TERRE HAUTE — Indiana State alum Joe Thatcher went undrafted after a solid career closing and starting baseball games for coach Bob Warn at Indiana State. Just three years later, Thatcher is knocking on the door of pitching in the Major Leagues.
On Thursday, Thatcher began competing for a job in the Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen. He was told to pack up and move into the Major League clubhouse.
The 25-year-old Thatcher has made a quick ascent from independent ball to sitting down in Brewers’ manager Ned Yost’s office. Thatcher is “a classic late bloomer who knows how to set up hitters and works ahead in the count with average stuff,” according to one published report by Baseball America.
Thatcher’s dad Phil was Warn’s first recruit in 1977. Phil Thatcher said he can’t “put my finger on why [Joe’s] so much better now than when he was in college.
“He hasn’t changed his mechanics. He just kind of woke up one day throwing about five mile an hour faster than he did in college,” Phil Thatcher said of his oldest son. “He always had good command of his pitches and knew how to pitch.”
During Thatcher’s junior year, he took a line drive off his throwing arm in a game against Wichita State that ended his season.
“His velocity never came back fully,” said Warn, adding that Thatcher always threw mid to upper 80s. “It usually takes a good year for those injuries to lose effect on you. He started to come on his last year, but he was not able to sustain. He’d be throwing hard and then he’d drop off.”
Thatcher, who was a groomsman in Barry Warn’s wedding last month, has always been a pitcher that works ahead and challenges hitters, Bob Warn said.
“He never — and I repeat — he never beats himself,” Warn said. “You don’t find that in very many pitchers.”
Thatcher has been challenging hitters in minor league parks all over the country these past few seasons with his slider and his cutting fastball that reaches 91 mph.
In 2004, Thatcher found his first professional home in O’Fallon, Mo., as a closer for the River City Rascals of the Frontier League.
Thatcher had a 2.98 earned-run average in his first year for the Rascals. During the first 18 games of the 2005 season, Thatcher was even more impressive with a 1.27 ERA.
A scout for the Milwaukee Brewers noticed Thatcher at the Frontier League All-Star game and signed him. By the end of that season, he was mowing down hitters in the Brewers’ high Class A affiliate, the Brevard County Manatees. He didn’t allow a run in seven games, as opponents hit just .188.
Thatcher went to Class A West Virginia in 2006 and picked up 10 saves in 26 games. Back to Brevard County, Thatcher struck out 32 hitters in 31 innings, being used primarily against left-handed hitters. Opponents hit a mind-blowing .119 against him.
Promoted to Class AA Huntsville at the end of the year, Thatcher allowed just one run in five innings of relief work, striking out six.
Thatcher had a 0.73 ERA and one save in 14 appearances in Hawaii Winter Baseball. When he arrived for spring training, Thatcher was told the Brewers were going to take a good look at him.
“But he didn’t really know what that meant,” Phil Thatcher said.
Phil, a right-handed reliever on Warn’s first Missouri Valley Conference championship team in 1979, was thrilled Friday that his son was coming so close to reaching the big leagues. Phil Thatcher married his wife Sara right after college and didn’t pursue a professional career.
“They wouldn’t have him up there if they didn’t think he could make the squad,” said Phil Thatcher, who was also celebrating the first birthday of his granddaughter Jordan Thatcher on Friday. Jordan is the daughter of ISU women’s basketball player and Joe’s sister Anne Thatcher.
Yost told the media Thursday that the move to move had to do with the Brewers’ struggles in the bullpen through 17 spring games.
“This is more [in case] some other areas of our pen don’t straighten out,” Yost said. “We’re looking for somebody to get somebody out.”
The Brewers have only one other lefty, Brian Shouse, in camp this year. The 38-year-old Shouse — a former Bradley pitcher — was a solid setup-man for Milwaukee last year, finishing second on the team with 14 holds.
Shouse has a 7.20 ERA so far this spring, but Yost said the move has nothing to do with that. Matt Wise had a 12.71 ERA and Jose Capellan a 5.40 ERA until each throwing scoreless innings Thursday.
“I’ve got no concern that our guys aren’t going to be ready to go,” Yost told MLB.com. “But, again, we’re going to take the guys who are producing on that mound with us to Milwaukee. If guys are still struggling at that point, we will do what we need to do.”
Milwaukee might have to find room for a guy that held left-handed hitters to a .145 average in 55-regular-season at-bats last year.
• Another southpaw to watch — A former standout starter at ISU, Mitch Stetter is also listed among the top left-handed relievers in the Brewers’ organization.
• Brewers update — Milwaukee won 3-2 Friday against the Los Angeles Angels. The Brewers’ bullpen threw three scoreless innings of relief.
Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (812) 231-4356.