On April 24th, Kent Emanuel’s name saw its first peak in curiosity at 3:16 PM. Most people were picking up their phones to search, “Who in the world is Kent Emanuel?”
By 6:28 PM, he would answer the question at least nine times over. Kent’s debut was one for the record books, “longest relief outing in Astros history.”
It was an opportunity eleven years in the making.
Woodstock GA, 2007-2010.
At 18 years old, Kent said, “I change speeds pretty well, I mix it up, I have a bunch of different pitches that I can control.” Fastball, curveball, changeup, split-finger. When asked if there were one pitch he goes to during crunch time, there was no hesitation: “Nope. I can use them all.”
He proved it in April 2010 when he threw a no-hitter against Cherokee High School, racking up 17 strikeouts in the process. His stuff was enough to dominate high school hitters. But when asked his strength, Kent gave an honest review: “My strength, I would say, is not having one particular strength. I bring a bunch of the intangibles, the little things.”
By the end of his varsity career, Kent Emanuel used these intangibles to amass 176 innings, 245 strikeouts, 38 walks, and a 1.11 ERA.
His senior year, those numbers were 58 IP | 114 SO | 8 BB | 0.72 ERA.
Danny Pralgo, Director of Instruction & Head Coach at 6-4-3 DP Athletics, shared a similar opinion about these intangibles: “The fun part with Kent is, he’s not even close to peaking right now. Kent wants to play this game for a long time, at the highest level. He stays grounded, and he works his butt off every day. You build teams, you build programs around people like him.”
The University of North Carolina did just that.
Chapel Hill, 2011-2013.
After being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 19th round, Emanuel decided to attend UNC and pitch for head coach Mike Fox and the Tarheels. Immediately, Kent led the rotation. Appearing in 20 games, he threw 104.1 innings, fanned 89 batters, and walked a starter-low 23. The freshman numbers were off the charts; they were representative of a career good enough to convince the Astros to draft Emanuel 74th overall.
The what is interesting, but the how makes the story. The how is best summarized by his outing during the 2011 College World Series. After a first-round loss to Vanderbilt, the Tarheels faced an elimination game against the University of Texas. Led by Hall of Fame head coach Augie Garrido, the Longhorns were the most prestigious program left in the field. No other choice but to take a bus ride home, Kent gave one of the best performances of his college career. He threw nine innings, 126 pitches, 84 strikes, and struck out five. Most importantly, he only walked one batter.
During his postgame interview, Emanuel was asked, “Before the game, did you have a feeling this would be the type of game you would have?” With the subtle peak of a smile, Kent responded,
“I always expect to go out there and win. So, I just wanted to use that confidence and use that stage as a motivator.”
Both head coaches had nothing but praise for the lefty.
He was terrific. He got three pitches over. He used them in different counts, spots where he would lead guys off on changeups. He’d lead guys off with breaking balls. He’d lead guys off with fastballs. He had command throughout the game from beginning to end.Augie Garrido, UT Head Coach
Other than his left arm, that’s his best trait, his demeanor. You don’t see a lot of emotion out of him. That’s what you want when you’re on the mound, especially on this stage.Mike Fox, UNC Head Coach
Just like his years at Woodstock high school, Kent found success with his ability to stay composed, mix pitches, and control the plate. He left Chapel Hill with the most career wins (28) by a junior in school history. After choosing Mark Appel first overall, Houston chose UC Irvine pitcher Andrew Thurman in the second round and Emanuel in the third. At the time, the Astros felt like they were drafting their rotation of the future.
Unfortunately, the next few years would not go as planned for the Astros or for Kent.
West Palm Beach, Lancaster, Davenport, Corpus Christi, Fresno, Round Rock, 2013-2019.
In a 2013 in-game interview with Bill Brown and Alan Ashby, Emanuel showed confidence and composure, per usual. When asked about his strengths, Kent reiterated, “I don’t have one particular thing that stands out, I can throw any pitch in any count.”
A pitcher’s-pitcher with good stuff and A+ command. He clearly had the mindset of a big leaguer. At the tail end of the interview, Ashby asked, “What have you been warned about, stepping into pro ball?” His response, “I’ve been told not to rush it.”
His minor league career was certainly not rushed.
After a handful of outings in the Gulf Coast League, Emanuel spent his first full year of professional baseball split between High-A and Single-A. The numbers were decent: 124 IP, 93 SO, 23 BB, 4.86 ERA, and a 1.242 WHIP. They don’t jump off of the page like his high school or collegiate numbers, but in 2015 they were good enough to earn him a promotion to Double-A.
This Corpus Christi Hooks team was loaded with talent; they were described as having
“an embarrassment of riches.” The Opening Day roster included MLB regulars like Lance McCullers Jr., Carlos Correa, Josh Hader, Teoscar Hernandez, Chris Devenski, Tony Kemp, Colin Moran, and Tyler White. On April 9th, Kent put on the Tarheel-blue uniform and took the mound as opening day starter. He went 3.2 innings, gave up seven hits, three earned runs, and walked two.
On June 3rd, Kent Emanuel underwent Tommy John surgery.
Kent did not return to the mound until May 27th, 2016. A little less than a year since his procedure, the start went better than most would expect. He threw five innings, gave up four hits, one earned run, one walk, and struck out two.
Fortunately, his rehab went as well as the outing.
Overall, I would say it was a pretty smooth process. It went a lot better than I had anticipated. So, I’m happy for that. I know the trainers down there had a lot to do with it. I’m definitely happy to have that behind me and to be back with the team.
His first year back from surgery was not as sharp as his first outing, and then in 2017 Kent saw his worst year yet. For Triple-A Fresno, Kent threw 42 innings, gave up 36 earned runs, and only struck out 28. Most concerning, he walked 20 batters across that stretch. For comparison, he only gave up 23 walks across 110 innings during his sophomore year at UNC. Kent was sent back to Corpus Christi and moved to the bullpen. Back playing for the Hooks, Emanuel finished the year finding some success. He pitched 74.1 innings for the Double-A squad and allowed three fewer walks than his total time in Fresno (17).
His sixth year in minor league baseball, 2018 showed further sparks of life. Back in Triple-A, Emanuel came out of the bullpen and had a career high 9.3 strikeouts per nine. His ERA was higher than one would want, but it seemed like the control was back.
Things really started to click in 2019.
It could have been the new surroundings, playing for the Round Rock Express instead of the Fresno Grizzlies. It could have been the second year out of the bullpen. According to Kent Emanuel himself, it was the combination of health and pitch adjustment. The back end of 2018 saw some comfort, but 2019 saw a return to normal.
In 28 games, he tallied 86 strike outs on his way to a career-low 3.90 ERA. The strike outs were lower than the previous year, but so too were the walks: 26 across 83.2 innings in 2018, 23 across 101.2 innings in 2019.
On August 26th, Kent started for the Express and gave up one hit across eight scoreless innings. He matched the longest start of his seven-year career and still felt like he could have been better. The Astros saw the same promise. On November 4th, Kent was added to the 40-man roster. Come February, he was invited to his first major league spring training.
UCL tears happen. As disappointing as they are, most baseball players are aware of the ever-present risk. Testing positive for Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone? Not something most baseball players anticipate. In June of 2020, that is what happened to Kent Emanuel. An 80-game suspension. Since finding out, Kent has been adamant that he never knowingly took the substance. After subsequent reports published by The Athletic and The Wallstreet Journal, the situation seems to support him.
When I asked him about the suspension, he calmly repeated his position:
It’s an injustice to almost 20 players now over the last five years. I’d encourage you to go to my Instagram under the IGTV tab and watch my two videos to learn about it.
I have done my research and I encourage you to do the same.
- Kent Emanuel: I have been suspended by Major League Baseball, this is what I have to say
- Kent Emanuel: DHCMT Update
- Rosenthal: After surprising PED tests, MLB players fight to clear their names
- Baseball Players Are Testing Positive for a 50-Year-Old East German Steroid. They Can’t Explain Why.
People have described him as bold, controversial, and petty for his response to the suspension.
I see a proud baseball player clearly and concisely defending his reputation. Some people make mistakes. They deserve consequence. At that point, we should discuss whether redemption is possible. For Kent, I don’t believe this is one of those cases. It does not seem that a mistake was made. He wishes the suspension were never a part of his story. I feel the same about the story I’m writing now.
Regardless, Kent was forced to sit out of the 2020 season.
April 22nd, 2021.
Kent Emanuel’s suspension ends.
April 23rd, 2021.
Kent Emanuel is called up from the Astros alternate site.
April 24th, 2021. (3:12 PM)
Starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi is removed from the game with a right pronator muscle strain. Kent Emanuel is called from the bullpen.
The Game Plan.
Coming into the game right as you sit down to have your first inning cup of coffee, there isn’t much time to game plan. Upon examination, the strategy was straightforward:
- sinker to get ahead,
- changeup away to righties,
- slider away to lefties.
In total, Kent threw the sinker 50% of the time, changeup 37% and slider 23%. Albeit simple, it was familiar. When describing his CWS performance ten years prior, Kent summarized his game plan against Texas.
“Throw strikes. Stay away, go in when they start to dive.
I was able to stay away, away, away.”
In the first inning, Kent’s signature control was not where it needed to be. He threw five strikes, seven balls, and only executed four pitches across the first three batters. Luckily for him, Ohtani drilled a good sinker directly into the ground, one of the four executed pitches was a backside changeup to Justin Upton, and Jared Walsh just missed a 2-1 slider up in the zone. Emanuel made it through the first inning unscathed. Leading off the second inning, Albert Pujols.
April 24, 2021. (3:44:13 PM)
The Astros did their job in the bottom of the first, giving Emanuel a three-run cushion to start the second. Kent gave the Angels a run back almost immediately. After a strong sinker away, Kent missed a changeup arm side. Early on, your catcher will often double-down after a mistake. Throughout the game, Kent did well coming back and executing the same pitch after a miss.
This was not one of those times.
Out of his hand, Kent was thinking, “oh no.” Watching Pujols swing, Kent was thinking “oh no.” Hearing the contact, Kent was thinking “oh no.” For 21 years Albert has worn red, and for 21 years he’s laid waste to Minute Maid Park. Like the Kool-Aid Man, Pujols was probably thinking, “oh yeahhhh.” To say that baseball was “hit” over the fence would be an understatement; the ball traveled 112.4 mph off the bat, Albert’s hardest-hit HR tracked by Statcast (since 2015).
I’m not sure my 2017 Toyota Camry can hit 112 mph.
More importantly, Houston fans know all too well the impact of a Pujols missile. This was not a division series, and there were not 43,000 people in the stands. But, for a guy who spent seven years in the minors before making his MLB debut, this might have been close.
As Albert lumbered around the diamond, Emanuel circled the mound before pausing to see Pujols cross the plate. I asked Kent what he was thinking in this moment. He was clear: “Nothing… out of the ordinary. I was just ready for the next batter to come up.”
For coach Krug, this was a familiar sight. “The thing that stood out to me, he still showed the same confidence and presence on the mound even though he was in the big leagues. His walk around the mound he does, it was exactly the same as it was in high school.” Many pitchers give up a home run and immediately step back on the rubber. Kent Emanuel? He got some good advice out of college:
Don’t rush it.
Across the next eight pitches, Emanuel threw seven for strikes. Of those eight pitches, five were executed well. Jason Castro set up for a spot and the pitch was there.
The Third Inning.
The third went like the second. Instead of Albert Pujols, it was Shohei Ohtani. After retiring Luis Rengifo and David Fletcher to lead off the inning, Kent let a 1-0 sinker float over the middle.
It was a mistake, and professional hitters are paid to hit mistakes.
Shohei hit this pitch 413 feet.
At this point in the game, a few more mistakes and Kent will be pulled. Immediately following the home run, he breaks from the game plan. After a few deep breaths… Emanuel throws a slider to a right-handed hitter (one of three on the day). Not only does he throw a slider, but he leaves it middle-middle.
Justin Upton takes it for a strike.
When asked about the situation, Kent said:
The back door slider in that scenario was one in which I felt I could ‘steal a strike.’ I felt like the chances of him offering at it were very low in that moment, so I used it to get ahead.
This last part is important. In 2020, players hit a .363 wOBA after 1-0 counts but only a .270 wOBA after 0-1 counts. It was a huge pitch, it took guts, and it worked. That is all that matters.
Kent executed two of the next three pitches and placed an exclamation mark at the end of the inning: his first career Major League strikeout.
The Fourth Inning.
With three innings in the books, the next three outs would make or break the game.
- Castro lined up low and away, Kent pulled the sinker away, ball.
- Exact same pitch and location, strike. Executed.
In this moment, a switch is flipped. At 11 seconds you can see Emanuel mutter to himself, “That felt good.” He went right back to the pitch.
3. Sinker low and away, strike. Executed.
4. Slider low and away, foul ball. Executed.
5. Slider away, strike out. Executed.
K-strut and career strike out number two.
6. Sinker low and away, strike. Executed.
7. Changeup low and away, soft groundball to first base. Executed.
8. Slider away, strike. Executed.
9. Castro lined up low and away, Kent threw the sinker towards the top of the zone, foul ball.
10. Slider away, lazy fly ball. Executed.
After the first miss, Kent executed eight of the next nine pitches. His best inning of the day, exactly when the Astros needed it the most. The team would extend the lead by four runs in the bottom half of the fourth. That would be all she wrote.
“Throw strikes, stay away.”
Kent’s final stat line: 8.2 IP, 5 hits, 2 runs, 5 strikeouts, 0 walks.
Since his debut roughly three weeks ago, Kent has continued to do what he does best: throw strikes. To say he’s been effective would be an understatement. In total, he’s thrown 6.1 innings, given up 5 hits, 2 earned runs, 6 strikeouts, and only allowed 2 walks.
The only blemish he has on his resume: a two-run home run by fellow Corpus Christi Alum, Teoscar Hernandez. This “blast” came during the top of the ninth in a 10-2 ballgame. It flew 350 feet and would have probably been an out in all but 3 stadiums: Yankee Stadium, T-Mobile Park in Seattle, and… Houston. It was a good pitch in that situation, but sometimes hitters hit.
In short, Emanuel has been a consummate big leaguer since his promotion. His stuff plays well. Among qualified pitchers:
- his sinker ranks top 40 in vertical and horizontal movement.
- his changeup ranks top 25 in vertical movement, top 40 in horizontal.
- His slider ranks top 50 in horizontal movement.
We already knew his command would play. Yes, it is a small sample size, but today Kent ranks 94th percentile in walk percentage. He has never been in a 3-0 count, he has thrown two pitches in a 3-1 count, and six pitches in a 3-2 count.
As of now, he is more than deserving of a roster spot with the Houston Astros. He knew it all along, and now we know it as well.
It has taken me a while to complete this article. Since April 24th, there have been two additional players suspended for DHCMT. Paul Campbell and Colton Welker have been suspended 80 games apiece. Their situation sounds similar. For Kent, it was just a delayed start. He was fortunate enough to receive an opportunity to prove his worth.
He waited long enough.
For Paul and Colton, I hope that one day they receive a similar chance.
Featured photo courtesy of the official Astros Twitter account.
Message from the author:
I want to express my gratitude to Kent Emanuel and Scott Krug for their contributions.
You can find a list of additional sources below.