Kent State University pitching coach Mike Birkbeck wasn’t shocked to hear that a former player of his, Eric Dorsch, was drafted by a Pittsburgh team — but he was surprised by which one.
“I was surprised the Steelers didn’t draft him,” he said.
Dorsch, a 6-foot-8, 270-pound relief pitcher whom Birkbeck calls “Gigantor,” was drafted June 7 by the Pirates in the 15th round of the MLB draft. The massive, right-hander, a Pittsburgh native and North Allegheny graduate, left Kent State after recording 10 saves his redshirt junior year as the team’s closer.
As a high school senior in 2010, he was a tall, unpolished pitcher with little Division I college interest. He wasn’t even one of the two best pitchers with the North Allegheny Tigers. That would have been Ryan Oglesby, who went 16-2 in his final two prep years, and Tanner Wilt, who went 12-1 in his high school career before signing with Pitt.
“We had a nice class of pitchers, that’s for sure,” North Allegheny head baseball coach Andy Maddix said.
Dorsch’s size made him a top five pitcher for the Tigers and their primary closer his senior year, but he lacked finesse. Maddix, who was his middle school basketball coach before coaching Dorsch’s last three years of high school baseball, saw his slow, constant progress.
“A lot of times, taller guys take longer to develop. He incrementally got better,” Maddix said. “The defining thing about Eric is he worked really hard.”
Even though he wasn’t the best pitcher on his high school team and received no interest from professional scouts while at North Allegheny and was not offered a major Division I scholarship — he was a preferred walk-on at Kent State — Dorsch’s goal of playing professionally never faltered.
“His patience paid off,” Maddix said.
Dorsch said that Birkbeck played a large role in his decision to attend Kent State. The Golden Flashes, however, only noticed him by accident.
Former Kent State head coach Scott Stricklin was scouting other high school players when he first saw Dorsch. He took note and the school eventually told Dorsch he could join their team, but without a scholarship.
Dorsch needed a lot of refining out of high school.
“He was very, very raw,” Birkbeck said. “To be honest, his freshman year was a struggle.”
Birkbeck went to work on Dorsch during his redshirt year to fine-tune his mechanics and delivery. That year, his fastball barely hovered above 82 mph. But Birkbeck, a former major league pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets, knew he could do better. With a week left before Dorsch’s first season was over, Birkbeck had an idea.
“We were going to send Eric home [for the summer]. I asked him very simply to try something for me. To be specific, I said, ‘I want you to throw the ball any way you want other than the way you have been.’ ”
It was a simple request. Dorsch altered his arm slot, dropping his arm down a bit so he wasn’t throwing so overhand.
The improvements were instant. He began throwing 90 mph.
“Coming out of high school from where I was then to where I am now, I’ve made tremendous strides,” Dorsch said.
After his third year at Kent State, when Dorsch was still a non-scholarship player, he was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 21st round. He decided to return to school to sharpen his skills and get closer to a degree, this time with a scholarship.
“I had my mind made up before the draft that I was more interested in getting another year completed on my degree,” he said.
This year, when the Pirates called his name in the 15th round, he was ready to sign.
“I was just watching the draft tracker on my computer and I saw that they had picked me and I was obviously very excited, and my family and my girlfriend and everyone was very excited,” he said. “So I was just very grateful that they gave me the opportunity.
“Being able to pitch at PNC [Park] one day would be a dream come true. That’s something you always dream about when you’re a little kid, to get to pitch for the hometown team.”
In order for Dorsch to make it to the big leagues, he’ll need to capitalize on his size and strength.
“[My advantages are] the build that I have,” he said. “I have a good fastball and good fire.”
As Birkbeck said, he’s a lot of “man coming at you.”
Birkbeck said that Dorsch’s “wicked” arm slot gives his fastball good action, which pairs well with a slider that Birkbeck describes as “filthy” and Maddix calls “nasty.”
He’s currently playing Class A baseball with the Jamestown Jammers and has pitched 42⁄3 innings in four games, allowing three earned runs for an ERA of 5.79. But for the coaches that know Dorsch best, that is no reason to be alarmed.
“If the progress from the last eight years continues, then the sky is limit,” Maddix said.
Hayes Gardner: email@example.com and Twitter @HayesGardner.