The 2012 season was a forgettable one for Blake Hassebrock, but he hasn't erased it from his memory. Instead, the talented right-hander is using the lessons he learned from his difficult season to further his goal of reaching the major leagues.
Hassebrock entered the 2012 campaign with high expectations after he posted a 2.64 ERA in 139.2 innings with the Low-A Burlington Bees in 2011. He began the 2012 season with the High-A Stockton Ports as part of a team that many called one of the most talented in the California League. Hassebrock and the Ports had a good first week of the season, but the team began to struggle midway through April and never recovered, finishing the season in last place in the Northern Division.
Hassebrock's season mirrored the struggles of his team. After a strong first start, he struggled in his next two outings. In his fourth turn, Hassebrock was in the middle of a strong outing (eight strike-outs in 5.1 innings) when he injured his oblique and his hamstring on the same play. The injuries would cost Hassebrock two months on the disabled list and he never got back on-track even when he did return to the mound. He put up an 8.17 ERA in 50.2 innings with Stockton and he finished the year back in Low-A with Burlington.
"The injury wasn't lingering. But the effects of the injury were lingering," Hassebrock said over the weekend. "Definitely after not throwing for two months, you get out of your mechanics and you even get out of your mindset."
Hassebrock also had to deal with the loss of his step-father and his grandmother during the season. He says he learned a lot about the mental aspect of the game and how to handle off-the-field issues when he was on the field.
"It's tough to deal with that stuff and be injured. It was sort of a perfect storm," Hassebrock said. "Mentally and physically both, I was just sort of rusty following up that injury.
"It's always tough to go through that, but now that I am on the other side of it, I'm appreciative of the stuff that I learned. I got my sea legs under me. Every player thinks they are invincible until they get hurt. I feel just a little more veteran."
Despite the high ERA last season, Hassebrock enters the 2013 campaign as one of the A's most promising minor league arms. The right-hander was the A's eighth-round pick in 2010 out of UNC-Greensboro. For most of his career, Hassebrock has relied on a mid-90s fastball with sinking action and a sharp-breaking slider to get hitters out. This year, Hassebrock is looking to become a true three-pitch pitcher, something he has been working on since he started his off-season throwing program.
Hassebrock was one of 19 minor league pitchers invited by the A's to their minor league spring mini-camp. Although pitchers and catchers only reported to A's minor league camp last week, Hassebrock has been at the A's Papago complex participating in the team's mini-camp since mid-February.
"Mini-camp was great. After my season last year, it has been awesome to get back on my feet this off-season," Hassebrock said.
During mini-camp, Hassebrock received a lot of one-on-one attention from several A's pitching coaches, including new minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson and roving minor league pitching coach (and former A's Cy Young award winner) Bob Welch.
Hassebrock was impressed with Welch, who he called "a great mind," and he has enjoyed the tone that Emerson has set with his pitching program.
"Gil [Patterson, former A's minor league pitching coordinator] was awesome. He was amazing and he taught us so much," Hassebrock said. "I think he and Emo have really similar minds and philosophies for pitching, strategy, delivery. It is a little bit different the things that we have been doing, but they are along the same lines of what we had been doing.
"I really like the new way that Emo is doing it. It is really simple and to the point. I think there is a problem sometimes with minor league baseball with the development process sometimes being confused with accepting failure. I think Emo is really good at not accepting failure. He's really honest with us. He treats us like we are big leaguers and expects that out of us. It's more constructive. We have learned more about ourselves without ego being involved and without worrying about hurting our feelings or things like that, which is what we need and any player would appreciate that."
The biggest area of focus for Hassebrock during mini-camp was working on his third pitch, the change-up. Being able to throw a change-up consistently is one of the major tenants of the A's pitching program and is something that Hassebrock has been searching for since he turned pro. Hassebrock has made adjustments with his grip on the pitch, changing it to a "fosh" grip, and he has liked the results he has seen thus far.
"The change-up is going to be big this year. Now I have gotten to the point where I feel like I can throw my change-up just as well as I can throw my fastball or my slider," Hassebrock said. "That's the first time ever that I have felt that way about it. It has always been an awkward pitch for me, but I changed the grip around and threw it all off-season and now I feel great."
The "fosh" change-up grip is one that has increased in popularity over the past 10 years. Current A's starter Jarrod Parker uses the grip, and Trevor Hoffman, Tom Gordon, Roy Halladay and Roger Clemens are other pitchers who have used the fosh grip. Much like the old split-fingered fastball or forkball, the fosh change-up grip involves the pitcher splitting his fingers on the baseball. But where the forkball and split-fingered pitches caused controversy due to the strain they put on the elbow, the fosh grip doesn't force the pitcher to spread his fingers out as far or as high on the baseball, lessening the strain on the elbow.
"It's a grip I have fooled around with before. I just went with it and starting throwing it. I'm a fastball-slider guy and I'm used to using only two fingers," Hassebrock said. "When you have to put other fingers on the ball, it gets tricky when it comes to feel, but now I can just use those two fingers and take some velo off. It's like a new-age forkball, I guess."
One of the advantages for those pitchers who were invited to the mini-camp is that they were in position to make appearances in big league camp early in the spring when the A's were limiting the innings for their 40-man roster and non-roster invitees. Hassebrock made two appearances for the A's in big league camp, allowing two runs in 1.1 innings of work.
Hassebrock learned a lot from his experience in big league camp.
"It was great to be up there and to experience it and taste a little bit what we are all working for," Hassebrock said. "I felt comfortable up there. It is also good to deal with that extra adrenaline factor that comes with a new experience and it was good to taste a little bit what it would be like, and what it hopefully will be like. I am really fortunate to have been able to do that and hopefully I'll get the opportunity again."
One of the additional benefits of the mini-camp for Hassebrock was getting to be around more veteran minor league pitchers who have been in the A's system for several years.
"I could list off hundreds of things I have learned from these guys already. I have talked to them and picked their brains," Hassebrock said.
"Some of the older guys, especially those who have been in Sacramento, they have experience with the exact same things that we have experienced or will experience. A lot of people say that you have to learn it yourself, but you can try to learn something from their advice as best you can so that maybe you can avoid making the same mistakes or at least won't take as long to adjust. It's definitely a great influence on us to be around the older guys."
Now that mini-camp has concluded, the focus for the rest of spring training will be on getting ready for Opening Day. There is a strong possibility that Hassebrock will return to Stockton for the start of the 2013 season. Despite his struggles there in 2012, Hassebrock isn't concerned about a possible return trip.
"I was definitely the variable that changed [from his successful 2011], not the league. I was a different presence on the mound," Hassebrock said. "Whether I like it or not, the things off the mound still effect you and as soon as you learn how to overcome having those things that distract you, the sooner you can become a big leaguer. Like I said, I appreciate it for that. I am now one step further along in my development than I would have been had I never been injured."
Although the Cal League has a reputation for being difficult on pitchers, Hassebrock believes that the challenges the Cal League presents aren't much different from the challenges he will face at any level and in any league.
"I think you just have to hone the skills that you already have [in the Cal League]. Each hitter there is a little better, the ground is a little bit harder, the ball flies a little bit more because the air is thin," Hassebrock said. "The variables aren't exactly for you, but it seems like all over the country, wherever you play, it's not going to be ideal. I'm not worried about the Cal League.
"It was me as a pitcher who was off last year. I now feel one hundred percent back on."
Hassebrock hasn't set any long-term goals for what levels he wants to reach or numbers he wants to post this season.
"All of my goals are much more short-term as far as pitch-to-pitch and that I am adjusting the way that I need to adjust," Hassebrock said. "Learning the things that I need to learn so that when I do move up – if I do move up – I will be ready for the new challenges that will be presented. Definitely the change-up is going to be important."
Like so many A's minor leaguers, Hassebrock took notice last season of the meteoric rises of A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Sean Doolittle. Hassebrock says those promotions give confidence to everyone in the A's pitching program.
"The A's are renowned for turning minor league pitchers into big leaguers, whether it is with them or if they trade them away to other organizations and make it there. It's definitely good to see that," Hassebrock said. "It gives you a little bit of extra confidence as far as the philosophies that they are distilling to us. It plays in the big leagues.
"On top of that, to see that if you can string together good performances week-to-week and month-to-month, they notice. You can ride the wave and make it to the big leagues, just like Griffin, Straily, Doolittle, all of those guys. The door is right there. The variable that changes is you as a pitcher. You have to make sure that you are keeping yourself in check and growing towards that goal. I feel like I am in a much better place in that regard now than I was last year."