Tuesday, December 9, 2014

An Interview with Astros LHP Kent Emanuel

I caught up with Kent Emanuel last week by phone. He was in North Carolina, finishing up the last of his classes toward getting his degree in Kinesiology before heading home to Georgia for the holidays. In his first full professional season, the third round 2013 draft pick started out with Quad Cities, but was quickly promoted to High A Lancaster in early May. Lancaster is not without its challenges for pitchers, but Emanuel faced those challenges head on and more than held his own in the process.

Kent Emanuel - September 2014
Photo by Jayne Hansen

As is normally the case, my first question had to do with Emanuel's pitch repertoire. He throws a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, slider, changeup and a forkball. His fastball ranges from the high 80's to the low 90's touching 93 at times; his changeup and curveball are in the lower 70's and his slider and forkball are in the upper 70's. When asked what his best pitch was, he simply replied, "I can throw anything whenever." Of the forkball, he told me, "It's a very funky pitch. It kind of knuckles and tumbles and gets a downward movement. It's very funky."

Speaking of "funky," I asked him about the Baseball America draft report on him that claimed Emanuel's "funky delivery" was effective, but might end up costing him some velocity in the long run. He responded, "It's not really something that I've worried about. Typically, when it comes to mechanics, I think the big two things are making sure you're not killing yourself, that you're able to stay healthy and the other is just being able to control your body and be able to throw strikes. I've never had a probalem with either one of those two things so it's not really something that I've worried about too much. In terms of velocity, there are some things that I'm always trying to change a little bit, but it's nothing crazy. It's just a little tweak here and there in terms of driving off or rotating off, nothing that's really going to be a significant change in my mechanics."

In terms of what Emanuel feels as though he accomplished in 2014, he replied, "We won the league. That's by far and away the biggest accomplishment of the season. Personally, I felt that I really pitched better at the end of the year than I did in the middle of the year, but I would be remiss to say that I didn't think I pitched very well. I know I definitely did not meet my expectations and that's something that I'm definitely going to be changing this next season."

Following the 2013 draft, Kent Emanuel merited national attention due to his workload for the University of North Carolina during the College World Series. After signing with the Astros following the World Series, he was used sparingly in the Gulf Coast League, pitching only nine innings in his first season. In 2014, he pitched 124 innings and when I mentioned that he seemed to have bounced back nicely from any possible overuse, he said, "There was never really anything to bounce back from. I would be lying to you if I said I ever felt any problem with my arm.  My arm felt great always. I'm sure Rodney [Linares, Manager of the Lancaster team] would be one of the first ones to tell you that I think pitch counts and inning limits are pretty much irrelevant. It's all dependent on the person. I've never had any issues. I don't plan on ever having any issues. I take a lot of pride in taking care of my body and my arm so that's something I hope will continue throughout my career."

When asked about pitching at The Hangar, the home ballpark of the Lancaster JetHawks, Emanuel's reply came quickly, "I hate it. If we're being honest, I do not like pitching there. That's for sure." I noted that Emanuel's home/road splits certainly told different tales for his season as he had a 2.62 ERA and a 0.977 WHIP on the road, and a 7.21 ERA and 1.672 WHIP at The Hangar. Emanuel said, "I always liked it when we got lined up so I pitched on the road. I think a lot of that has to do with how I pitch. A lot of people assume that I get a ton of ground balls because I don't throw 96, but that's not the case with me. My success is really based on getting hitters off their timing and I get a lot of fly balls with that, especially with my changeup. I think that leads to splits like that, when you see those numbers at The Hangar compared to numbers on the road."

While The Hangar is an infamously hitter-friendly ballpark with the wind often blowing out to right field at a fierce clip, the wind was reportedly not as much of a factor in 2014, at least not until later in the season. But according to Emanuel, it's not just the wind that makes The Hangar a difficult place to pitch, "I think what a lot of people overlook is that it's not so much the wind in terms of home runs, but the outfielders have to play all the way back and the field is huge. They try to compensate for those long balls and it just leaves a gigantic outfield full of space for balls to land. I think that's a bigger reason to the offensive output you see out there than the home runs themselves."

What does Emanuel feel that he brings to the table as a pitcher? "I think it would be just competing and giving my team a chance to win. I think that's one of the greatest compliments I can receive and that's one that I've gotten from about every coach that I've played for. It's not so much about flashing, throwing 98 and getting all the strikeouts, but every time I'm out there I give my team a chance to win. I think that's one of my strongest suits is just competing and just going after it when I get out there and attacking hitters."

Emanuel has one of the best (if not the best) pickoff moves in the Astros system. (During the 2014 season, he had 12 pickoffs; 10 runners stole bases while he was on the mound and seven were caught stealing.) He told me, "If runners try to steal second off me, it's definitely a gamble when they're just trying to guess and gamble and go on first movement. Typically the catchers hate me when it comes to the running game because if someone does go and I don't pick them off, chances are they're going to be safe because they're gambling and going first movement, but not a lot of guys run on me. That's typical, though. Usually I get a lot of pickoffs early and then people kind of realize what's going on and I don't get as many pickoffs, but I limit guys trying to take second base which is obviously a big deal. It helps me out a lot."

We then segued to questions about some of his fellow Astros minor leaguers. If he could steal a pitch from one of his fellow pitchers, "I would say either Lance's [Lance McCullers] curveball or I would say straight up Vince's [Vince Velasquez] fastball, low and away when he docks it up at 97 with two strikes. That would be a lot of fun to be able to do."

As to which hitter he would least like to face, "Tony Kemp, no doubt. That dude did nothing but impress me playing with him. I played against him twice in college in the World Series my freshman year, but I never got to pitch against him. I didn't really know much about him. Obviously, when you see him, little guy playing second base, you don't know what to expect. Then I got to be teammates with him. That dude is certainly a gamer and he just gets after it and gets it done. I would definitely not want to see him in the batter's box if I had the choice of someone else."

When asked what fielders he liked having behind him when he pitched, Emanuel's first selection should come as no surprise, "Carlos [Correa], no doubt. That's beautiful. I've played in high school, in travel ball, and my shortstop was incredible and in college, I had great shortstops. It was to the point that I didn't think I could see much better, but it certainly is a luxury having him behind you. The things he does out there ... it's beautiful. That's just the way to describe it. It's beautiful watching him play shortstop.

I would say Tony is the other one. I love playing with Tony. He's such a competitor, such a gamer. That's the word I would (use to) describe (him) ... a gamer. He's just so much fun to be around. It's a blast. Especially when I had both of them playing behind me at the same time. That was great."

Emanuel had a hard time narrowing down the list when I asked him who on that Lancaster team made him laugh. "That's most of the team. We had a fun bunch. Kyle Westwood made me laugh, but he didn't mean to make me laugh. Brian Holmes is up there too. Zach Morton ... he cracked me up. Honestly, I could go down the list ... most of the guys from Lancaster. They're just a bunch of goofballs. It was a blast. They definitely made the season infinitely better. There's no question."

One of the highlights of Emanuel's young professional career was the opportunity to pitch in the postseason as Lancaster advanced to and ultimately won the California League Championship. In 12 postseason innings, Emanuel was 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA and a 0.917 WHIP. Of the experience, he told me, "It was a blast! It's great playing games where it's not so scripted. Especially when we have the piggyback system. Guys are going to get their work in, but come postseason, it really is all about winning the game and that's definitely the best way to play the game, going out there with the only goal (being) to win, just having the intensity taken up a notch.

(During the season), you come to the field one day and it would be like, 'Alright, I've got five innings. No matter what, after the fifth inning, I'm being taken out and someone's coming in for four. And if that doesn't work out, this guy will throw no matter what. Everyone's going to get their work.' (But in the postseason), just to come in and, 'Hey, you have the ball. We're going to ride you out until either you reach a pitch limit or you're giving up runs.' And it's all hands on deck in the bullpen. It's definitely the way I would prefer playing the game."

Kent Emanuel - September 2014 Playoff Appearance
Photo by Jayne Hansen

And if he couldn't play baseball? "If I wasn't playing baseball, I'd probably be playing college hoops still. I played basketball in high school and I almost didn't go to UNC because I was considering playing both sports in college. It's definitely something I miss and I love and I'd probably be playing basketball if it wasn't for baseball. I'd definitely be involved in sports. There's no doubt about that."

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Thank you for your time, Kent. Good luck on your finals and best of luck in the coming season.

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