The cleats are bright and garish, the right one blue and patterned with stars and the left one red and striped, giving the player an American flag on his feet. Ethan Hankins got them when he played in the Under Armour All-American Game in late July alongside the best high school baseball players in the country.
He wore them on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-August to long-toss with Forsyth Central teammate Greg Wozniak. He was at the Bulldogs’ field, but Hankins wasn’t at school earlier, and he wasn’t going to be there for the rest of the week, because his summer on the diamond isn’t quite over yet.
Heading into his summer schedule, Hankins was already one of the main names for scouts to follow, a lanky, athletic pitcher with a mid-90s fastball and the ability to control it exceptionally well. What Hankins has done in the busy circuit of showcases and tournaments, though, has improved his stock even more, making him perhaps the best high school pitching prospect in the country.
That’s what Baseball America pegged Hankins as in a mid-July list, putting the right-hander behind shortstop Brice Turang as the No. 2 overall player in the class. MLB.com’s Jim Callis slotted Hankins narrowly behind North Oconee pitcher Kumar Rocker when asked the question in a recent mailbag piece.
And Hankins himself won’t commit to the label – he knows that there’s still much to be decided at this stage.
“I mean, there’s a lot of competition,” he said. “It depends on really what you look at. I feel like me and Kumar talk about all the time about how my fastball command blows his out of the water, and I talk to him about how his curveball puts mine way in the dust.”
Hankins might not be so far behind with that pitch, though, which has been one of the major successes of this summer. During the spring, his breaking ball was firmly in “slurve” territory, a pitch with neither the large break of a curveball nor the fastball-like look of a slider.
But now that Hankins has committed to throwing the pitch like a fastball, making sure his arm speed doesn’t lag when he throws the curveball, it has hard vertical break, rather than the short horizontal movement from the spring.
That pitch was a key to Hankins’ three-inning appearance on August 3 in the East Coast Pro showcase. He threw two of those pitches to Elijah Cabell, one for a swinging strike and another to catch Cabell looking for a strikeout, and whiffed another batter on the curve. A week and a half later, at the Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego, Hankins showcased the pitch again, throwing it to open the at-bat against Nick Northcut and again to get the swinging strikeout.
The East Coast Pro outing could be the one that most sticks in scouts’ minds from this summer. He didn’t allow a runner to reach base and struck out the first six that he faced, cutting down hitters with a fastball, curve and changeup.
“That was the best outing of any pitcher in the high school class this year that scouts have seen,” BA draft writer Carlos Collazo said of Hankins’ East Coast Pro appearance.
Hankins’ other major adjustment this summer has been the tempo at which he works. He pitches at an almost unprecedentedly fast pace, coming to a set and beginning his motion almost as soon as he gets the ball from the catcher, causing problems for evaluators trying to take notes between pitches. Sometimes he’ll slow down for a pitch or freeze his motion at his balance point.
The purpose of that is to upset hitters’ timing. Hankins realized last summer, when he pitched a more abbreviated showcase schedule, that fastballs in the 90s wouldn’t faze the players he was facing, so he started to experiment with tempo changes. He tabled them in the spring before starting again in the summer, and as far as Hankins can tell, they’ve been effective. They were particularly so against someone like Cabell, who starts his swing with a leg kick.
“He said that I was scared to throw fastballs to him,” Hankins said of Cabell’s reaction. “He said that he hated me because I did that because he looked dumb.”
Combine those areas of progress with control that could already be average at the Major League level – a particularly rare trait for someone Hankins’ age and size – and Hankins has the attributes of a truly special prospect.
He’s accomplished all of the goals he set for the summer – play at the two major All-American Games and at East Coast Pro, Area Code Games and Perfect Game Nationals, the three major showcases – except for one: make the 18U National Team and win a gold medal in the WBSC World Cup in September. Hankins is currently in Minneapolis, Minnesota, trying to do just that.
The spring is likely to be a hectic one, with scouts and higher-ups swarming to Hankins’ games and visiting his house, but he isn’t concerned about that yet. He’s taking online classes until he can go back to Central on a full-time basis. He talks regularly with the coaches at Vanderbilt, where he’s committed to play in college. And if Hankins has been rattled by the attention and pressure his status has brought, he hasn’t shown it.
“It’s amazing, man,” said Brad Bouras, Hankins’ travel coach with Team Elite. “I think he thrives on it. I think he literally likes that environment and likes to be in that (kind of) pressure situation. He likes the competitive moments with other players, with really good players like himself, and he likes to compete. That’s one of the things that probably separates him from everything.”
Hankins will be back in Cumming soon enough, and he’ll take to the football field on Friday nights, where he’ll be waving the flag for Central’s student section, acting like a normal high schooler after a summer that showed he was anything but that.