All last summer, prep righthander Ethan Hankins was dropping jaws with his explosive fastball-slider combination and advanced command. A bout with shoulder inflammation in February cooled his rapid rise, though. From looking like a top five pick, Hankins slipped to the point where some expected him to fall into the second round. However, the shoulder issue turned out to be a mild muscle strain with no apparent structural damage. While Hankins is just getting his full velocity back in recent weeks, a team in the top 10 is once again likely to reach a bit for Hankins because of his enormous upside.
ESPN’s Keith Law initially had Hankins ranked as the No. 1 overall prospect in the draft. However, Hankins’ stuff never fully returned this spring when the most eyes were on him, and with his senior season now over, he doesn’t have much in the way of opportunities to recover his stock. A team will need a leap of faith to take him top 10. However, it seems like there are still a few teams who won’t let him fall past that point. With a modestly strong commitment to Vanderbilt, he probably needs to be taken in the top half of the first round, or a team may have a difficult signing on their hands.
The Detroit Tigers have taken prep arms with two of their last three first round picks, but they seem unlikely to move off of Auburn ace Casey Mize with the first overall pick. If they do, it’s more likely in favor of a position player than for Hankins. Teams like the San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds each are rumored to be focused on positional talent, though a strong showing in team visits in May could tip the scales in Hankins’ favor. Either way, as his stock recovers, Hankins once again looks like he may not slip out of the top 10. There’s risk there, though probably no more than with any prep arm, and whoever selects him will land the most projectable arm in the entire draft class.
School: Forsyth Central High School (GA)
Draft day age: 18
MLB Pipeline prospect rank: 19
Previously drafted: N/A
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: RHP Ethan Hankins
If you were looking to build a pitcher from scratch, you would start out with the raw ingredients Hankins brings to the table. He is 6’6, 200 pounds of rangy, loose arm speed and extension, along with what appear to be excellent spin rates on both his four-seam fastball and breaking pitches. He has advanced command for his age, and already shows faculty at varying his delivery times to thoroughly abuse high school hitters. There is substantial refinement for a player who won’t even turn 18 for a few weeks, and is one of the youngest players in this year’s draft class.
Hankins has a long, fluid arm swing leading to a three-quarters arm slot, producing outstanding velocity and hop on his fastball. MLB Pipeline acknowledges that it hasn’t looked its best this spring, but still sees Hankins as having potentially the best fastball in the entire draft class.
When he’s 100 percent, Hankins has the best fastball in the 2018 Draft, sitting at 92-96 mph and reaching 98 mph with the promise of more velocity as he fills out his 6-foot-6 frame. Radar-gun readings alone don’t make his heater special, as it also has electric life and he can spot it to both sides of the plate, and he could dominate amateur hitters while relying almost entirely on his fastball if he wanted.
River Ave Blues gives a solid impression of how Hankins’ stuff faded this spring.
Since the injury though, Hankins has sat mostly 89-92 mph and his curveball hasn’t been quite as sharp. His command, which previously was very good, hasn’t been the same either. Hankins has a smooth delivery and he’s adept at messing with the hitter’s timing with quick pitches and delayed leg kicks, things like that.
Prior to the shoulder injury, Hankins looked like one of safest prep arms to come along in a few years. You don’t see such an electric fastball in a prep prospect with a plus breaking ball, changeup, and control for his level. If he rebuilds his arm strength as expected, a team taking him may have a 1-1 overall talent at a modest bargain rate.
Apart from his youth, Hankins didn’t have much in the way of weaknesses until the shoulder issue. His secondary pitches are still works in progress, but all project as above-average offerings as he develops and grows into his frame. Before the shoulder issue, Hankins command projected as above-average as well. He dominated older competition all last year, and one would expect that many teams picking in the top half of the first round will have Hankins in for a visit to see how his shoulder is rebounding and to get a better feel for the person. At this point it’s mainly about projecting a return to his previous form once he enters pro ball.
Judging by recent scouting reports, Hankins is much of the way back, making his draft stock one of the more difficult to project in this year’s draft. It’s difficult to believe he’s going to fall out of the top 10 with his velocity already back close to his previous form.
RHP Ethan Hankins (2018 GA) showing the velocity we saw from him this summer sitting 94-96/7 with plenty of angle and life to AS. Flashed 2 avg breaking balls in the 1st (74) CB (79) SL. #AnchorDown commit #MLBDraft pic.twitter.com/A8qMlhjNLT— Gregory Gerard (@GGerardPG) April 27, 2018
FanGraphs does post a cautionary note about Hankins secondary offerings, however. The plus slider he featured last summer was largely replaced by the curveball this year, and they don’t like it as much as they did the slider. Of course considering the shoulder issue, it’s hard to separate some of these grades from the healthy version of Hankins. Still, the ability to spin the ball is obvious, and these aren’t major concerns as long as Hankins has put his shoulder trouble behind him as it appears.
Draft position: first round, though it’s a volatile profile
In Baseball America’s mock draft from April 3, they projected the Atlanta Braves to select Hankins with the eighth overall pick. Hankins’ Georgia roots make this a reasonable bet, especially as they may be best positioned to see him regularly and gain insight into his recovery. FanGraphs, however, projects Hankins to go 31st overall as the first compensatory pick to the Tampa Bay Rays. As you can see, there’s a wide range of opinion out there, all regarding the injury risk Hankins might pose.
Commitments to Vanderbilt tend to be kept more often than other programs. If Hankins falls, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if he decided to attend college with an eye toward a potential return to top five status in the future. If Hankins has the all-clear from his doctors and his medicals check out, you can bet that another team will be willing to feel him out and potentially take him in the top 10 as a moderate risk/huge reward play that could pay major dividends with some patience.