By The Numbers: Ben Hornbeck

Coming into the 2010 season, Ben Hornbeck was a prospect to watch after he put up huge strike-out numbers for Low-A Kane County and High-A Stockton in 2009. Hornbeck struggled at Double-A Midland this season, however, but is back to pitching well with Stockton. Nathaniel Stoltz takes a closer look at Hornbeck's numbers...

What do we make of Ben Hornbeck now?

The lanky lefthander was one of my favorite A's prospects, if not my #1 favorite, entering the season. I talked about him as one of my three sleepers in one of the first issues of my "This Week in Prospects" column over at Call to the Pen, I was so high on him.

I said his "numbers suggest" he can remain a starter all the way up to the majors, and that he will "end up a valuable arm." Well, the 22-year-old lefty responded to my optimism by posting a 5.87 ERA in 38 1/3 innings for Midland, earning a demotion back to Stockton, where he'd put up silly numbers the year before.

Upon the demotion, Hornbeck went right back to dominating. He's struck out 32 in 25 2/3 innings and has a 3.16 ERA despite the Cal League's hitter-happy environment. So, there's nothing clearly wrong with Hornbeck. He just can't seem to figure out how to pitch effectively in the upper minors, despite being one of the most dominant pitchers in the low minors.

The good news is that Hornbeck didn't deserve a 5.87 ERA in Midland. His FIP was 4.40, and he posted a whopping 63% groundball rate, so he may have even deserved an ERA around 4.00. Minor league defenses are so variable that it's very possible Midland's defense has happened to struggle on nights Hornbeck's pitched. In particular, with all the grounders he gets, Hornbeck needs a decent infield behind him to succeed.

So Hornbeck probably pitched well enough to hang in the Midland rotation; he just got victimized by poor defense and/or luck. Hey, that happens in 38-inning samples. That lessens the bad news on Hornbeck, certainly. But it doesn't completely put it to bed.

After all, a 22-year-old with a 4.00 Double-A ERA and average stuff is better than one with a 5.87 ERA and average stuff, but those two runs of ERA turn Hornbeck from a non-prospect to a fringy prospect…at first glance, anyway. What's troubling, then, isn't so much that Hornbeck is performing badly, because he's not. The problem is that he's getting so many fewer swings and misses in Double-A than in Stockton.

Hornbeck struck out 11.5 batters per nine in Vancouver, 11.6 in Kane County, 12.6 in Stockton, and…5.8 in Midland. That's under half as much as his Stockton totals.

Going into this year, despite his high strikeout totals, I don't think anyone expected Hornbeck to be a strikeout king in the majors—Dallas Braden posted similarly off-the-charts numbers a few years back, and he's had just an average K rate in the majors. But Braden kept the K's coming all the way through Sacramento, whereas Hornbeck hasn't gotten it done in Midland.

When a finesse lefthander like Hornbeck starts putting up K/BB marks around 26/19, that's bad news. Sure, he can get away with that in the majors, given his groundball rate, but like Braden (and most minor leaguers), Hornbeck will likely post worse numbers in the majors than Double-A. With his previous strikeout rates, Hornbeck had plenty of room to shed a K/9 here and there as he ascended toward Oakland. Now, he's basically given all his rope away in Double-A and has to keep his numbers totally stable as he ascends. It's not an easy task.

Of course, there's still some possibilities for Hornbeck's career. Maybe he finds a way to get some more swings and misses in Midland next time around, giving him some room to breathe statistically. A's Minor League Pitching Coordinator Gil Patterson recently told that he lowered Hornbeck's arm slot a bit, so perhaps that will help—it's certainly worked in Stockton thus far in 2010.

There's also the possibility of moving Hornbeck to relief. As guys like Michael Benacka and Edwar Ramirez have shown, you can be a changeup artist with a mid-80's fastball in relief and still pile up strikeouts. Maybe Hornbeck could do that and essentially ditch his assortment of mediocre breaking pitches. He'd also possibly pick up his velocity a bit if moved to the bullpen. Of course, the flip side of the bullpen move is that, while it gives Hornbeck a better chance at success, it also raises the bar a bit and significantly handicaps his future potential value.

So at this point, it's probably almost time for Hornbeck to get one more look as a starter in Midland to see if he can rekindle some of his bat-missing ways. If he can, he remains a potential Braden-esque, changeup-oriented lefty starter. If he simply can't get past that wall, it's probably time for him to slide to the bullpen in 2011.

To read more from Nathaniel, visit his blog at The Bleacher Report and

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