FORT MYERS, FLA. – Caleb Thielbar last pitched in the big leagues in a 12-2 victory for the Twins over the Chicago White Sox on April 30, 2015. He relieved starter Trevor May with two outs in the sixth, pitched two scoreless innings and struck out J.B. Shuck and Conar Gillaspie to end his 109th appearance for the Twins.
Over the next two days, the Twins shook up the pitching staff. Ricky Nolasco (gosh, we miss him) and Brian Duensing came off the disabled list, Ryan Pressly was recalled from Class AAA Rochester, Thielbar and Tommy Milone were sent to Rochester, and Tim Stauffer went to the disabled list.
The lefthanded Thielbar has gotten a lot of hitters out in different places since then: the Red Wings in Rochester, the Chihuahuas in El Paso, two summers for the St. Paul Saints, two seasons with Detroit’s top two farm clubs … and striking out Ka’ai Tom, the one hitter he faced as a member of the Gwinnet Stripers last Sept. 7 on the International League’s final Sunday.
Five days later, Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., announced that Thielbar had been hired as its pitching coach. The Thielbars were settled in nearby Brookings, where wife Carissa is an assistant basketball coach at South Dakota State and 8-month-old son Joshua is being raised to say, “Go, Jacks!’’
Seven years ago, Thielbar had received a first invitation to big-league camp with the Twins. I went for a winter visit to Randolph, Minn., the small burg a half-hour south of St. Paul that still supports a local high school and takes pride in the school’s Rockets.
Thielbar was living at his family home and there were many more quotes from his effervescent mother, Janet, than the quiet Caleb. Janet passed away a few years back, which had to be hurtful for all of Randolph.
The couple of sentences that appeared in the Twin Cities media last September on Thielbar joining Augustana’s baseball program were interpreted by some of us as the end of his pro ball odyssey.
“It wasn’t that,’’ Thielbar said. “It was a chance to try coaching, to work with some young pitchers in the fall and early winter. I had a good year for [Class AAA] Toledo in 2019. I was getting calls from teams right away that were interested in signing me. My background with the organization and proximity … the Twins made the most sense.’’
This was early Wednesday morning, the first official workout day for Twins pitchers and catchers, and Thielbar was on pitcher’s row, next to Taylor Rogers, lefthanded bullpen ace.
Thielbar is among 10 invited pitchers, to go with 21 on the big-league roster. Yet, if the rumors heard for the past couple of weeks are true, Caleb isn’t here as a courtesy invite for a home-state product.
“The word is you’re throwing 95 [miles per hour],’’ I said.
Thielbar barely smiled and said: “I’ve hit it. My average fastball last season was the highest it’s been in 11 seasons of pro ball.’’
How does that happen in a season when you were 32?
“It’s happening with a lot of pitchers,’’ he said. “I’ve been into the Driveline pitching mechanics for a while. The other analytics they now have for us … it’s an amazing change. Plus, better conditioning, working out the right way, and eating better.’’
Doug Mientkiewicz was Thielbar’s manager the previous two seasons for Detroit’s Toledo farm club. How good was the lefty’s good 2019?
“He was the best reliever in the International League,’’ Mientkiewicz said. “Numbers don’t lie. He should have been in the big leagues. Period.”
In 50 games for the Mud Hens in a 140-game schedule, Thielbar had a 3.30 ERA, 20 saves, 92 strikeouts and 16 walks in 76 ⅓ innings.
Driveline and other analytics have changed more than Thielbar’s fastball. His featured breaking pitch is now a curveball. It’s mid-70s (or slower), supplanting the slider as his second pitch and offsetting his, well, lousy changeup.
This is Thielbar’s first time in the Hammond Stadium clubhouse since 2015, but he’s not exactly surrounded by strangers. He pointed out Taylor Rogers and Jake Odorizzi as past minor league teammates. He cited 2010 as his time with Odorizzi.
“Before that,” Odorizzi said. “We were teammates for a couple of weeks in 2009 in Montana [Helena]. There are three or four guys in here that I played with in the minors that I’d hadn’t seen in quite a while.
“First couple of days are always old home week.’’