Caleb Thielbar is on a streak that could be considered as the pitching equivalent of Glenn Williams' 13-game hitting streak to start his career. After his appearance today, "Meat Raffle" has started his career with 16 consecutive scoreless outings, which has spanned 17 2/3 innings.
And yet, he's the fire extinguisher in the glass case labeled, "Do not use in case of emergency."
There is a statistic called leverage index (LI) that measures how critical the game situation is when a play occurs. For example, Glen Perkins attempting to nail down a save with a 1-run lead has a much higher leverage index than Trevor Plouffe batting with the bases empty in a 6-run deficit. It is on a scale of 0-5 and has an average of 1.0. Although the average is pretty low on the scale, that's because anything above 1.5 is considered "high leverage" and typically only plays in close-and-late games earn a leverage index that reaches that high. Additionally, from personal experience with the stat, I've only seen LI's at 5 during playoff games.
According to LI, Caleb Thielbar's leverage index prior to Wednesday night's game has been 0.14 - a number that looks miniscule and certainly is. That 0.14 LI for Thielbar ranks as second-lowest on the team, ahead of only Pedro Hernandez (0.13), and he had only 2 appearances and 5 1/3 innings as a reliever this season. Meanwhile, Glen Perkins has a 1.61 leverage index, showing that he's typically been in critical situations of games, something you'd expect out of a closer. Now I'm not arguing that Thielbar is on the same level as Glen Perkins, but you could argue that Thielbar is one of the better relievers in the bullpen right now, and yet he can't even sniff a chance to earn a hold because Ron Gardenhire keeps using him in blowouts.
I'm sure part of this was due to Thielbar being a rookie, and he certainly doesn't have the pedigree of a shutdown reliever. After all, he did pitch in the independent leagues and wasn't seen as a top prospect. His fastball occasionally breaks 90 and throws a high-70s slider and high-60s curve - not the kind of stuff that makes scouts rave. Nevertheless, he has held opposing batters to an .096 batting average, and again, he has that 16-game scoreless streak.
Yes, Thielbar won't keep that batting average allowed under .100 forever, and he still hasn't allowed a home run this season. However, after 3 strikeouts in 2 innings on Wednesday, he now has an 8.50 K/9 on the season, which is above average and easily one of the best strikeout rates on the Twins staff.
Speaking of Wednesday night, it was a welcome change as Thielbar was the first reliever out of the bullpen in a 2-2 tie game in the 6th inning. P.J. Walters ran in to trouble at the beginning of the inning and lost a 2-0 lead on a walk to Brett Gardner, a double to Ichiro Suzuki, and then a 2-run double to Robinson Cano. After a single by Travis Hafner, Walters was pulled in favor of Thielbar.
First batter was Zoilo Almonte, who switched over to bat righthanded, but it meant little as Thielbar struck him out. Lyle Overbay was next and he did lift a sacrifice fly to center to score Cano, so I suppose Thielbar was given an inherited runner scored to his ledger. But then Thielbar retired catcher Chris Stewart on a grounder to end the inning.
Meat Raffle came back for the 7th inning and kept up his dominance. Groundout by Luis Cruz. Strikeout swinging by David Adams. Strikeout looking by Brett Gardner. Average leverage index for Thielbar's two innings: 1.32, so not quite "high leverage," but still significantly higher than that 0.14 he had prior to Wednesday's game.
Is this a sign that Gardy is finally coming around on Thielbar? It might be, but it's possible this is happening by default. Brian Duensing has been struggling with hits and walks and currently carries a 4.55 ERA this season, and the only other non-closing lefty in the bullpen is Thielbar. Therefore, it's possible that Meat Raffle's outing in a close game was not necessarily due to more trust from Gardy, but rather from having no other option than Duensing.
Thielbar won't be this dominant for the entire season, but he probably can be expected to be an above-average reliever for the rest of the season. Something to keep an eye on will be his performance and Duensing's for the rest of the year. If Duensing starts pitching well again, I somewhat wonder if Thielbar doesn't stick in his low-leverage role. For now though, I hope Thielbar's leash gets lengthened.