Kent Emanuel Is Back in the News

Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re in the mood to contemplate, contemplate this: A college pitcher becoming the subject of a New York Times story, especially a story that was indifferent to his results. Kent Emanuel did it. In 2013, Emanuel, the Friday night starter at the University of North Carolina, became the poster boy for a watershed moment in amateur baseball.

North Carolina, the no. 1 team in the country heading into that year’s NCAA tournament, had a slapstick run to that year’s College World Series. The Tar Heels found themselves in a winner-take-all game against Florida Atlantic with advancement out of their regional at stake. I vividly remember watching this game on TV, the way Boomers remember where they were for the moon landing or JFK’s assassination. What looked like a pretty routine game got turned on its wear when Florida Atlantic scored six runs in the top of the ninth. The two teams traded crooked numbers in both the ninth and 12th innings before the Tar Heels won by submission, 12-11, in 13 innings.

To be honest, every NCAA regional weekend has at least one game that’s at least close to this nuts. Emanuel got in the news because when the wheels started coming off, UNC head coach Mike Fox emptied his bullpen the way no bullpen had been emptied before. By the time the dust settled, Fox had used seven pitchers, including all three of his weekend starters, both of his midweek starters, and his closer, Trent Thornton, now of the Seattle Mariners.

Emanuel got the worst of it, allowing five runs in 1 2/3 innings and throwing 50 pitches just a day after his last start. Emanuel got smoked in his super regional start, then came back to pick up the save in the rubber match. He made one more start in the College World Series — an 8-1 loss to Carlos Rodón, Trea Turner, and the NC State Wolfpack — before he was finally able to put his arm on ice.

Between June 1 and June 16, Emanuel made three starts and two relief appearances. Moreover, during that exhausting two-week span, the Houston Astros made Emanuel the first pick in the third round of the draft.

The focus of the Times article was the severe workloads top college pitchers could come under when their coaches were faced with the win-now pressure of the NCAA tournament. Emanuel became his generation’s Austin Wood (also referenced in the story), the cautionary tale of postseason overuse.

Emanuel’s lightning rod arm, of course, was attached to a human being, a well-regarded pitching prospect who turned 21 the morning after his near-calamitous relief outing against FAU. At the time, the Astros were still in the midst of their rebuild and targeting polished college pitchers who could move quickly. Emanuel, an athletic 6-foot-4 lefty, certainly fit with a team that had just spent its first pick on Mark Appel.

But after the ridiculous workload and diminishing returns of June, the Astros slowed down their development of Emanuel. He pitched four games in his first half of a pro season, all in rookie ball, and he spent the entire following season in A-ball. It didn’t make a difference; Emanuel started 2015 with a sore elbow and had Tommy John surgery a month into the regular season.

It took Emanuel a season to recover, and another three before he was pitching effectively again. But come the 2020 season, Emanuel, now 28, had just completed a full effective season at Triple-A. The Astros were having their worst season since 2014, and after Justin Verlander tore his UCL, were in dire need of pitching. Surely if Emanuel were ever going to get his shot, it’d be now.

And on August 6, Emanuel was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for dehydrochlormethyltestosterone. Which, based on the length of the word alone, you can probably tell is a banned performance-enhancing drug. Emanuel maintained his innocence, even choosing to wear no. 0 because that’s how many games he said he deserved to be suspended.

In 2021, he finally got his shot. The Astros called him up, and on April 24, Jake Odorizzi left the game after five pitches after tweaking his forearm. Emanuel came in from the bullpen and finished the game: 8 2/3 innings, 90 pitches, two solo home runs allowed, five strikeouts, no walks. And the win, as the Astros gave him 16 runs of support.

“I’ve been expecting this moment for quite some time now,” Emanuel said after the game. “So, I was ready.”

It was the longest relief appearance in the major leagues since 1988. The last pitcher to record more outs in his major league debut was Andy Van Hekken, who threw a shutout in his first start in 2002.

That one outing comprises more than half of Emanuel’s major league experience thus far. About a month after his debut, Emanuel tore his UCL again, and spent the ensuing 13 months recovering from internal brace surgery. In 2022, Emanuel ran off an impressive string of 10 starts in Triple-A for the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs — 2.37 ERA, 44 strikeouts, six walks in 49 1/3 innings — but the Phillies didn’t have a need for a starter. And in 2023, he changed teams again, and posted an ERA north of 6.00 for the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate.

Clearly Emanuel has been through a lot. He’s been overworked. He’s been suspended. He’s had both flavors of UCL surgery. He’s just missed out on playing for not one but two World Series teams. He’s had to play in the Pirates’ system. The whole works. At 31, surely he’s called it quits by now.

On the contrary. The Marlins just called Emanuel back up to the majors.

The first decade of Emanuel’s career has been a series of frustrations and near-misses. Forget second chances; this is basically his long-awaited first chance.

What will come of it? Well, Emanuel was pretty good in his previous major league cameo, allowing just five total runs over 17 2/3 innings. But that’s a limited experience from three years ago. Emanuel’s repertoire now is soft and softer: a sinker, a changeup, and a looping mid-70s east-west slider. In spring training, Emanuel threw 52 fastballs that were tracked by Statcast; the average velocity on those pitches was 89.9 mph, and not one of them hit 92.

But the Marlins are without four of their five best starting pitchers at the moment. They need innings, so much so that they’re willing to give Emanuel a shot.

That’s why you go through the trouble of rehabbing your second torn UCL. It’s why you have your agent lobby to find you work when opportunities thin out. It’s why you endure 11 seasons in the minor leagues, even after you only have a month in the majors to show for it.

Because if you hang around long enough, maybe you’ll get the call again. And maybe this time it’ll be different.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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StuSheamember
19 days ago

Mike Fox’ elbow, however, feels just fine.