting: A pitcher who can cause troubling times for opposing hitters and many at-bats without a sniff of bat-to-ball contact.
Kind of like that guy Hancock idolized back in the day.
“They haven’t been able to hit it, just because he’s been pounding the zone so well,” King said. “He throws for strikes and you can’t ask for more.”