By Chris Langin, Pitching Trainer
Caleb Thielbar was over five years removed from his last pitch at the big league level.
At 33, not only was he on the wrong side of the aging curve, but the talent level of the league was continuing to rise – resulting in a larger barrier for entry. When Thielbar was drafted in 2009, average fastball velocity was just above 92 miles per hour.
10 years later, it was trending towards 94.
In 2019, Thielbar spent the season in the Detroit Tigers organization, a team with the 3rd worst record (47-114) for a Major League Team since 1952. If a betting man was to develop a scenario in which Thielbar would at least get on a major league mound again, this would’ve been the optimal one.
But the call never came.
“After 2019, I was pretty satisfied that I had given it everything I had and would not get another chance,” Thielbar said. “Earlier that season I had decided to be done and take a coaching job.”
Six years prior, Thielbar had to have felt on top of the world. He was just 26-years-old and had finished his first big league season with a 1.76 ERA, sixth best in the American League among pitchers with at least 40 innings.
26-year-old Randolph HS graduate and South Dakota State alumnus Caleb Thielbar made his major league debut with the #MNTwins on this date in 2013.— Minnesotan Major Leaguers (@MajorMinnesota) May 20, 2021
He didn’t allow a run in his first 17 major league appearances, and finished his rookie season with a 1.76 ERA and 0.826 WHIP. pic.twitter.com/qOvzFvFeI4
The left arm that had carried him to the highest levels of baseball was now limited to writing scouting reports for Augustana University, a DII school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
We’ve heard of pitchers battling back from the minor leagues after previously being reliable big league hurlers. Some have even come back all the way from independent ball.
Thielbar had spent the past four years working between both routes—but coming back from a livelihood that comprises meeting with recruits for breakfast and holding up a Stalker radar gun to 15-17-year-old kids? Not exactly the most conventional route back to the big leagues.
But for Thielbar, most of his life has been built around overcoming odds and adversity.
Thielbar competed at Randolph High School, a 1A school in Minnesota. His graduating class was comprised of just 40 people. During his senior year of high school, he had a fastball that topped out at 77 miles per hour. There wasn’t much interest from colleges.
“Not much recruitment out of high school. I went to a showcase camp at South Dakota State and that ended up being my in there. Otherwise I was likely going to a D3 school,” Thielbar said.
South Dakota State was in the middle of transitioning into a D1 program. Even after his freshman and sophomore years, the velocity wasn’t getting past the low 80’s. His freshman year statistics are almost impossible to believe for somebody who eventually played major league baseball.
In 41.2 innings, he struck out just 11 hitters. Good for 2.38 K/9 and a putrid 6% strikeout rate. He almost struck out as many hitters as he gave up home runs (8).
For reference, over the past 15 years, there have been 5061 major league seasons with at least 40 innings pitched. Only 1 season had a pitcher with a K/9 less than the 2.38 mark Thielbar showcased his freshman year.
His first major jump came during his junior year.
“I got some video analysis by Dick Mills. It wasn’t perfect, but I learned to use my lower body better as I had been all arm up to that point. Between that and really highlighting weights hard that year, I began sitting 87-89 my junior year and started attracting pro attention,” Thielbar said.
In just two years, Thielbar more than quadrupled his strikeout rate, going from whiffing 2.38 batters per 9 to 10.27. He had gone from barely reaching double digit strikeouts in 41 innings his freshman year to punching 100 tickets his junior year.
He was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 18th round at the conclusion of his 2009 season. Still, objectively, his dreams of becoming a big leaguer were slim. Just 4%, or about 1 in every 25 pitchers who were signed between the 16th-20th round from 2008 to 2012 were worth at least 1 career WAR at the big league level.
To complicate matters more, Thielbar was released just a year into his Brewers career. Similar to high school, he wasn’t highly sought after by affiliate teams. He continued his career, taking an indy ball opportunity with the St. Paul Saints, in the American Association at time.
“My mindset after the first release was that I had been training again already and ended up getting an indy ball spot pretty quick. So I just thought I’d give it a shot and see what happened,” Thielbar said. “I ended up learning a lot from some veterans on that team and it really helped me get back to a place where I was confident and effective.”
He spent the majority of 2011 with the Saints. After 43 games, the Twins called, and he began his first stint with the organization. That’s when little went wrong for Thielbar. He ascended from High A to Triple-A in 2012 and had a tremendous rookie season in 2013. He was the first player from South Dakota State to play in the big leagues in over 100 years. In 2014, he appeared in 54 games with a 3.40 ERA and 3.55 FIP.
But in 2015, the upward trend Thielbar experienced came to a screeching halt. He went from being penciled into the Twins’ bullpen for the foreseeable future to not having a job.
“After 2014 I was happy with results but I knew something was wrong after pitching through shoulder tendinitis the whole second half,” Thielbar said. “Problem was, I didn’t know what to do other than rest and hope it got better. It carried over into 2015 and led to a frustrating year.”
Thielbar’s “stuff”, which didn’t have a massive margin for error to begin with, given his 90 mph velocity, took a nosedive. The stadium radar gun rarely started with a 9. His ability to whiff batters diminished. With little room to be picky with his pitches, the walk rate started climbing as well. His K-BB rate was barely positive, at 1.6%.
To put his K-BB rate into perspective, since 2015, only 2 qualified relievers out of over 1,000 have put up a worse K-BB rate at the big league level. Thielbar was pitching like this in the Minor Leagues at 28 years old.
His poor K-BB rate, combined with the lack of velocity, was so troublesome that he received no real interest from organizations despite his MLB contributions in 2013 and 2014. He’d be heading back to the St. Paul Saints for round two.
“After the year, Brian Garman (now a minor league coach with the Cincinnati Reds) introduced me to Driveline, and I started buying in. My shoulder finally felt better, and I was able to keep pushing through those years because I had flashes of really good stuff. I’d have an outing once in a while where I’d be 91-94, but never really put it all together consistently until the last few months of 2018. Ever since then the velo has been pretty steadily the best of my career.”
Thielbar spent the next two years with the Saints. His velo trended upward, and the strikeouts returned. The Tigers took a chance on him in 2018 and signed him to a minor league deal. Despite being 31 with multiple years of service time, Thielbar threw 38 innings in Double-A. He struck out 40 and walked just three.
He ended the season in Triple-A and gave it one last hurrah in 2019.
Thielbar pitched the entirety of 2019 to no avail. Despite pitching for an MLB club with little to play for, and a historically bad season, he never got an opportunity. He struck out 94 and walked just 16 in nearly 80 innings of work, but none of them were at the big league level.
From June 1st to September 1st of that year, Thielbar had what he described as “the best 3 months” of his career.
Thielbar limited hitters to an OPS of .535 and had an ERA of 1.78 and a FIP of 2.09 over that stretch. He struck out 31% of hitters he faced and walked just 6%. His trademark 69-73 mph curveball had a near 50% whiff rate.
Caleb Thielbar, Very nice 69mph Curveball…and sword. ⚔️👍♋️
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 2, 2020
Over that same time span, the Detroit Tigers went 18-62. The 32-year-old had returned to the 2013 version of himself and then some. If this wasn’t enough to earn a call to the big leagues, under what would’ve seemed to be ideal of circumstances, what would be? After going back and forth on the coaching offer he received during the season, Thielbar decided it was time to move on from playing and commit to coaching.
“Having the best 3 months of my career and not getting a call up solidified my decision,” Thielbar said.
Our new pitching coach knows a thing or two about throwing the ⚾️ around!
We are excited to welcome former Twins pitcher Caleb Thielbar to Augustana Baseball!
— Augustana Baseball (@AugieBaseball) September 12, 2019
Going out in style
Thielbar spent the entirety of October settling into his new role as the Augustana Pitching Coach. He had gone as far as attending recruiting events in Arizona and eating breakfast with recruits.
“The first time I met him I was taking a recruit and his parents to their campus tour,” Clay Collison said, the current Augustana pitching coach. “Caleb walked out of the building we were going into and he could definitely tell I was a baseball coach. He kinda walked away, but then turned around and was like ‘are you Clay?’ The mom had overheard him introduce himself to me. She looked at me and said ‘Caleb Thielbar? That pitched for the Twins?'”
Outside of a Major League contract, there wasn’t much that would’ve convinced Thielbar to pick up his cleats again during the winter. The one exception? An opportunity to play with Team USA.
Still unconvinced of fully committing back to baseball, Thielbar saw the opportunity as a way to go out with a bang. Plus it would only cost him a few months away from his new job.
“Getting a chance to play with team USA after the 2019 season was the thrill of my life, and I figured that would be a cool way to go out,” Thielbar said.
The experience also granted Thielbar a unique opportunity to extract information for his primary job. Coaching.
“One of the things we did with Team USA while preparing to go overseas was play some college teams in Arizona,” Thielbar said. “We went down to the University of Arizona and I was able to get a meeting with Nate Yeskie (now the Texas A&M pitching coach) about coaching. Just so happened that Kyle Boddy was in town too and we all ended up sitting down for about 45 minutes talking about coaching tactics and philosophy. It was a great meeting for me at that point in my coaching career and a pretty rare opportunity for a young coach.”
Thielbar also had a follow up dinner with multiple recruits during that same trip. Both ended up committing soon after. While his coaching was off to a hot start, Thielbar’s fastball still had life on it, reaching 93 mph throughout his outings with Team USA. The stuff was still there from the previous season, and front offices likely noted the potential of his 2019 peripherals.
Caleb Thielbar is not pitching like an assistant baseball coach — which he is, at Augustana University. Impressive inning for @USABaseball, with one strikeout on a spin-tastic 71-mph curve and another on an overpowering 93-mph fastball. @GoAugie @AugustanaSD— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 4, 2019
“Half the league started calling,” Thielbar said. “Figured that was a pretty good indication I should give it another go. The Twins just offered the best opportunity and situation for me and my family.”
After having a solid Spring Training at the beginning of 2020, the pandemic hit.
Five years removed from his last pitch at the big league level, and having previously retired, perhaps this would further validate that the game had passed him over. The Twins were coming off a 101-win season, more than double the amount of wins the Tigers had.
Thielbar instead asked what he could do over that time to give him the best chance to contribute and got to work on reinventing his slider.
During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, Thielbar drove an hour twice a week to work on the slider with high-speed cameras at Augustana. Collison, who had taken over pitching coach duties from Thielbar, assisted him.
“It basically just happened one day”, Thielbar said. “Tried a different grip during a bullpen, and it looked as if it had some decent sweep from the eye test. It wasn’t until I threw on a Trackman during summer camp that we confirmed it was what we were looking for.”
When it was time to report back, Thielbar showed off his new slider. The pitch was averaging over 14 inches of sweep, or more than double what he had showcased in 2014. The pitch also maintained a high proportion of its velocity given the movement added. It was just 1.2 miles per hour slower than his 2014 averages, at 77.8 mph.
Last cool thing about pitch design and how the game is changing. Below is the number MLB player pitch types that averaged a sweeper for the entire year (min 25 pitches thrown):— Dan Aucoin (@dan_aucoin13) October 26, 2021
—- Rapsodo is released —-
2021: 70 (lmao)
The new slider, combined with the impression he had with the team during Spring Training led to him having his contract selected in early August. He threw a pitch at the big league level for the first time in nearly 2,000 days.
We love a good comeback story. 🥺— Bally Sports North (@BallySportsNOR) August 4, 2020
For the first time since 2015, Minnesota native Caleb Thielbar (@cthielbar56) pitched in an MLB game. The @Twins reliever got emotional in his postgame interview: pic.twitter.com/xMqtG0hFBg
Since 2012, only eight pitchers have gone at least five years between pitches at the Major League level. Thielbar had gone from being unable to get an inning with a team that won 47 games to pitching in the postseason for the Minnesota Twins.
Despite defying odds for the second time in his career, it did not satisfy Thielbar.
Training at Driveline
Thielbar booked a trip to Driveline right after the season to plan for the offseason ahead of him. He leveraged the biomechanics lab for further insights on what was impeding the velocity he was looking for. His 89.8 mile per hour average in 2020 ranked in the bottom 10th percentile among lefty relievers. Of course, many could simply cite his age as a natural cause.
Thielbar’s mechanics came back synonymous to the character Mario in Mario Kart. No major weaknesses, but no true outlier traits, according to our database. Of the “Big Ten” metrics we reference in-gym, only one was significantly below average. Hip-Shoulder Separation at foot plant.
Thielbar’s 23.2 degrees of hip-shoulder separation ranked in just the 23rd percentile relative to our database. With this in mind, janitors and drop steps were crowned the drills of choice for Thielbar’s offseason.
While he had some lighter issues, specifically a slightly below average ability to stop his center of gravity at ball release, there was little reason to weight mechanics all that strongly. His deficiencies were simply not egregious, and the opportunity cost of weighting movement above velocity work with external cues and feedback made little sense.
“Velocity was down in 2020 for a variety of reasons, so I didn’t want to be complacent over the offseason,” Thielbar said. “I took on a very aggressive velocity program to try to not only restore fastball velocity, but the velocity on my breaking balls as well.”
Thielbar initially took some time off following his assessment. Following an on-ramp phase, he went through three phases with Driveline remotely: a velocity phase with plyos, a velocity phase with the leather weighted baseballs, and a competition/live phase in which he was prepping for spring training.
“The results speak for themselves, but I think the biggest takeaway I had was how important mound work is,” Thielbar said. “Threw all my plyos off the mound, plyo velos off the mound. weighted ball velo days off the mound. Then obviously bullpens and lives leading into spring. I felt comfortable on the mound from day 1 of spring, whereas it used to take weeks to get that feeling.”
After being a reliable arm over the 2020 shortened season for the Twins, there were no guarantees for Thielbar heading into the 2021 season. Thielbar’s decision to continue pursuing velocity and avoid being risk averse turned out to be a wise one. Even after feeling his best and pursuing every route to get better in the offseason, he was the last player selected for the Twins opening day roster in 2021.
Thielbar got off to an extremely hot start in April, ranking 2nd among relievers in K/9 with 19 and 3rd in K-BB% at 45%. His velocity during the first half of the season was 91 — a career high if it would hold into the 2nd half. While he had some tough luck with batted balls (his .354 BABIP was 8th worst among relievers at the break) he was pitching the best in his career at the tasks that are considered as being under the pitchers control, striking out hitters and avoiding walks.
Then came the second half, where Thielbar hit the accelerator on the fastball. He averaged 92 miles per hour in the 2nd half, averaging 92.3 during the last month of the season. He threw multiple fastballs 95.3 miles per hour, half a tick harder than any he had thrown at the big league level previously. His slowest fastball in September was firmer than his average heater in 2020. His velocity in the second half was good for the 40th percentile among lefties, a 30th percentile climb relative to his showing from August to October in 2020.
To further contextualize the velocity gains, the average pitcher 33 or older has lost on average about 1/3 of a mile per hour from one year to the next. Just 28% of those pitchers either keep or gain velocity from the previous season. Thielbar gained 1.5 miles per hour from his age 33 to 34 season. In the Statcast era (2015-2021) this was the 20th biggest gain in velocity for a player over the age of 33 from one season to the next.
Of those 20 players greater than 33 years old that had an increase of at least 1.5 mph from the last season, only Yu Darvish (2020) and Thielbar had career highs in velocity that season (excluding pitchers that went from starters to relievers, such as Jorge de la Rosa and Ian Kennedy).
The descriptive results were there as well. Thielbar was the most valuable reliever for the Twins when looking at bWAR (1.2). He outperformed his Steamer projection (0.2) by an entire win. His fWAR of 0.9 showed his predictive statistics were in alignment with his results on the field. Both suggest his season would’ve been worth ~$10 million dollars on the open market.
His strikeout rate (28.9%) and walk rate (7.5%) were both career bests. His 21.4% K-BB rate was good for 80th percentile among qualified relievers.
“At the end of the day, I know my stuff and command are better than they’ve ever been, and the mindset and confidence are well above where they were in my first stint as well,” Thielbar said. “As surprised as some people are with the results, it isn’t surprising for me because I know the work that has gone into it. I just needed to find the right situation and a front office willing to give me a chance.”
What about that breaking ball velocity? He picked up nearly 2.5 ticks on his slider and added an inch of sweep to it as well. The pitch had an improvement of 32 points in Stuff+, a top 15 improvement across the entire league. The curveball picked up 3 ticks, seeing a 16 point improvement.
The sweeper saw an incredible turnaround from 2020. Thielbar had decided to ditch the pitch entirely for the last month of the season due to command issues. He upped the usage from 20% to 34%. The median miss distance from his intended target went from 14.5” to just 11.6”. The Command+ of the pitch improved 22 points, from an 82 (18% below league average) to a 104 (4% above league average). He was one of just five pitchers who improved their slider Command+ by at least 20 points relative to last year.
At 27 years old, an age generally considered within the range of a pitcher’s prime, Thielbar’s slider was 79 miles per hour with 7 inches of sweep. 7 years later, the pitch averaged 80.2 miles per hour and averaged more than 15 inches of sweep. The Stuff+ of the offering went from a 75 (25% below league average) to 133 (33% above the league average).
“I think his situation is the perfect example of the development process not being linear,” Collison said. “Players at all levels get impatient or complacent when things aren’t going how they hope. This is a great example of sticking to it and working the dips in the roller coaster. You never know when things will start clicking or start working. Proof that if you keep at it and attack your process, anything can happen.”
Thielbar is an example of a pitcher who has maximized resources and technology throughout the past 5 seasons. Peaking in velocity at age 34, developing a sweeping slider, and even simulating workloads in PULSE throughout the season. The Minnesota native from a town of less than 500 people ensured no stone is unturned in the development process.
“With all the resources available for athletes these days, you really can max out your physical ability and stuff if you’re willing to put in the work,” Thielbar said.
After years of trials and tribulations, from college coach to being one of the league’s best rookies, Thielbar insists there’s still a fine line many athletes may struggle with during their development journey.
“However, while working towards that goal, many forget that the game is still about pitching and getting outs. Consistency, health, nutrition, sleep and the mental game are what will take you to the highest level your ability will allow,” Thielbar said.
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