Wednesday, May 8, 2013

An Interview with Astros LHP Joe Bircher

Joe Bircher was drafted by Houston in the 10th round in 2012 out of Bradley University in Illinois. In his first seven appearances (three starts) for Quad Cities this season, he is 1-0 with a 2.60 ERA and a 1.012 WHIP. He has allowed only four walks while striking out 19 batters in 27 and two-thirds innings.

I saw Bircher pitch on April 26th as the second half of a tandem with Vincent Velasquez starting the game. He pitched four scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and no walks while striking out two en route to his second save of the season as the tandem shut out Lansing in a very quick 2:14 game.

Before I spoke with Bircher the next day, I talked with Quad Cities Pitching Coach Dave Borkowski about the Velasquez/Bircher tandem, "Yeah, it's kind of a weird combination and they're kind of polar opposites but here's a guy [Bircher] with a lot less fastball with no fear, too. He's not afraid to pitch inside. He's not afraid to pitch to contact. Great changeup. Sells it real well. Keeps them off the fastball. He's been a huge bright spot this year."

Joe Bircher (L) and Jordan Jankowski - April 2013
Photo by Jayne Hansen

On to the interview (edited for clarity and brevity) ~

On his pitch repertoire: "I throw mid-80's fastball; changeup is my best off-speed. I also throw a curveball and a little slider when I pitch to lefties. My changeup is probably my best pitch. Especially so far this year. In the past, it's been the curveball and the slider. It's mostly just the changeup, but I get to a point where I can surprise people with fastballs late. It might not be too dang hard but "crafty little lefty" ... been doing it my whole life. [I commented that "crafty little lefties" have a long shelf life if they've got good command.] That's the biggest thing -- just try to command all four of them in the zone, throw it early for a strike off-speed and then bust them in late with the fastball."

On working in tandem with Vincent Velasquez: "He's a power pitcher in the truest sense of the word, good hard fastball, righty, really good command of it. And so I come into the game and I can throw changeups, but it's kind of got the same effect, being 25 miles an hour slower. It's fun. I come in there, different look, maybe a little deception or something. I don't know what the heck's going on; I can't watch myself. But it seems to be working. It's fun pitching with Vince. He's damn good. He can throw the hell out of the ball."

How does he feel about the tandem in general: "It's different. It's very different. I don't mind it. We're having success with it and that's kind of the whole point, and a lot of starters are getting innings. I think it's actually harder on bullpen guys -- like a closer. We've got some really good starting pitching in the Astros [system] so these bullpen guys [haven't made many appearances]. That's a little rough."

What is he working on?: "At this point, pretty much just working on fastball command and developing a bond with my catcher here. [This was said as Roberto Peña happened to walk past us in the dugout which led to a discussion about catchers in general and Peña in particular.]

"He's [Peña] very good. I enjoy throwing to him, both of the catchers really -- Morales and Peña. They can stick it. Good arm. Smart behind the plate. He's very good. Such an underrated part of catching is calling the game. As a pitcher, I just step on the rubber and I know that's the right pitch. I can just get into a rhythm. I don't have to stand there and shake and wait. I can just get on the rubber and throw. Just dial it in instead of having to worry about all that."

Whose pitch would he like to steal?: "I've got to go with Kenny Long. Kenny Long's slider. He's one of the funnest guys I've ever gotten to watch pitch. He just flips it up there and they can't hit it. It's got some kind of darkness to it and they just cannot hit it. No lefty can hit it. I'll take that pitch."

Which Astros hitter would he least like to face?: "A lot of them. Andrew Aplin's got to be up there. He's a good hitter. It's got to be [George] Springer, though. He's big-league ready right now. One little mistake and that ball is gone. He's probably the one that would be toughest to face."

How did he prepare for his first full season?: "Just trying to keep the same routine. It was my first off-season which was kind of iffy. Not really sure what to do. I went through all of college just being told what to do, 'come here, throw this time, this, this, this'. So it was kind of interesting having to do it on my own. I could have been more prepared for Spring Training. I wasn't quite ready but it's just kind of working out."

Something most people don't know about him?: "I studied Sports Psychology in college, just Psychology but I kind of did it with sports. Everything I did had to do with sports. I really enjoy that part of the game. Noticing guys, whether it's on the bases or up at bat or a pitcher. I like putting myself in there, thinking about what I would do from a mental standpoint. I graduated in January. I'll probably end up going to graduate school after baseball is done ... hopefully when I'm 50."

What would he say to Astros fans?: "Stick with it. We're going to be good. We're going to be fun to watch. It reminds me of when the Devil Rays had that big influx of really good pitchers and players all rise up at the same time and they made the playoffs. We're going to have something like that. There's just too much damn talent and everybody wins. Everybody's got the right attitude. You can just tell everybody was businesslike in Spring Training and carried it over here and we're winning. It's going to be fun. Give it a couple of years. It's going to be exciting down in Houston."

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Listed at 6'4" 205#, I don't think that Bircher can lay claim to the "little" part of the "crafty little lefty" designation, but he's got the crafty part going well so far this season using his plus changeup to full advantage.  When Peña walked by Joe and I in the dugout, I asked him, "So, is he any good?," pointing to Bircher. Peña's deadpan response, "Yeah, he's getting better." Peña then laughed, "No, he's good." I would concur with that assessment.

Thank you for your time, Joe, and the best of luck as the season unfolds.

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