Every game is important. You're always the No. 1 starter on the night you pitch. Every starting pitcher everywhere knows those mantras and tries to live by them. But there's "every game," and there's starting on Friday nights in the Southeastern Conference, the deepest conference with the most hostile environments in college baseball.
Right-hander Emerson Hancock, the junior ace for the University of Georgia whom the Mariners selected with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, embraced the role as the Bulldogs' No. 1 starter and thrived in it. And that -- combined with his power arm, quality command and varied arsenal, of course -- explains why he was taken so high in the Draft.
"He genuinely wanted it," said UGA pitching coach Sean Kenny. "Genuinely thought he should be that guy. … He liked it and was comfortable with it. And I think the thing that separates him is the moment doesn't ever get too big, because he doesn't really look at it like anything other than an extension of his practice days."
Often, teams must choose in the Draft "polished" college pitchers with lesser stuff, or big arms with iffy location or incomplete pitch assortments. With Hancock, Seattle gets both -- not to mention Friday night experience and an impressive mound presence, fiercely competitive but unflappable.
"My dad always told me when I was younger you've got to be the calmest player on the field, being the pitcher," said Hancock, who is ranked No. 4 on MLB Pipeline's Top 200 Draft Prospects list. "And I kind of bought into that. But at the same time, there's a competitive and a fiery side that you have. You want to win. And so I've kind of had to walk that fine line, between being under control but also being locked in, being ready, being focused for every pitch."
To be sure, Hancock throws hard, sitting mid-90s and reaching the upper 90s at times. But his growth spurt and his power came on late, meaning he had to pitch before he could throw. Now he throws four pitches with confidence and command.
"I had to find a different way to get guys out without having that top-end velocity," Hancock said.
If there's a question on Hancock, it's the relative lack of strikeouts. He tallied 97 in 90 1/3 innings in 2019, his last full season. But that was starting to change this year before the season was cut short, as he'd amassed 34 K's in 24 innings over four starts. Kenny believes that's not an accident, and he sees more swing-and-miss in Hancock's future. He believes Hancock can miss bats with fastballs up in the strike zone.
"For a guy that's so used to throwing a bunch of strikes down in the zone because that's what his strength is, it was a little bit hard for him to train his eye that that's a good pitch," Kenny said. "And that's going to generate more swing and miss. And just being more confident to throw the changeup more, because that's a really good pitch that people haven't seen as much."
Hancock has already evolved quite a bit since he's been at Georgia. When he arrived, he had one breaking ball, a curve that Kenny recalls was "slurvy." Hancock has since added a legitimate slider and has worked on refining the curveball. He's a four-pitch pitcher now, and he also has the added size and maturity that come with time.
"I don't think I would have been ready [for pro ball] coming out of high school," Hancock said. "I was mature for my age, but I wasn't ready to take that next step and get ready to be an adult. At the same time, I really didn't realize the work that was required to put in to be successful."
Given how far Hancock has come in the past four years, it wouldn't be surprising if he maintained his upward trajectory. UGA head coach Scott Stricklin recalls that when he first saw Hancock pitch in high school, he wasn't even sure he could offer the right-hander a scholarship.
Then, toward the end of Hancock's time in high school, the power arrived. Suddenly, Stricklin said, Hancock went from that pitcher who might not be good enough for UGA to someone who might be a high draft pick.
"It happened really quick with him," Stricklin said. "And that's the exciting thing about Emerson, is just his upside is so big. He's got another jump in him. I really believe that he's going to be a guy that's going to take another tick up. He's still got a very high ceiling."