Oakland A's Prospect Q&A: Ben Hornbeck, P

It has been breezy on the days that Ben Hornbeck has pitched this season, but it hasn't always been because of the weather. The left-hander has been a strike-out machine this season, whiffing 77 batters in only 57 innings for Low-A Kane County and High-A Stockton. We caught-up with the Kansas State alum last weekend...

For a guy who doesn't think of himself as a strike-out pitcher, Ben Hornbeck has been inducing swings-and-misses at a tremendous rate since he turned pro. After being selected in the 32nd round of the 2008 draft out of Kansas State, Hornbeck struck-out 45 batters in 35.1 innings for short-season Vancouver and Low-A Kane County as a reliever.

Hornbeck moved into the starting rotation in 2009, but he didn't lose his strike-out touch. He began the year with Kane County, where he was unhittable, posting a 4-0 record and a 1.24 ERA in seven outings. He struck-out 47 and walked only 10 in 36.1 innings. Hornbeck was promoted to the California League and the Stockton Ports in late May. Hornbeck's ERA has risen with the Ports (5.66), but he still sports an impressive K:BB ratio (30:6 in 20.2 innings). He has also allowed only two homeruns all season (none in the Cal League).

We caught up with Hornbeck last weekend to discuss his approach to pitching, his change-up and more...

OaklandClubhouse: You obviously had a lot of success early in the season with Kane County. What was the key for you in terms of making the smooth transition from relieving to starting?

Ben Hornbeck: It's just an ongoing process of trying to throw a lot of strikes early in the count. I am also continuing to develop my secondary pitches and work off of my change-up. Concentrating on throwing a good change-up and staying down in the ‘zone with it. I'm just trying to work hard and get better everyday and throw a lot of strikes.

OC: I've heard a lot of good things about your change-up and that you throw it with a little bit different grip. Was that something that you developed in college or did you always throw it that way?

BH: I have always been a fastball-change-up pitcher. I used to throw a classic circle change and then my sophomore year of college, I lost my feel for that and my grip. The summer that I spent out at the Cape there were a couple of guys who threw a Vulcan change-up and ever since then I have been practicing it and over the last year to year-and-a-half I have been able to get a lot of late action on it. I'm trying to throw that as my out-pitch now.

OC: You did a little bit of relieving last year. Do you like starting more or are you happy in either role?

BH: Whatever role that helps the team the most. Obviously, I like being versatile enough to where I can start or relieve. I enjoy starting. It's a lot of fun. You kind of get to control the whole game and it allows you to work on stuff and extend yourself and try to put the team in a position to win.

OC: I think you've struck-out something like 70 or 80 guys (77 in 57 innings). Have you always been a strike-out pitcher or is that something that has developed for you this year?

BH: No. I have never really struck people out at this rate. I'm just trying to get soft contact and am trying to get ahead of guys and if strike-outs happen, that's good, but getting the ball in play early also helps save the pitch count, so I'm not necessarily going up there trying to strike guys out. I'm just trying to get ahead with my fastball and work off of my change-up and use the same arm speeds and stuff like that.

OC: You've added velocity since draft day (from low 80s to high 80s with the fastball). Is that something mechanical that you have changed or was it just a matter of adding strength?

BH: When I came into college, I could throw pretty hard. I think that it has just been combination of Oakland's throwing program along with our shoulder routines and our exercises that we have to do with our training staff. It's really helped me regain my arm strength. I kind of seemed to lose that in college. I think that on top of throwing more innings. I really didn't throw that many innings in college. It's really helped get my velocity back up a little bit.

OC: You are from the Phoenix area right?

BH: Yeah.

OC: Was that a big change for you to go from Phoenix to playing for Kansas State in the Midwest?

BH: It was. I have family in the Midwest so I had spent a couple of Christmases out there, but to have sustained winters and not having two seasons – hot and hotter – was definitely an adjustment. Being able to pitch in the cold and stuff like that kind of helped me learn a little bit. Not being able to feel your fingers and still trying to go out there and get hitters out. It was a good experience, but it was definitely a shock being out there in that cold weather for four or five months at a time.

OC: Have you noticed much difference between the Midwest League and the Cal League?

BH: I feel like the hitters have a little better understanding of the strike-zone. They are definitely more used to the wood bat and they are not going to chase as much stuff out of the ‘zone and stuff like that. You've really got to throw quality pitches. There may also be a few better hitters in the line-up. It's definitely a challenge and hopefully I can look forward to continuing to get better.

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