It’s been a long and unexpected road back for Caleb “Meat Raffle” Thielbar, who debuted for the Twins when Joe Mauer was still wearing catcher’s gear. The 33-year-old lefty was a decent middle reliever on some hard-to-watch teams, before washing his way out of the organization, bobbing between minor league systems and independent ball, and finally accepting a position as a collegiate pitching coach.
Now he’s back, and enjoying one of the best stretches of his career after a 5-year absence from Major League Baseball. It’s been the perfect year for second chances; other relievers - Daniel Bard one of the more notable examples - have received calls to become depth pieces at a time when expanded rosters are the norm, and day-to-day health is more in question than ever.
It’s worth pointing out that Thielbar has produced at a level deserving of a better moniker than “depth piece.” Some of his numbers are career-bests; an at-a-glance trip to his B-Ref page shows top marks including a 5.00 K/BB ratio and a 1.69 ERA. On Tuesday night, he was the first man out of the pen in a key battle against a division rival.
Thielbar barely snuck into the Statcast era - he logged just five innings in 2015, its debut season. As such, it’s hard to compare marks like his present and past exit velocities, but there’s one major change we can turn to in a quest to pinpoint why he’s been able to stick around on a 2020 squad that’s worlds apart from the Minnesota team he came up with.
A New-Look Curveball
In the preseason, Thielbar prompted fans to look out for a curveball with more depth, thanks to a period of study with Driveline. I wonder if a struggling pitcher traveling down to Driveline is anything like when John Lennon went to primal scream therapy after leaving the Beatles.
In the past, that curve had been more or less an afterthought, with the lefty’s fastball and slider headlining the pitch mix. His curve factored into at-bats about 9% of the time in his rookie year, with that rate dropping to below 5% by 2014. The reason? Well, it just wasn’t a very good pitch.
Using the mouthful metric wCU/C — simply, runs above average on Caleb’s curveball, weighted per 100 pitches — we can easily see that it was the worst offering of his arsenal.
While nothing in Thielbar’s repertoire was world-beating, his primary pitches were good enough for a 233 ERA+ as a rookie. But the curve? One of Major League Baseball’s worst, out of well over 200 arms with at least 40 innings logged in 2013. It just wasn’t working, to the point that even a Rick Anderson-led coaching staff was discouraging its usage.
So Thielbar phased it out, axing about half his curves in 2015, before throwing a mere handful in six games the next season.
But rather than scrap it entirely, Thielbar reworked it — and now, in 2020, it’s his best pitch. In fact, it’s a top-10 curveball among hurlers with at least ten innings thrown this year. (An extremely small sample, but that’s the framework we’re dealing with as far as relievers are concerned this season.)
Location, Location, Location
BaseballSavant has some helpful pitch location info for ol’ Meat Raffle. At a glance, it’s easy to see that Thielbar is spotting a pitch that seems like it was once thrown at random toward home plate.
Take a look at Thielbar’s curves from his rookie season.
And now, the same graph from this year.
That window of destination has gotten a lot tighter laterally, which produces a pitch closer to a 12-6 curveball, and further from sailing straight through a batter’s box.
Now the curve is landing along the contour of a more traditional breaking ball, which means hitters have to give it a bit more credit than previous years. When facing the Thielbar of old, it might have been easy to pick up on the spin and rest assured that the pitch would fall outside the zone. Opponents now need to spend more time tracking this pitch - which gives them less time to react to it.
Speaking of the spin of that curve, there’s some important information there. As I mentioned, there’s not a lot of early Statcast data on Thielbar, who was active ever-so-briefly during its infancy. However, even that small 2015 sample size can tell us something. Thielbar’s curve from five years back was seen hurtling toward home with a spin rate of 2127. This year, it’s taken a huge step forward to 2571.
In 2015, Thielbar’s curveballs had about 67 inches of vertical break. This year, that number has skyrocketed to 78.2. Caleb’s curveball has gained nearly a foot of action. Talk about a different look.
That increase in deception has made all the difference in the world. What was once a freebie floater has retained its lack of velocity — it clocks in at just under 70 mph — but has produced a whiff rate of 50%. When hitters hack at the hook, the odds are strong that they’ll swing right through it. Five of Thielbar’s fifteen strikeouts have come thanks to the breaking ball.
It all comes together to produce a pitch like this:
That’s a beauty.
There’s that 12-6 style I was talking about earlier. When that pitch starts outside the zone as it has in years past, it’s an easy take; it’s not going to magically dart sideways back into the picture. But with that increased spin rate, it’s much safer to start things right down the middle - there’s enough vertical break now that it’s nearly impossible for a hitter to tell when the dive will end.
The result is a more reliable pitch - one that’s easier to control, one that’s easier to trust, and one that’s producing some awesome results.
In 2020, nobody has gotten a hit off a Caleb Thielbar curveball. Looks like we’re all winners at this Meat Raffle.