Upon arriving in Stockton, pitchers are relatively knowledgeable of the California League's infamous reputation for being hitter-friendly. Stockton's current pitching staff has had a rough go of it this season as the pitchers try to adjust to the league, as many of those pitchers spent last season in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. The Ports have surrendered the second-most homeruns in the league (103). A mistake-prone Stockton defense hasn't helped, either, and the Ports have allowed 941 hits in 857.2 innings pitched through Wednesday.
One of the pitchers on the Stockton staff still struggling to adjust to the Cal League this season is right-hander Blake Hassebrock, who jumped onto the prospect radar last season when he posted a 2.64 ERA in 139.2 innings for the Low-A Burlington Bees. Hassebrock has seen his season derailed by injuries and some bad luck. He has thrown only 34.1 innings this season and has a 8.65 ERA. Batters are hitting an astounding .396 off of the right-hander.
Hassebrock played his college ball at UNC-Greensboro, a school the A's have drafted out of frequently over the past few years (other picks from the school include Pat Currin, Jermaine Mitchell, Rob Gilliam, Lee Land and, this season, Tyler Hollstegge). The North Carolina native raised his draft profile after his sophomore season when he participated in the Cal Ripken Sr. summer league. Hassebrock was named the second-most notable prospect for the league. The A's selected the hard-throwing right-hander in the eighth round selection of the 2010 draft, despite the fact that he struggled some during his junior season with UNC-G.
"I don't think I was expecting to go anywhere [in the draft]. I was just glad to get an opportunity to play," Hassebrock said with a smile. "The team that chooses you is the one that wants you the most anyways so I'm grateful for getting picked. That last season at college wasn't my greatest, but to be where I am now, I'm positive everything happened for a reason."
After a quick stay in the Arizona Rookie League, Hassebrock would spend the majority of his first professional campaign with short-season Vancouver. While with the A's two short-season squads, he didn't allow a homer and he compiled a 2.77 K/BB and a 9.92 K/9 in 22.2 innings pitched. That performance earned Hassebrock a spot in the starting rotation with the Burlington Bees in 2011.
Hassebrock shined with the Bees, earning a mid-season MWL All-Star berth and helping to lead the Bees to the post-season. Despite his success, Hassebrock's ratios slumped slightly from his 2010 levels, completing his 2011 with a 2.96 BB/9, 2.24 K/BB, and a 7.08 K/9. Still, Hassebrock generated a GB% better than 50.0% and maintained a .295 BABIP.
Hassebrock cracked the Ports' six-man Opening Day starting rotation and began by punching out 16 in his initial 18.1 innings pitched while permitting just a single homer. However, Hassebrock injured both his hamstring and oblique during a June 28th start versus Lancaster and those injuries caused him to miss approximately six-and-a-half weeks. Hassebrock is now gradually working his way back to the form that he displayed in 2011.
"Once I came off the DL, I had to take a rehab stint. And once I came off the DL I had to stay on that same routine I was on," Hassebrock said.
"So I'm still doing the same exercises and treatments I was doing before just to make sure nothing creeps back. Everything's feeling great, even better than before actually. My pitch count went from 40, 50, 60, 70 – it goes up 10 every outing.
"I'm just getting back up to the usual 100-110 that everybody else is on. I'm looking forward to now just going out there and making it a game of my own and not to be limited too much."
Since being activated, Hassebrock has yet to exceed 3.2 innings pitched in six appearances and five starts while possessing a 15:8 K/BB. More troubling than his strikeout-walk ratio, which could easily be attributed to rust, is the ridiculous amount of hits recorded while Hassebrock has been on the mound. In 34.1 innings pitched this season, Hassebrock has surrendered 63 hits (1.85 hits per inning pitched) which has led to a ludicrous .476 BABIP. More startling is that Hassebrock's GB% and LD% have essentially remained the same (52.3% GB% in Burlington/53.4% GB% in Stockton and 14.1 LD% in Burlington/ 14.5 LD% in Stockton). With practically the same infielders behind him this season as he had in Burlington (with the exceptions of Michael Gilmartin and Leonardo Gil), one could link his struggles to that of more direct contact in the Cal League coupled with an ineffective defensive infield that still leads the league in errors.
"Pretty much once the ball leaves my hand, I have no other control over it," Hassebrock said.
"Clearly what I've been doing before the ball leaves my hand hasn't been ideal, but lately I've been making adjustments. [July 10th versus Lancaster] I gave up a few hits, but it was all weak contact, and that's all I could ask for really as long as they're not hitting the ball hard. Eventually, they're going to start hitting groundballs at me.
"I don't know my stats, but I'm pretty sure my groundball rate is pretty high. A lot of those have been getting through, but I just have to keep pounding low in the strike zone."
Hassebrock did struggle with his mechanics early in the season, but he believes he has his natural motion back now.
"I feel like my sinker has been my go-to pitch. Earlier on I had a few things with my delivery that were different from what I'd usually do naturally and I feel like I've been getting back to that lately," Hassebrock said.
Although he had a deep arsenal before the season, Hassebrock has added two pitches this year that he believes will make him a much better pitcher.
"I've added a cutter this year and that's been working great. A lot of times when you're in hitter's counts you can just throw that thing in there and can get a groundball or easy out," Hassebrock said.
"Another pitch I added recently is my curve, so that adds some separation in there velocity-wise. So right now I'm slider-cutter-sinker-changeup-curve-fastball with all of those in-between 84 and 97 [MPH], so there's not a big gap in velocity."
As the second half winds down, Hassebrock is putting the poor start to the season behind him and is focusing on finishing strong.
"The remainder of the season I'd say my goals are to continue taking steps forward," he said. "As long as I'm improving I won't have any regrets. Results-wise that's not really where my head is; it's in the process of continuing to develop and hopefully get to the big league level."