BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Some players are merely content with the direction of their careers and others may potentially achieve more than anticipated. Cleveland Indians pitching prospect Ethan Hankins falls under the latter distinction.
In his first month in the New York-Penn League, he ran roughshod over opponents, holding hitters to a .135 average and recorded a 1.25 ERA. At 19 years old, Hankins might already be one of the top pitchers in Cleveland’s farm system, while only scratching the surface of his potential.
“I’m not really surprised by my early success. I don’t hold any expectations for myself,” Hankins said. “I just try to go out there and do the best that I can. I’m out there trying to build and get better every day. I feel I’m in a good place right now mindset wise. My mindset is simply to compete. Any time I’m on the mound, everybody is on the same playing field and I think that contributes to my success.”
“There are countless guys in Double-A and Triple-A, the major leagues, and even here in Mahoning Valley that helped me with my mindset. I was literally an 18-year-old when I came into this, and a lot of the older guys helped me get into the right frame of mind and how to attack hitters. It’s been a lot of fun talking about pitching with guys I have been around working out in the offseason.”
A native of Cumming, Georgia, Hankins attended Forsyth High School and began cutting his reputation on the mound during his junior season, where he became the All-County Pitcher of the Year, striking out nearly two batters per inning. Other showcases, such as the 2017 Perfect Game Classic and the U18 World Cup where he helped Team USA earn a gold medal, cemented Hankins’ reputation.
His confidence grew and scouts began taking notice after he tossed three perfect innings at the 2017 East Coast Pro Showcase in Tampa, Florida facing the likes of future Boston Red Sox first-round pick Triston Casas.
“After my junior year, I knew I could possibly have a pro career,” Hankins said. “It was a whirlwind for me. I’m honored to be a part of all of it, but I think the U18 World Cup had the most meaning for me. It was a dream of mine to play on a USA team with USA across the chest. To win a gold medal was incredible. It was nothing short of how anybody would describe it. A true honor and something I will never forget.”
The ceiling seemed limitless for Hankins entering his senior season, but shoulder tightness early in the season limited his progression and impacted his MLB draft status.
The injury also caused concern for Hankins, who wanted to avoid risking potential damage. Taking a measured approach, he chose to rest his shoulder and gradually recover. The Indians selected Hankins with the final pick in the first round of the 2018 draft and gave him time to regain his strength before making two starts at the end of the season in the Gulf Coast League.
“I went to physical therapy after the injury to regain my strength,” Hankins said. “Even though it was my shoulder, I still worked out my legs and other areas. I really tried not to let the injury be a burden or anything that would slow me down, although I couldn’t pitch. I used that to fuel the fire because I was going to be back, and I wanted to finish off the season strong.”
A 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, Hankins has the look and tools of a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. When he pitched in high school, he showed different looks on the mound, but now sports a single, repeatable delivery. His fastball touches the mid-90s, but late movement in the upper half of the strike zone creates the appearance of higher velocity. Besides his fastball, he has a slider with a sharp break on the inside part of the plate to left-handed hitters, a curveball with downward action and a changeup.
“I kind of just dominate with my fastball and curveball and my other pitches,” Hankins said. “I have one set delivery, and I just try to modify it here and there. One of my focuses this spring was to incorporate my lower half, but nothing too major since I’m using the same delivery.”
Hankins’s mix of high-end offerings and sharp movement of his breaking pitches led to scoreless outings in three of his first four starts. But for Hankins to maintain his current pace, he’ll need to ensure that he can balance movement and command to avoid walks and extended innings.
Maintaining command of his offerings is one area Hankins hopes to address during his stint in the New York-Penn League.
“I build off my lower half as my foundation,” he explains. “It’s easy for me to pick my spots when I’m on the mound and use my slider and my curveball and start it in a certain spot, so I’ll know where it will end up in the dirt or wherever I want it to go. I still have a lot of work to do. I came a long way already, and I will just continue trying to build off of that more and more each time.
“I feel I have been able to use my fastball to my advantage a lot more. The Indians have taught me well when to use my fastball and what counts to use certain pitches.”
During their recent run of prominence in the American League Central, the Indians placed a premium on developing young pitchers to eventually compliment their existing core of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco.
The Mahoning Valley Scrappers helped execute the organizational philosophy by quickly developing Zac Plesac and Shane Bieber, who earned his first All-Star selection for Cleveland this season.
While Hankins might develop at a more gradual rate as the ninth-ranked prospect in the organization, he hopes to eventually join those pitchers in Cleveland and heed the lessons they learned with the Scrappers.
“Being able to see Bieber and Plesac’s fast growth through the system is awesome, and hopefully it will be the same for me and these guys (at Mahoning Valley),” he said. “We are all very focused, and while we like to have fun, when it comes to baseball, we are very knowledgeable.
“They give us all the resources to be great, and that puts guys like Bieber and Plesac where they are because of the resources given by the Indians, and we are looking to do the same.”