Is Now The Right Time For The Mariners To Call Up Emerson Hancock?

I always find August to be the most interesting time in a baseball season. It’s also often the most frustrating. When you hear about the “dog days of summer” in reference to baseball, this is the time that’s being referenced. Early-to-mid August through the end of the month; this three week (or so) stretch. You’re past the All Star Break, you’re past that stretch run in July where every game fells like life or death because of the impending trade deadline, and you’re a little bit beyond that deadline, where you see a little boost from whatever moves you ended up making (to either add to your big league club, or from minor leaguer call-ups after subtracting from your big league club).

It’s also, critically, before the stretch run in the month of September, where playoff spots are won or lost.

These are the hardest games. Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s at least a little banged up. The weather is fucking miserable. And, lord help you if the scheduling gods have thrust an extended road trip upon you.

I don’t know how to search for this – or if the information even exists to someone like me (without going through every single season and doing the math for 40+ years) – but anecdotally it feels like the Mariners fucking stink in the month of August. Like, more than most teams. I’m sure I’m way off base and we’d find them somewhere in the middle of the pack, but I think it’s actually a pretty safe assumption given how mediocre the Mariners have been for the duration of their history. Nevertheless, I always dread this stretch of August, because bad things always seem to happen.

Is it any coincidence that the greatest collapse in Mariners history – a 15-14 defeat in Cleveland in 2001, when we had a 14-2 lead going into the bottom of the 7th inning – happened right around this time (August 5th)? I will always believe that was a turning point in our 116-win season, that ultimately led to an unceremonious ouster in the ALCS.

Anyway, I find this particular stretch, in 2023, to be more interesting than almost any other in my time following the M’s. Obviously, we all know what’s happened so far this year. The Mariners were supposed to be playoff (and even divisional) contenders, they got off to an absolutely mediocre start, and have only in the last month and change clawed their way back to respectability. The job isn’t done yet – not by a long shot – but the Mariners are just now starting to resemble the team we all expected them to be.

It’s an interesting time because of what we did – or didn’t – do at the trade deadline. We kept our everyday lineup mostly intact. There were a couple of addition-by-subtraction moves in jettisoning Pollock and Wong, along with a couple of We’ll See additions of Canzone and Rojas (who, for now, are largely on the fringe of regular playing time, mixing in with the group we already had in place, rather than getting extended looks). What’s happened is what was obvious to everyone: the M’s were only going to start winning more often when the core guys started hitting more often.

But, maybe the most important thing is happening as we speak. We’re at a crossroads, so to speak, when it comes to the back of our rotation.

We lost Robbie Ray after his first start of the season. We lost Marco Gonzales at the end of May. We lost Chris Flexen to ineffectiveness. That, in turn, opened up two spots in the rotation that were filled by AA call-ups Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo. As has been pointed out by the Seattle Times, among others, they’re both nearing their innings limits. Miller is at a combined 106 innings, after throwing for 133.2 last year. Woo is at a combined 99 innings, after throwing only 57 last year (he’s coming off of a major arm injury in 2021). I don’t know what the upper limit is for these two guys, but I get the sense it’s fast approaching. The Mariners are all about working guys up slowly, to hopefully prevent long-term damage, which is the right thing to do, but a bitter pill to swallow in a playoff chase.

The tough part is: there’s no veteran help coming anytime soon. Ray is out for the year. And we have no idea when Marco will be able to throw again; he very well also might be done. We have Tommy Milone – a Quad-A guy in Tacoma at the moment – and that’s pretty much it as far as guys with Major League experience.

Enter Emerson Hancock.

It’s not totally clear what the plan is at this point. We know that Woo was placed on the IL with a forearm strain, so probably Hancock is taking Woo’s spot for now. My hope is that the M’s are fudging the numbers a bit, and this is just an excuse to give Woo some healthy rest, without needing to make a more serious move to free up a spot on the active roster.

Assuming that’s the case, what’s the plan for when Woo returns? Are the Mariners going to move one of these young guys to the bullpen? Are they going to go to a 6-man rotation for the next few weeks/the rest of the season? Some combination of the two (a 6-man rotation, then convert one or two to the bullpen at season’s end)? Anything could be on the table.

My main questions for today are: is this the right move? Is it the right move for the Mariners? And is it the right move for Hancock’s professional baseball career?

Hancock was selected in the first round of the 2020 draft. He pitched most of 2021 in Everett, before a late call up to AA Arkansas. Then, he spent the entirety of 2022 in AA (with, I believe, some injury issues limiting his availability), and so far in 2023, he’s spent a comparable amount of time (0.1 fewer innings in 1 fewer start) in AA, working on things and growing as a pitcher.

In that sense, he’s probably ready. The Mariners, for their highest-rated prospects, like to call them up directly from AA. It makes you wonder why they even have a AAA team in the PCL, if all the stadia are so bad for pitchers/good for hitters, but the allure of having the Tacoma Rainiers right there in your backyard (for IL purposes, as well as hopefully-temporary demotions to work on things or get heads right) should be obvious to all.

I like to look through game logs in cases like these, where a highly-rated prospect is invited to The Show. Just looking at a stat line might be deceiving, unless the numbers are so blazing hot they’re undeniable. Hancock, at first blush, doesn’t look like a dominating AA force (4.32 ERA in 98 innings across 20 games), but that doesn’t tell you everything. Before his most recent outing on August 2nd (5 innings, 3 runs, on 6 hits and 2 walks, with 7 strikeouts; nothing to sneeze at), he was on fire: 20 IP, 1 ER, 8 hits, 2 walks, 19 K’s across three starts.

Cause for concern: in the start immediately preceeding that stretch, he was knocked out in the second inning, after giving up 9 runs on 9 hits, with 2 walks and 2 K’s. But, by and large he’s been mostly good this year, especially since the beginning of June. And, again, not even the game logs tell the full story, because we don’t really know what the team was asking him to do. Maybe he was told to focus on his secondary pitches, to get them up to snuff (knowing his fastball and control would play anywhere).

In the first two months of Woo’s season down in AA, he wasn’t anything spectacular. He was fine, but the starts tended to run short (almost certainly by design), and the results were up and down. But, apparently he’d mastered whatever it was the Mariners wanted him to work on (at least, well enough to get the call-up once Marco went down), and that’s all that mattered.

Similarly, with Bryce Miller, he wasn’t setting AA ablaze in the month of April. He had one good start, and even that was limited to 5 innings! So, you know, it’s impossible for someone like me, outside of the organization, to make any sort of educated determination on a pitcher’s readiness.

I would say Hancock is at least as ready as Miller or Woo. Maybe more! He has far and away more innings logged in AA than Miller and Woo combined. We’ll see how it translates to Hancock’s performance with the Mariners – especially in the dog days of summer, in the middle of a playoff race – but I can’t argue with decision, knowing what we know.

So, we’ll see if this is the right move for this year’s Mariners. I would think, going forward, this experience will be invaluable in the years to come. Either Hancock ingratiates himself as a permanent member of this rotation, or he turns himself into an even more valuable trade chip this offseason, in the event we find a deal for a quality bat. He’s never going to reach his fullest value as a trade prospect until teams see him pitch at this level. You have to believe – with Ray returning next year, and with one more year of Marco under contract – that the Mariners will be trading one of these young arms (as loathe as we are to think of it) in the offseason.

But, as I said before, for 2023, it’s either Hancock or Milone. Milone can get called up anytime; he’s not going anywhere. He’s a known quantity. You like him as a spot start guy in an emergency, but there’s diminishing returns the more exposed he becomes to Major League hitting. Hancock, on the other hand, has vastly more impressive stuff, and he’s a bit of a mystery. Here’s hoping that plays well in the short term, to give us a much-needed boost in this oh-so-critical time of the season.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *