Hancock, 24, was drafted in the ninth round of the 2011 draft which included Cory Spangenberg, Joe Ross, Jace Peterson, Austin Hedges, Matt Wisler, Burch Smith and Kevin Quackenbush. So far in his career he has shown flashes of becoming a very good major league pitcher with dominating performances in short-season Eugene in 2012 and Fort Wayne in 2013.
Last year in AA he missed substantial time with an arm flexor issue but this season he has been healthy and is having his best year.
Throw out his first start in Tulsa, and Hancock is 5-0 with a 1.47 ERA and a 40/17 strikeout-to-base-on-balls ratio. He’s second in the league in innings pitched and third overall in ERA.
We caught up with Justin to find out the reasons behind his success and his approach to pitching to Matt Wisler.
Whenever I have interviewed you in the past it has always been about been about keeping the ball down. However this year we’ve been reading reports about you touching the mid to high 90s.
Is that true?
Justin Hancock: For some starts, yes. Early on I was throwing the ball harder but also getting hit around some. Near the end of my time in the Arizona Fall League I started keeping the ball down with velocity and was doing better.
You’re big pitch has always been a moving two-seamer. Did the increased velocity add another dimension to your game in that you were able to change eye levels?
Justin Hancock: Keeping the ball down and making sink has always been what I am after. It also helped me that I started to see players more and could see their swings.
I was able to adapt more and get more outs.
Now is that more of an advantage to you if you see hitters than it is for them if they see you?
Justin Hancock: Oh yeah. It is a big advantage especially here because there are so few teams in this league. I saw some of these guys last year when I was here so I know them pretty well.
You would think that a hitter might say to himself that I know Justin likes to pitch outside and down, so I’m going to lead over the plate.
It doesn’t work that way?
Justin Hancock: I think it’s a bigger advantage to me. Now with my second time through the Texas League I am actually reading swings better and doing all of the preparation work that I need to do.
Can you talk a little about reading swings?
Justin Hancock: If a guy is late to the ball and hits it to the right side then I know if I throw another fastball he’s probably going to be late on that too. If someone has an open stance, then they probably want the ball inside and I am going to try to go out.
How long did it take you to pick up on that?
Justin Hancock: That is something that we really worked on in Spring Training. [Minor League Pitching Instructor Eric] Junge kind of took everyone aside and went over this.
He pointed out that you have to do this in the big leagues, so why not start now?
What have you liked that you have done this year and what do you need to improve upon?
Justin Hancock: I like that I am attacking hitters and keeping the ball down. My curve ball has been pretty good which is good because last year after my flexor strain I didn’t throw it.
Overall I like attacking hitters and where I am at.
Your walks are up higher than you would like?
Justin Hancock: I had two games which kind of screwed that number up. One was the first where I had six walks - which I have never done in my life. Also two starts ago I had five in Corpus Christi, so the rest of the time has been pretty good.
I think its all about stuff now.
You probably look at the numbers and say that you would like to see fewer hits and walks per inning but the big number to me is how low your ERA is.
You must really be performing when runners are on base.
Justin Hancock: I don’t think anyone has scored on me too much this year. I’ve had some home runs, but I think they were a little cheap. I think Joey Gallo got me in Frisco, which still annoys me.
Are you still a four and two-seam fastball pitcher, with the majority two-seam?
Justin Hancock: Yes and I also throw a curve, slider and a change-up.
How are you able to differentiate between the slider and the curve?
Justin Hancock: You start off a little higher with the curve, more at eye level. So its just a different compared to the slider.
I’ve also been throwing a lot more two-seamers away to righties now. So its a really good pitch for me. It’s all about eye levels and changing speeds.
How is the changeup?
Justin Hancock: It’s coming. I need to start throwing it more.
How tough is it to learn the change-up?
Justin Hancock: I think it’s a feel pitch. Somedays you have it and it’s great and other days you don’t. I throw a circle change which is what the majority of people throw.
So now we come to the Matt Wisler segment of the interview. After he was traded we exchanged texts and he wanted to ensure that I asked both you and Colin Rea about how your batting is progressing.
Two, if you were to go against Matt in a major league game what would be your “approach” to pitching to him?
Justin Hancock: [laughs] I got a sac bunt down and put a ball in play. So that is all that really counts. So the hitting is ok.
As for my approach to Matt, I might throw a curve the first pitch then blow him away with fastballs.
And of course I will smile and wave to him as I come off of the mound.