In a bullpen dotted with familiar faces and regular contributors, he was considered a long shot at the start of spring training.
As a non-roster invitee, however, Caleb Thielbar impressed enough to be included in the 60-player pool for the Minnesota Twins when Major League Baseball reconvened in late June following the shutdown for COVID-19.
Then, the 33-year old Randolph native was called up to the big league squad in early August and hasn’t relinquished his spot in the bullpen since, helping the Twins win their second consecutive American League Central crown after nearly leaving baseball last winter after two years with the AAA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers had not resulted in another chance at the major league level.
“I knew (my stuff) should play, but you do have to get that confirmation and prove that you can do it,” Thielbar said. “Obviously, you have to prove you can do it year after year, too. One 60-game season isn’t enough to make a career.”
When Thielbar debuted this season, it was his first time on a major league mound since 2015, when he was also with Minnesota. Even after a season debut that turned rocky when he was sent out for a third inning of relief and surrendered a pair of runs in a 7-3 victory Aug. 4 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Thielbar turned in one of the most impressive seasons for a Twins reliever this season.
His ERA (2.25) ranks third on the team among pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched, and his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 2.34 is second on the team and tops in the bullpen thanks to a three-pitch arsenal of a fastball, curveball and slider that’s limited opponents to a .192 batting average.
“I knew my pitches had gotten better and I knew that they should play, but, yeah, to actually see it is another thing,” Thielbar said.
That level of success has turned Thielbar from a feel-good story to a valued weapon out of Minnesota’s bullpen entering the start of the best-of-three wild-card series Tuesday against the Houston Astros. So far this year, the left-hander ranks second on the team in Win Probability Added and in Clutch Rating, both of which are calculated by fangraphs.com.
Thielbar said he believes those numbers are boosted by the number of times he’s pitched this year in extra innings, when the offense automatically starts with a runner on second base, but also acknowledges there’s a reason he’s called upon in those situations.
“To be able to do that on this team, too, which already has a lot of really good arms in the bullpen, to get that opportunity has been really special,” he said.
That late-inning success is further emphasized by Fangraph’s shutdowns and meltdowns metrics. Eight times this year, appearances by Thielbar have boosted Minnesota’s win probability by at least six percentage points. Those eight shutdowns are tied for third on the team behind Tyler Duffey (11) and Sergio Romo (nine).
Where Thielbar sets himself apart, however, is on the other side of the spectrum. When a pitcher decreases his team’s chances at victory by at least six percentage points, he’s charged with a meltdown.
In the regular season, Thielbar is the only member of a bullpen without a meltdown and is one of 20 relievers in baseball with at least 10 innings pitched who can say the same. Of those 20 without a meltdown, his eight shutdowns rank first.
“That’s why we pitch,” Thielbar said. “That’s the fun thing about the game, to get into situations like that. When you do it, you have to prove yourself in those situations to get more opportunities. It’s not super comparable to the minor leagues, but you throw in those situations all the time in the minor leagues.”
That late-inning success, borne out of a litany of changes he made to his pitch repertoire since his last major league appearance in 2015, has given second life to Thielbar’s playing career.
Whether or not that continues into next season is still an open question, however.
“We’ll let the game decide that, I guess,” Thielbar said. “It might not be my decision to make. We’ll see what ends up happening.”