'He's The Best:' Georgia's Emerson Hancock Rises To Join College Baseball's Elite
On June 10, 2017, Georgia hired Sean Kenny to be the program’s new pitching coach. Kenny had coached with his home-state program, Michigan, for five years and coached the pitching staff to impressive success.
In his final season, the Wolverines went 42-17 and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 3.46 team ERA and a .231 opposing batting average. It was a strong hire for the program.
But two days later on June 12 the Bulldogs would get another strong addition to the team’s pitching staff. One that—at the time—Kenny had no knowledge or awareness of. While the majority of the baseball world was excited to see who would get selected during the draft, Georgia was excited to see who wasn’t taken.
Cairo (Ga.) High righthander Emerson Hancock had a chance to go early.
A 6-foot-4, 175-pound pitcher who also played shortstop for his prep team, Hancock then had a fastball he could get up to 96 mph, and showed impressive arm speed and better than average feel for a changeup. Scouts dreamed on his upside, and while there were at least a few scouts who thought of him at the same caliber as Valdosta (Ga.) lefthander DL Hall—the industry had more questions about Hancock.
So, the No. 164-ranked Hancock slipped to the 38th round while the No. 16-ranked Hall went in the first. Hall’s professional career would start immediately. Hancock would have to wait a few more years.
For Georgia, that was just fine.
With his coaching transition, Kenny never saw Hancock as a high schooler. But he knew he was special even before putting eyes on him.
“I got hired at a time when he wasn’t playing summer baseball so I didn’t have a chance to see him,” Kenny said. “I talked to him on the phone and you realize, first of all, that the makeup is off the charts.”
Kenny could tell that Hancock knew pitching at a deeper level than many incoming college freshmen.
“Just mature, articulate, he’s also extremely respectful,” Kenny said. “It’s always yes sir and things like that. But just really well thought out responses and you can tell he’s been raised right and is just extremely bright. Just an easy conversation.
“But then I got to see him in the fall obviously, and he’s always had fastball command. And his breaking ball was developing.”
What Hancock didn’t have was strength. He was still tall and lanky, and his curveball was inconsistent because it lacked the power necessary for hard, biting action.
Fortunately one of the biggest benefits for Georgia baseball players is their access to strength and conditioning coach Ryan Gearhart. After three years hitting the weight room with Gearhart, Hancock added plenty of power to an already polished game.
“Our strength guy is unbelievable,” Kenny said. “It’s almost to the point where we can count on 15 to 25 pounds on all of our freshmen. Emerson put on, I think he has put on 20-25 pounds since he’s been here.”
With more strength, Hancock added a more firm slider to his repertoire and his curveball—which Kenny saw as more of a front-end, get-me-over pitch for a strike—became a legitimate wipeout offering.
“The biggest differences for me have been I get to work with coach Kenny and coach Ryan Gearhart every single day,” Hancock said. "That’s in the weight room and that’s down here on the field and when you get to work with (Kenny and Gearhart) and bounce ideas off of them and trust in them and buy into them I think some really good things can happen.”
Baseball America Prospect Report—August 12, 2021
A trio of 2020 draftees turned in dominant starts, Matt McLain homered in his High-A debut and more.
It didn’t take long for those good things to translate to the field. Hancock stepped into a full-time starting role as a freshman and toed the rubber for 15 games. His peripherals were more impressive than a 5.10 ERA suggested, with 75 strikeouts (8.69 per nine) and 34 walks (3.94 per nine) in 77.2 innings of work.
“Now you’re stronger so your arm is moving faster and now you’re firing through the breaking ball a little bit harder than you ever have in your life,” Kenny said.
Hancock took things to an entirely new level as a sophomore, posting a 1.99 ERA—the best mark for a Georgia starter since 1977—and finishing as a semi-finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. He was fully tapping into the potential that scouts saw glimpses of in high school.
Now entering his third season with Georgia, Hancock is ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect in the country, and one of a handful of favorites to go with the first overall pick of the 2020 draft.
This spring, Hancock is still working on adding to his game. But now that he’s got plenty of strength and a 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame that allows him to hold his stuff deep into outings, he’s focusing on refining an already strong aspect of his game.
“(He’s been trying to) use that fastball and elevate it a little bit more,” said head coach Scott Stricklin.
“He’s so good down in the zone and his command is so good, but to elevate that fastball a little bit … You can elevate a fastball if you can throw a breaking ball. So I think that’s something he’s working on, he’s learning to trust it a little bit more. He’s never had to do that, but it’s almost like adding a new pitch to the arsenal so that’s a little bit of a work in progress.”
Hancock could continue pitching down in the zone with his fastball like last season, and likely have the same success. But his baseball career won’t end in Athens, and he’s looking to add the wrinkles to his game that will help him in pro ball.
“He’s so talented that he can get people out the way he wants to at times—not always—but maybe (this) will help him get deeper into the lineup without showing them everything.
“The kid is unbelievable. He checks all the boxes.”
Georgia has also been thrilled with Emerson the teammate, on top of Emerson the pitcher. After a disappointing start to begin the 2020 season, Hancock didn’t hang his head and think about how his draft stock would be affected. That’s not the sort of person he is.
“Emerson was on the top step, cheering on the guys,” Stricklin said after his four innings of work against Richmond during week one. “That’s the kind of teammate he is. That’s why he is going to be so good because he’s unselfish.”
That leadership role has affected younger players on the team who are following in Hancock’s footsteps. In the case of Saturday starter Cole Wilcox, he’s following pretty closely behind as a draft-eligible sophomore with a chance to go in the first round with his teammate this spring.
Wilcox said his routine and his habits have been heavily influenced by his rotation-mate.
“Emerson has definitely been a big influence on me once I got here,” Wilcox said. “He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. Obviously you don’t just back into the success that he’s had. He’s definitely earned it. You see how he goes about his week. Just super detailed, whether it’s watching film, whether it’s stretching, getting some extra reps into lifts—he’s just always super focused on what he does.”
That focus will be there every week for Hancock this season when all the eyes of the MLB scouting community are on him. There won’t be a pitch he throws this year that isn’t watched by an evaluator, looking to nitpick and critique every little detail about his game.
But Hancock has proven that he can perform in the biggest situations. Shutting down some of the best SEC offenses as a sophomore was when Kenny realized that Hancock might really have a chance to be the first pick in the draft.
“I think it was probably halfway through last year when I just realized he doesn’t ever throw balls. Everything is a strike. And the moment never gets too big for him,” he said. “We’re playing Vandy, we’re playing LSU—all the best of the best, and he seems to like it. And you know facing Vanderbilt that that’s one of the better offenses, maybe ever in the history of college baseball last year, and he handled them and made them look uncomfortable. And now you’re thinking OK, this guy might be as good as anybody.”
And while Kenny admitted that he could lack some context at times thanks to being around Bulldog players 24/7, he didn’t hesitate when asked if Hancock was the best talent he’d ever coached or been around.
“He’s the best,” he said. “And I won’t say it’s not close because that’s unfair. But I think, total package, he’s the best—no doubt.”