Right-hander Blake Hassebrock put together one of the best seasons of any starter in the Oakland A's minor league system in 2011. The A's 2010 eighth-round pick posted a 2.64 ERA over 139.2 innings in his first full professional season. He struck-out 110 and walked 46 and held opposing batters to a .249 average. His 2011 campaign was a significant improvement over his 2010 stint playing for the A's short-season affiliates, during which he had a 5.96 ERA in 22.2 relief innings.
Hassebrock, a native of North Carolina, is a product of the UNC-Greensboro baseball program. The A's have dipped into the UNC-G talent pool on several occasions over the past few years. Since 2006, the A's have selected five Spartans in the amateur draft: Hassebrock in 2010, Robert Gilliam in 2009, Lee Land in 2007 and Jermaine Mitchell and Patrick Currin in 2006. A's area scout Neil Avent is a former assistant coach of the UNC-G program. He, along with fellow A's scout Michael Holmes, signed Hassebrock in 2010.
Coming out of college, Hassebrock was a hard-thrower, but he added more movement to his sinking fastball in 2011, something that keyed his big season with the Low-A Burlington Bees. He also pounded the lower-half of the strike-zone, inducing nearly two groundouts for every flyout and allowing only nine homeruns all season. Hassebrock was a mid-season Midwest League All-Star and he finished fourth in the league in ERA.
We caught-up with Hassebrock this week and discussed his stellar 2011 campaign, his work at the A's Instructional League camp, his unusual off-season training program and more…
OaklandClubhouse: How has your off-season gone thus far? Has it been a different recovery process after playing a full season this year as opposed to short-season last year?
Blake Hassebrock: I went to Instructs last year and this year, so that cuts your off-season about a month short. Both Instructs were great. They gave us a few weeks off to recover and then we start lifting and getting back into shape. It has been going great so far. I have been doing as much as I can.
OC: What did you work on this year in Instructs?
BH: My change-up. I had a ton of innings this year compared to my past, so they were a little hesitant to bring me to Instructs because usually if you throw a lot of innings as a starter, they want to cut you off and go ahead and get your arm rested. But they wanted me to develop a change-up. I think – and they think – that that can really change my game. It was good. I went down there and worked on that pretty much the whole time. It went well.
OC: How do you feel like it is coming along now?
BH: I think it is coming along great. By the end, I was able to throw a change-up that was somewhat effective, which I hadn't been able to do before. They gave me a funky grip and I learned it. It was really coming along by the end of Instructs. I'm excited about it.
OC: Was it a pitch that you used at all during the Burlington season, or was it nothing that you had had a chance to rely on before?
BH: I did use it in Burlington. But I never really had a grip that I was comfortable with. It was always a shaky pitch that I would throw. I was never able to get consistent with it. That was the goal of Instructs, to find something that I can repeat and actually use as a tool.
OC: Do you think that will help you most against left-handed hitters?
BH: Yeah, I'd say so. I think probably the second and third time through the order it will help a lot. When you are only throwing two pitches, the guessing game is much less complicated for the hitters.
OC: What do you feel is your best pitch right now?
BH: Definitely my fastball, my sinker. Actually, I kind of attribute it to my training in the off-season. I do rock climbing and I just started that last year. It really strengthens your hands and gives you more fingertip strength. It sounds kind of outlandish, but I think that helped my ball have movement this year. It's not really something that I concentrated on and all of a sudden it was just there.
OC: Was that movement a big difference for you as compared to when you were pitching in Vancouver last year?
BH: Yeah, it really did because I never really had movement before. I threw hard, but never with movement. But that changed for me this year.
OC: What was it like pitching a full season as opposed to pitching on weekends in college and then in the short-season schedule?
BH: It was definitely a different feeling. While it ended up being a lot more innings, I felt like it was healthier for me overall because I was able to get into a routine and, for the first time in my career, really get into a groove of a schedule where you know you are doing the same thing every week and you can prepare yourself and improve on the last outing each time.
OC: You had a great staff this year in Burlington. Was there any competition between the starters to see who could one-up the other from start-to-start?
BH: Yeah, definitely. There was a friendly competition. We all got along great. When you have a couple of guys who are doing so well as we all were at the beginning of the year, you can't help but compete and try to one-up the other guy's last start. It definitely helps the team chemistry.
OC: Was it good for you to spend the entire season in one league? Did you feel like you had a chance to really get to know the Midwest League?
BH: Yeah. I do. A couple of those other guys, they got moved up during the first half, but, for me, I think it was good that I got a chance to stay there the whole year. It was really the first time that I, like I said, had been able to get into a routine. I think the A's probably didn't want to rock the boat with that because I really hadn't been a starter before. It was good for me to experience a full season in one place to see how to better prepare myself for this next year and kind of learn a lot of things about my body and how to stay in shape through the year. I think it was definitely a life-changing experience.
OC: Did you like the routine of being a starter better than being a reliever?
BH: I love starting actually. Like I said, you can prepare so much better. I feel like that helps you to have a routine and carry over what you did the last time and helps you build on it throughout the whole year.
OC: Do you have a particular philosophy when you are on the mound? Are you looking to get through hitters as quickly as possible and pitch to contact or are you looking for strike-outs?
BH: Really my philosophy is to simplify everything as much as I can and stay in the moment as much as I can – that moment when you are throwing the pitch. Whatever happens [with that pitch] good or bad, you have to forget about it and move on to the next pitch. If you separate each of them like that, it allows you to focus everything on the task that you are trying to complete.
OC: There are a couple of other UNC-Greensboro alums in the A's system. Did you know any of them before signing with the A's?
BH: Rob Gilliam, he was a year older than me in college. We are actually really good friends. He lives near here so we train together in the off-season sometimes. Then there is Jermaine Mitchell. He was a lot older than me, so I never met him [during college], but our college coach told stories and so it was cool to see him and he's a good guy.
OC: What was the Midwest League All-Star experience like this year?
BH: That was awesome. That was great. It was out in Davenport and it was really cool to go out there with other guys who have had success and pick their brains a little bit. It's always good to be around other people who have had success. You learn a lot. I learned a lot of what it took because a lot of those guys had repeated the league and then there were other guys who were only 19-years-old. It was a good mix of guys. You got to see what those players have in common that leads to their success.
OC: What are your goals going into next year?
BH: Really right now, I'm just trying to get into the best shape that I can be in. I'm doing pilates and hot yoga and rock climbing. Trying to break out of the box when it comes to preparing and try to do as much as I can. Like I said, with my philosophy with pitching, if I concentrate on the moment, then everything will fall into place. Everyday here in the off-season I'm trying to focus on what I am doing and hopefully that will build me up to where I am in the best position I can be in come spring training.