After eight years working under Rick Rembielak as Kent State's pitching coach, Mike Birkbeck was offered the Golden Flashes' head job upon Rembielak's departure for Wake Forest.
One reason was that Birkbeck wanted to have time to be the best father he could be. But beyond that, he was a pitching coach through and through, and he thought he could serve the program best by remaining in that role.
"I got offered this job because he turned it down," said Scott Stricklin, who left his post as a Georgia Tech assistant under former KSU coach Danny Hall to take over as the Flashes' head coach in 2004. "He communicated to me that he wanted to remain the pitching coach—that's what he loves to do. The best thing that's ever happened to me is to walk in here and have him be my associate head coach and pitching coach."
Along with dynamic recruiting coordinator Scott Daeley, Stricklin and Birkbeck have built upon Kent State's successes under Hall and Rembielak, leading the program to new heights. With five regional appearances in the last six years, capped by its first-ever trip to the College World Series in 2012, Kent State has emerged as one of the nation's very best mid-major programs.
COACH OF THE YEAR
|1999||Dean Stotz, Stanford|
|2000||*Tim Corbin, Clemson|
|2001||*Brian O'Connor, Notre Dame|
|2002||*Jim Toman, South Carolina|
|2003||Jim Lawler, Texas A&M|
|2004||*Dave Serrano, Cal State Fullerton|
|2005||Bob Wojick, Eastern Conn. State|
|2006||Mitch Thompson, Baylor|
|2007||*Fritz Hamburg, Army|
|2008||Rob Fornasiere, Minnsota|
|2009||Kevin McMullan, Virginia|
|2010||Derek Johnson, Vanderbilt|
|2011||*Chad Holbrook, South Carolina|
|*now a head coach|
For that success, as well as for his fine track record of developing professional arms and for the immense respect he has earned from his peers and scouts, Birkbeck is the 2012 Baseball America/American Baseball Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year.
"This is an individual award, but it represents the excellence of so many other people," Birkbeck said. "I'm proud to share this with my fellow assistants and all the guys who have played for Kent State University. Obviously I owe a lot to baseball, and I love being able to pass on what so many other people have given to me, on to the young men I'm fortunate to deal with."
The Path To Kent
Birkbeck's relationship with Stricklin—and with Kent State—goes back more than two decades, to Stricklin's playing days under Hall at Kent State. Birkbeck, an Ohio native who played college ball at Akron, reached the big leagues with the Brewers in 1986, making 46 starts over the next four seasons. He wanted a place to work out in the offseason, and Hall let him use Kent State's indoor facility. Stricklin would catch bullpen sessions for him.
A righthander with a solid fastball and a very good curveball, Birkbeck extended his pro career into his mid-30s by improving his changeup and his feel for pitching. He spent parts of two seasons in Japan and made his final big leagues appearances in 1995 for the Mets.
By the winter of 1996-'97, Birkbeck still had the desire to pitch, but his desire to prepare for the season had waned, especially after he spent most of the previous season rehabbing from injury. So when Rembielak had an unexpected opening on his coaching staff that winter, he reached out to Birkbeck.
"I decided this would be a nice transition from playing, something to tide me over for a while, until I decided what I wanted to do when I grew up," Birkbeck said. "Once I started, I loved where I was, who I was working with—and I still do. I've never been able to leave. I honestly thought I'd end up in pro baseball as a coach, but I took a different course, and stayed in college baseball with kids."
The Birkbeck Philosophy
Early in his coaching career, Birkbeck reached out to Hall to ask about what sort of traits he should look for in potential pitching recruits.
"He said very simply, 'They either have outstanding stuff, outstanding projectability, or they just win a lot.' I've never strayed too far from that in my own personal recruiting evaluation," Birkbeck said. "Projection is a big part of our program. Over time, I've kind of developed. You know what you like, and you may not even be able to verbalize it. You like what you see or you feel; I'm more of a feel coach or an instincts coach than anything else. That's the type of pitcher I was when I pitched, and I rely on my instincts as a coach."
That helps explain why Birkbeck has had success in developing pitchers with very disparate styles. Under Birkbeck's tutelage, power pitchers like Chris Carpenter and Andrew Chafin have thrived, and so have more finesse-oriented pitchers like Dirk Hayhurst, Andy Sonnanstine and David Starn.
Starn is one of Birkbeck's most recent success stories; in four years at Kent State, the funky, soft-throwing lefthander morphed from an unheralded walk-on into one of the most accomplished pitchers in Mid-American Conference history. Rather than try to overhaul Starn's herky-jerky delivery, he embraced it.
"The one thing I try to do is draw the best out of each individual and not have them conform to some very rigid belief that I might have," Birkbeck said. "Once they get to this level, they already have talent. Every one of our guys, they have their own individual ways of throwing. We try to enhance what they are already able to do."
That isn't to say Birkbeck lacks core principles when it comes to pitching. He is a steadfast believer in the importance of fastball command, which he teaches by getting pitchers to work within different lanes—to the arm side and the glove side. And he wants pitchers to be able to change speeds and spin a breaking ball. Birkbeck isn't trying to revolutionize pitching—these are fundamental concepts, but there is value in simplicity.
A great coach also must be a great communicator, and that is where the soft-spoken Birkbeck really stands out, according to Stricklin.
"Any good coach is able to communicate, but he'll still get on the mound and show them how to snap off breaking balls," Stricklin said. "His credentials as a former major league player, and how he goes about his business—he has so much respect from everyone on our team.
"I don't think you can overstate the importance that he has to our program and this coaching staff. He's so well respected by—not only our players but by other coaches, pro scouts, summer high school coaches, you name it. He's been the backbone of our program.
"He's the perfect pitching coach."