Ethan Hankins has one of the highest ceilings in Cleveland’s pitching pipeline. The 6-foot-6 right-hander possesses a first-round pedigree — he went 35th overall in 2018 — and a heater that sits mid-90s with late life. Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel ranked him 15th in Cleveland’s system last year. Moreover, he’s wise beyond his years. Still just 19 years old, Hankins is studious enough about his craft that he could reasonably be referred to as a pitching nerd.
Hankins split his first full professional campaign between Short-season Mahoning Valley and Low-A Lake County, logging a 2.55 ERA and fanning 71 batters in 60 innings. No less impressive are the strides he’s continued to make between the ears. The former Forsythe, Georgia prep may have bypassed Vanderbilt University to sign with the Indians, but his quest for knowledge has by no means waned. Influenced heavily by his off-season experiences at Full Count Baseball, it continues unabated.
Hankins discussed his cerebral approach, and the improvements he’s made to his repertoire, late in the 2019 season.
David Laurila: Is pitching more of an art, or more of a science?
Ethan Hankins: “The game we’re playing right now, with all the analytical stuff we have access to, and use — especially with the Indians — it’s starting to become more of a science. I feel like it used to be more an art. Even a few years ago. But it’s been growing into something that can be called a science, because of the average velocities, the spin efficiencies, true spin, 2D spin, 3D spin. There are all of these numbers that can be beneficial if you know how to use them in the right way.“
Laurila: It sounds like you lean science.
Hankins: “Yes, but that’s not because the Indians have thrown it in my face. It’s because I’ve taken to learning how these numbers can benefit you. Granted, the Indians help a lot. They obviously have all of this knowledge. But not everybody uses it. We don’t get pressured to use it.”
Laurila: How do you use it?
Hankins: “There are a million different ways that… oh gosh. I’d say that I’m using it to develop my offspeed, more than anything. My curveball has made a huge jump over the past year. I don’t credit that solely to the Rapsodo, or any of the other technology we have access to, but that does give you a lot of insight. It tells you, ‘This is where you are.’ From there, you’re able to say, ‘OK, I want to be here; I want this pitch to have this much efficiency. This is the direction I want.’
“The information is really valuable, but you have to be very careful with how you’re using it. You have to figure out what works for you. If you see that your numbers are this, but you want them to be that… you may not be heading in the right direction. You might be overthinking it, because while your numbers aren’t good on paper, that pitch might be getting a swing-and-miss nine times out of 10. The pitch you think you want to throw might get a swing-and-miss three times out of 10.”
Laurila: That said, how do you go about making the data actionable? Wanting to improve something like spin efficiency, or spin axis, isn’t the same as actually doing it.
Hankins: “There are different mechanical changes, different tweaks, and it’s not all your upper half. Your foundation is your bottom half. Your bottom half can make you go a lot of different ways with your arm. For me, it’s been that lower half — my load on my back side — that’s really increased the depth on my curveball. I’ve been able to get on top of it more. I’ve been able to throw it harder, because I’m more structured, more directional to he plate.
“It’s also a matter of consistency. It’s hard to be perfectly consistent, especially at this level. So it’s almost a mental cue thing. It can be, ‘I want to be here with my hand,’ Or it can be, ‘My arm needs to be a little bit more on top.’ You might recognize that your front shoulder is flying open, causing you to miss arm side. Making little tweaks can make a huge difference.”
Laurila: Have you increased the spin rate on any of your pitches?
Hankins: “Technically, yes. But that’s not really a goal. I’m not trying to rip 3,500 revolutions per minute, or anything like that. As long as I’m able to make my curveball break as much as I possibly can, and have it mirror my fastball — be able to tunnel them off of each other — that’s the end goal. I want to have a fastball that rises, and a curveball that goes straight down as much I can make it go straight down with my low-three-quarters arm slot. That’s my natural slot. I’ve pretty much been chilling there my whole life.”
Laurila: How are you balancing tunneling and break? Increasing one can often decrease the other.
Hankins: “It’s kind of just having that feel for a fastball. It’s thinking ‘fastball, fastball, fastball,’ knowing what you have to do when you get to the point where the ball is flying out of your hand. It’s impossible, according to science, to… there is no release point. You can’t control where you release the ball. The ball just naturally flies out of your hand. You can adjust where your arm wants to be when the ball flies out, but if the ball wants to fly out of your hand, it’s going to fly out out of your hand.”
Laurila: Have you had an opportunity to talk to Trevor Bauer?
Hankins: “I haven’t, although I’ve talked to Cody Buckel a lot. He’s good friends with Trevor, and talking to him is like talking to Trevor. He’s really big into Driveline. I’ll ask him a question, and we’ll go on that question, build off that question, for 30 minutes to an hour. Cody is an extremely smart guy when it comes to pitching and pitch design. Everything along that line.”
Laurila: Have you been to Driveline?
Hankins: “I haven’t, but back home we have our own system, our own program, which is kind of like Driveline. It’s called Full Count, and I’ve been going there since my sophomore year. A lot of guys in North Georgia go there, including a bunch of big-leaguers. We have access to a lot of the same things I have with the Indians. There are a lot of great baseball minds there that have experience with Rapsodo, Edgertronic… everything. I actually work there in the off-season.”
Laurila: In what capacity?
Hankins: “I work with kids — younger kids, high school kids — trying to pass along the knowledge I’ve gained over the years, including from the Indians. We do weighted balls. We do… I mean, it’s essentially the same type of goals they have at Driveline. Everybody wants to throw harder —- everybody wants to throw gas — but we want to develop guys as pitchers, not just to throw hard. We talk about making pitches better, and how to pitch. Like what to look for with guys’ swings. If he’s late on a fastball, what do you do? Pitching is more than just throwing hard.”
Laurila: What have you topped out at?
Hankins: “I’ve been up to 98 this year, but I’m not worried about top velocity. What I want is to maintain my velocity from the first inning throughout how many I go that day.”
Laurila: What about your spin rate?
Hankins: “I’ve been between 2,600 and 2,700. I get ride, but because I throw from a lower arm slot it’s not a consistent ride. You have guys like James Karinchak who throw from up here [a high arm slot] and get like 30 inches of vertical ride. It will look like the ball is skimming the ground, but really, it’s up in your eyes.”
Laurila: What are you throwing besides a four-seamer and a curveball?
Hankins: “A changeup, which I feel is my best pitch when it’s on, and a slider. My slider is a pitch I’ve been working on, but not working-on-working-on. That’s because my curveball was further along when I first got drafted. They were like, ‘OK, we’re going to focus on your curveball.’ My slider is going to come along once I get more feel for it. I need to better understand what to look for with ‘my slider.’
“Different guys are different. Like Chris Sale. His slider is big and sweepy. He can make it slower, or he can make it faster. I don’t have that type of feel yet. I also don’t want mine to be like his. I want mine to be more of a Verlander slider — short, sharp, and 86 [mph]. Almost like a cutter, but with depth. Short and sweet, with just enough to miss a barrel.”
Laurila: You said your changeup is your best pitch when it’s on. What’s the story behind it?
Hankins: “It’s a circle change, and Trevor Hoffman taught it to me. Honestly, he didn’t even mean to. It was during the Perfect Game All-American game. I was throwing a bullpen, and he was standing there. He said, ‘Is that a changeup?’ I was like, ‘Yeah; it’s not very good.’ He goes, ‘Why don’t you try to throw it like this? This is how I threw mine.’ I said, ‘OK’ So I did, and it went straight down. I was like, I’m going to stick with this.’
“It’s progressively gotten better and better. It’s to the point of beyond words that can explain how happy I am with it. That’s something I’ve always wanted to throw, but it had always been like a BP fastball. It was 83-84. Now it’s like 88-90 with good depth. Sometimes it gets classified as a sinker.”
Laurila: You said it’s a circle?
Hankins: “Yes. There’s nothing all that funky about the grip. I just let it roll out of my hand like a regular circle changeup. There’s not… like if I over-pronate, I tend to fly open. It’s kind of like a mental thing where I’m trying to break it more, which isn’t what I should be doing. Your arm naturally pronates. It turns over that way, so when I over-pronate, it just sails on me. I miss really bad. You don’t want miss really bad. Right?”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.