After 20 scoreless innings to start his career, Caleb Thielbar this week allowed his first run, on a front-row home run by Ben Zobrist. While he no longer has the 0.00 ERA, he has still allowed the lowest OPS in baseball against lefties, and his lead over no. 2 Alex Torres is as big as Torres’ lead over no. 18 Rex Brothers. Lefties are 1-for-30 against Thielbar, with a single, a walk, and 13 strikeouts: .033/.063/.033.
He’s also a contender for this year’s Kratz Award for Kratzing. Thielbar was released from the Brewers’ minor league system in 2011, because he was throwing 84 mph without any sort of changeup as a starter. He went to play for the independent league St. Paul Saints, who happen to be his hometown independent league team. Also, the Twins’ hometown independent league team. They signed him, sent him to High-A as a 24-year-old, watched him clean up his mechanics and pitch pretty well over parts of three minor league seasons (particularly against lefties), and brought him up for low-leverage scrub work. He’s in high leverage now. Twins fans call him … hang on, let me make sure I have this right… yup. Meat Raffle. Twins fans call him Meat Raffle.
What’s his secret? Apparently, the strengthening power of mundane quotes from his manager:
According to manager Ron Gardenhire, "[his] stuff, he comes right at you. He's flinging the ball. He hides the ball. He's got a nice little breaking ball. He can cut his fastball. He throws a nice little slider. Just looks like, to me, he hides the ball very well and, typical of a lefty, with a little bit of funk. He surprises people.”
There’s not a lot there. Let's categorize each thing he says based on how many pitchers it would apply to, in Manager Speak:
All of the pitchers:
- “His stuff.”
- “He’s got a nice little breaking ball.”
- “He can cut his fastball.”
Very nearly all of the pitchers:
- “He surprises people.”
- "He comes right at you.”
A great many of the pitchers:
- “He hides the ball.”
- “He throws a nice little slider.”
- “Just looks like, to me he hides the ball very well”
Every single left-hander ever:
- “Typical of a lefty”
- “With a little bit of a funk”
Arguably close to actually descriptive:
- “He’s flinging the ball.”
Thielbar doesn’t have much stuff, at least on paper, which is where stuff is least helpful. His fastball, which he throws more than most pitchers do, averages just 90 mph, and the movement on them is squarely middle of the pack. He has a slow curve and a sweeping slider, neither of which distinguishes itself on PITCHf/x movement leaderboards, and neither of which he throws very often. He has mixed in a couple changeups, but doesn’t have much command with it. Remove the batter and you wouldn’t notice much about him.
The batters, though, have done a good job of selling his stuff, particularly the four-seamer, on which Thielbar has earned whiffs slightly more frequently than Craig Kimbrel this year, and slightly less frequently than Trever Rosenthal. Furthermore, he gets an inordinate amount of swings on that pitch; the one PITCHf/x leaderboard he tops outright (by a strangely wide margin) is swing percentage on four-seamers, a somewhat ambiguous achievement but an interesting one nonetheless. The names directly below him are exclusively hard throwers: to find somebody throwing slower than 93 mph, you have to go all the way down to no. 19 Robbie Ross, whose average four-seamer is 92.9 mph. Thielbar’s average four-seamer is just 90.3 mph. If we assume there’s a correlation between velocity and this list, based on the top 20 names, then we might reasonably hypothesize that Thielbar’s perceived velocity is significantly better than his velocity.
A few examples of lefties getting smoked or tied up by dead-red fastballs follow. I spent an embarrassingly short amount of time looking for these, which is to say it’s not hard to find examples of lefties getting smoked or tied up by dead-red fastballs from Thielbar:
His Nice Little Slider
If I tell you a guy has a 0.45 ERA and has allowed six hits in 20 innings, you’ll probably be able to assume that he’s been effective with his fastball and with his slider and so on. That’s the point; he’s been getting great results! It doesn’t necessarily mean those pitches are great, but that his results with pitches have been great. (Thielbar has a .111 BABIP.) It’s a tautology. Just to get that out of the way.
Thielbar’s slider has, indeed, been effective. He has about the same whiff rate as Romo with it this year. But there’s a big difference here: Thielbar has thrown it 35 times. Romo has thrown his 244 times. I don’t point that out for the sample-size caveat, but to point out that a pitcher will tell you how good a pitch really is by how often he uses it. That’s the first question a pitcher and catcher ask when they’re deciding which pitch to throw: How well does the pitcher throw this pitch? Thielbar throws his slider somewhat reluctantly.
Most notable is that the four-seamer has been his putaway pitch. He has 20 strikeouts this season, 15 of them swinging, 13 of them swinging on four-seamers, five of them on 0-2 four-seamers. He’s as likely to throw off-speed stuff early in counts as when he’s ahead; he’s as likely to throw fastballs when he’s ahead as early in counts. A whiff of Freddie Freeman to show how each of these pitches plays up a little bit because of sequence:
His Little Bit of Funk
When we wrote about effective lefty Tommy Layne, we emphasized his ability to throw multiple pitches from four to six different arm slots. When we wrote about effective lefty Javier Lopez, we emphasized just how far away from the typical sightlines he can go. Thielbar doesn’t have either’s angularity, and he’s not the first guy I would think of as funky. But there’s some funk, particularly in how quickly he goes from fully leaned back to an over-the-top release.
Doug Thorburn: "He has a closed stride which creates some angular deception. He also has some lean-back into foot strike along with some extra upper-body load, which help to hide the baseball from the batter's view. The stride is a bit funky, and the 'rock n' roll' lean-back adds to some extra funk to the delivery."
Thielbar went to South Dakota State before he was drafted in the 18th round. There’s been one other major leaguer from South Dakota State in baseball history: Sylveanus Augustus Gregg. Gregg, like Thielbar, was a lefty who didn’t debut until he was 26, but had immediate success in the majors. He won the ERA title his rookie year, and won 20 games the next two seasons before arm problems threw everything off. This was in about 1912, and Gregg, eventually, died. The story ends the same for everybody, but there are often high points before it does. Thielbar is in a high point.