The transformation initially sounds simple.
After appearing to crash out of organized baseball when he was cut in spring training in 2017 by the Miami Marlins, Caleb Thielbar pitched the rest of the season with the American Association’s St. Paul Saints.
Then, he was back in organized baseball with the minor league system of the Detroit Tigers for 2018 and 2019, which ended with a brief two-game appearance for the AAA team of the Atlanta Braves after he was traded for cash considerations.
In 2019, especially, Thielbar — a 33-year old Randolph native — was a dominant left-handed force out of the bullpen and finished with a 3.22 ERA in 78 1/3 innings, in which he posted a strikeout per nine innings rate (K/9) of 10.8, which was the 41st best in AAA among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched.
His strikeout-minus-walk rate (K/BB) was even better at 5.88, which was third best in all of AAA baseball among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched.
“I just started throwing harder, mainly,” Thielbar summarized.
That increased velocity caught the eye of the Minnesota Twins, who signed Thielbar to a minor-league contract this offseason with an invite to spring training. An impressive stint before spring training was shut down allowed Thielbar to earn a spot in the organization’s 60-player pool who are eligible to play in the major leagues this season.
He’s been practicing with the main roster at Target Field every day since camp reopened at the start of July, while a different satellite roster is training at CHS Field in St. Paul. It’s more than likely Thielbar will play this season for the Twins, the only MLB team he’s played for in 2013-15.
“To have it taken away for a few months was not fun, but it’s fun to be back, especially with this team,” Thielbar said. “We’re really looking forward to going out there and performing, because this team is ready to go and this team is ready to win. For a guy like me, I’m just trying to go out there and be able contribute in some way, hopefully with the big league roster, but at the very least help these guys get better and ready to go.”
While it’s true Thielbar has been throwing harder the last two seasons, it’s not as simple as waking up one morning with a couple extra ticks of velocity on his fastball.
Prior to the 2017 season, Thielbar was recommended by a friend to the philosophies of Driveline Baseball, a baseball training facility based out of Seattle. The facility’s website boils down its ethos simply to, “identifying what’s holding you back and developing a plan to fix it.”
Initially, Thielbar enrolled in the online program, which he described as the “basic” version of the services Driveline typically offers. Still, it helped add velocity to Thielbar’s fastball and livened his secondary pitches in the months leading up to spring training.
Once he arrived in Florida, however, the improvements and alterations fell apart, leading to the Marlins releasing him at the end of March. Knowing that Driveline’s “basic” program yielded results, Thielbar knew he needed to fully invest in the program if he wanted another opportunity.
“I’m just going to go out there for a couple weeks and learn what I need to learn,” he thought at the time.
After that first trip, he returned for his third stint with the St. Paul Saints and posted a 2.01 ERA in 22 1/3 innings, which led to a minor-league contract offer with the Tigers. Thielbar has since visited Driveline every winter.
“The technology side of the game, I’ve been able to see how all my pitches spin and I’ve been able to adjust a little bit to make them even better,” he said. “It’s just a combination of everything, really, that’s put it all together. I’m not all the way to where I want to be yet, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to get there just because of some limitations with my body, but I’m trying.”
Playing through a revolution
When Thielbar was drafted in 2009 by the Milwaukee Brewers, he was playing in a different time period of professional baseball.
At that time, he still didn’t have easy access to video for him to analyze his outings in between appearances.
“I didn’t even really have it, honestly, until I made it up to Minnesota in 2013,” Thielbar said. “We had it a little bit in Rochester in 2012, but it wasn’t really something I got into. It was there, but it wasn’t as integrated as it would be. You really didn’t see it start to get integrated in the minor leagues until ’15 or ’16. The difference is crazy, and it’s happening overnight as far as the timeline goes in the baseball world, anyway.”
Rapsodo, a high-speed camera to analyze pitches that played a vital role in Thielbar’s career revival, wasn’t announced to the public until 2016.
Last year, the Twins first installed Rapsodo machines and Edgertronic cameras at their spring training facilities.
“Now it’s ubiquitous throughout the game,” Thielbar said. “The amount of stuff that has come out and the fine-tuning of it, the ease of use has gotten so much easier. The game is just fun to be a part of. It’s fun to still be playing.”
Part of him does wish and wonder how his career might have been different if he had been born a decade later, however.
If he discovered how to better refine his pitches, and keep his arm healthier with the use of weighted baseballs and other training techniques, might his career have looked different? At the very least, Thielbar said he could have been able to increase his velocity even more if he underwent this makeover as a 24-year old rather than an aging pitcher in his 30s.
“I could have been a lot better when I was up with Minnesota before, but it just wasn’t there,” Thielbar said. “You can’t really get too mad about that. The technology part of the game has probably been the No. 1 driver in how much the game has progressed in the last five or six years and how much it will continue to progress and guys start to learn it and come up through their whole careers using it.”
The most obvious sign of what’s changed for Thielbar today since he first debuted with the Twins in 2013 has been his fastball velocity, which is now consistently in the low-90s and can tough as high as 95 miles per hour.
What a more-trained eye can notice, and what Driveline’s machines helped harness, was his pitch movement. With Rapsodo, Thielbar was able to view frame-by-frame images of how his pitches darted in one direction or another, while also discovering his spin rates and spin axis.
His fastball has always had a natural rise, but with the help of a Rapsodo he was able to identify it was wasting kinetic energy with marginal horizontal movement.
“Now I’ve been able to straighten that out and get rise among the elite fastballs of the game,” Thielbar said. “Unfortunately I don’t throw 96, so it’s not an elite, elite fastball, but for a guy that throws 90 to 94, my fastball rises better than probably 90% of the guys in the game.”
The primary breakthrough came with his curveball, however.
He’s been able to maximize a near-perfect spin rate and efficiency with the pitch to turn it into of the best left-handed curveballs in baseball, according to Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball, both of which Thielbar said he started monitoring religiously to better understand how his newly-developed pitch arsenal compared against his peers.
Clayton Kershaw, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who has won three Cy Young Awards and a Most Valuable Player Award, is widely considered the best left-handed pitcher of this generation. His most dangerous offering is his curveball, which possesses between 10.5 to 11 inches of vertical movement when properly executed.
“I’m getting 10 to 10 1/2 (inches of vertical break),” Thielbar said. “It’s close. (Kershaw) just throws a little harder and has a little more spin on it. I’ve done basically all that I can to make it close, but it’s not ever going to be quite that good, but it’s still a really good pitch and really tough for hitters to hit.
“From a pure stuff standpoint, I’ve been able to make my stuff into some of the better pitches in the game,” he continued. “Just from a pure numbers standpoint. Whether or not they actually perform in a game is another story.”
to the mound
Sometime in the middle of 2018, Thielbar said everything clicked.
His velocity and movement spiked, and he experienced the most consistent success of his professional career.
“He was the best reliever in the International League,’’ said Doug Mientkiewicz, the manager of Detroit’s AAA team, in a Minneapolis Star Tribune story from Feb. 13. “Numbers don’t lie. He should have been in the big leagues. Period.”
When Mientkiewicz provided the quote to the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse, Thielbar was turning heads in spring training as a non-40 man roster invitee. In six official appearances, he tallied six innings while allowing two runs, striking out 10 and walking only one.
His last outing of spring training was his best, Thielbar said. The next day, MLB shut everything down.
“Now I’m having to go through that process again of getting everything in sync, getting all the pitches moving like I want to and throwing them where I want to,” Thielbar said. “That was the most frustrating thing for me, because of how I was feeling personally at the time. Now just trying to get back to that feeling is where I’m at, and it’s not the easiest thing for me. Hopefully I get enough outings to where I feel good and put myself in a good enough position to maybe make the team.”