Caleb Thielbar Revived His Career By Embracing Driveline Before Everyone Else Did

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Thielbar’s return to the major leagues began with a visit from his friend, Brian Garman, whom the Milwaukee Brewers selected in the 17th round in 2010. No team called Thielbar after the 2015 season, and he headed back to St. Paul to play for the Saints. Before the 2016 season, Garman paid Thielbar a visit that changed the trajectory of Thielbar’s career.

Garman is from Wapakoneta, Ohio, 56 miles north of Dayton. He was driving from Ohio to a baseball facility in Kent, Wash., outside Seattle. Garman had a torn labrum, so there was little Driveline could do for him. But Thielbar and Garman talked about the facility when Garman visited him again on the drive back from Ohio.

“We talked about it for hours, and he said, ‘This is legit,’” said Thielbar. “There were starting to be rumblings in baseball, but it wasn’t the company they are today. So I started kinda looking into it. That off-season, I started doing some stuff, and basically just looking at their videos online and trying to emulate it. And the next year, my shoulder started feeling really good.”

The Twins initially signed Thielbar as a free agent in 2011, and the Randolph-born left-handed reliever debuted in 2013. He threw 19.2 scoreless innings to begin his rookie season and owned a 1.76 ERA at the end of the year. He naturally regressed in his second season, but he finished 2014 with a 3.40 ERA in 47.2 innings pitched. However, he only pitched five innings in 2015 and spent most of the season in Triple-A.

“My shoulder started giving me issues in the middle of ’14,” said Thielbar. “It was never really an injury. It was just like bicep tendonitis, and it just doesn’t go away unless you just stop, and then I was too dumb not to just go on the IL and get it taken care of, so I just threw through it the whole time. In hindsight, I should have just done that in ’14.

“I should have gotten it taken care of that year. But it’s hard when you’re young.”

Thielbar, 37, can look back now with a veteran’s wisdom. But he was Milwaukee’s 18th-round pick in 2009. The Brewers released Thielbar a year after they had drafted him, and the Twins signed him off the St. Paul Saints roster. He had a unique opportunity to break into the major leagues with his hometown team. It’s naturally tempting to push through an injury to stay on the mound.

The Twins signed Thielbar again in December 2019. He had a 194 ERA+ in the COVID-shortened 2020 season and owns a 130 ERA+ in the last four seasons (100 is the league average). He picked up where he left off in 2014, but he had a unique journey in between his stints with Minnesota. Thielbar pitched for the St. Paul Saints again, spent spring training with the Miami Marlins, and pitched in the Detroit Tigers minor league system before returning to the Twins.

Thielbar first visited Driveline in 2017. “It was a bare-bones outfit compared to what it is now,” said Thielbar. “There was one cage. I mean, the weight room was tiny, maybe a quarter of the size of the one in there. Basically, a couple of racks, a couple of weights, dumbbells, and that’s pretty much it.  They had a plyo ball area the size of the cage.”

Major league pitchers regularly visit Driveline now. Joe Ryan and Griffin Jax accompanied Thielbar to the facility after the 2022 season. But it was mostly high schoolers and minor-league pitchers when Thielbar started working with Kyle Boddy at Driveline. “No one was bought in on weighted balls yet, so it was still frowned upon,” said Thielbar. “But it was still an environment of guys going out there on their last leg. ‘I just gotta try this and see what happens.’ And then some of us got lucky out there, and I don’t know how much luck it was rather than hard work and (optimizing your body).

“I had the ability to pitch in the big leagues before, but getting that back, and you’re taking a step forward in your career that they definitely helped me with, and continue taking steps forward, optimizing everything from throwing to arm care to nutrition, just staying on the cutting edge as much as I can.”

Thielbar had 42 appearances with the Saints, pitching 64.0 innings with a 2.39 ERA. The Saints were still an independent American Association team, but they had opened CHS Field in 2015, moving from Midway Stadium to Lowertown. “It was better for sure,” Thielbar says with a laugh, adding that he had fun playing in the old park off 280. “I don’t know if you ever went the clubhouse in the old Midway…. There were no hot or cold tubs. The athletic training room was like one table. When a message therapist would come in, it would be out on the field because there wasn’t room in the clubhouse.”

CHS Field is a state-of-the-art facility that overlooks downtown St. Paul from the outfield. It has the capacity for over 7,000 fans and is a major reason why the Twins made the Saints their Triple-A team in 2021. “It’s a lot easier to come play every day at CHS. Just having a warm place to go when it’s cold outside, that’s big,” Thielbar said with a chuckle. “They have a much better training room, a much better setup. There was no weight room (at Midway). I’m not sure how we lifted. Maybe we just didn’t.”

He spent spring training with the Miami Marlins in 2017, but Thielbar ended up in St. Paul again after they cut him. “The arm felt good again, so it kinda gave me a little bit of hope to keep going,” he said. “I was feeling really good throwing, back to good velo, and then I got to spring training, and for whatever reason, it fell apart. Velo was down, mechanics didn’t feel right, and I had a really bad spring and ended up getting released, and I thought…because I had been training all winter, I might as well keep playing.”

Thielbar had a 2.01 ERA with the Saints, but he only pitched 22.1 innings in 17 games. “In June that year, I strained an oblique really bad, and I was like, ‘Well, I was playing indy ball, and I was 30.’ And I thought that honestly might be it,” he said. “I was having a really good season up to that point, and I wasn’t getting any interest in signing anywhere. And just as luck would have it, this was the year that Gardy got the Detroit job.”

Initially, Thielbar was reluctant to give Ron Gardenhire a call. They had maintained a good relationship, but Thielbar was hesitant to reach out. He was living in Fort Collins, Colo., while his wife, Carissa, coached at Colorado State. He spent most of the offseason commuting between Fort Collins and Jason Hirsh’s baseball facility in Denver. Hirsh is a former big-league pitcher who played with the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies and opened the FAST Performance facility in northeast Denver.

Thielbar had been to Driveline for the first time in the spring of 2017 and learned about Rapsodo, a pitch-tracking device that analyzes spin rate, velocity, movement, and command, providing the ability to break down mechanics. It provides immediate feedback on every pitch along with bullpen reports to analyze data from each training session.

“We moved to Colorado in the fall of 2017. I was basically searching for baseball facilities in the area and trying to find one that had Rapsodo, and he was the only one that I could find,” said Thielbar. “I started going down there a couple of times a week because I would do my velo days down there, too, because he had a radar gun, which I didn’t have, and there were a couple of minor league guys down there that were training, so we’d all do it on the same day and get after it. It was a good time.”

Thielbar was talking to Hirsh one day after the Tigers had hired Gardenhire, and Hirsh encouraged him to give Gardy a call. “He was like, ‘Dude, you have to call him! You have to!’ and I was like, ‘Eh, I guess I will.’”

Gardenhire was excited to hear from Thielbar. “I congratulated him on getting the job and everything, and I told him the situation. He was like, ‘Yeah, let me make a call. I’ll call you right back,” Thielbar said with a chuckle. “And then [Gardenhire] called me back after 10 minutes. He’s like, ‘[Then-Tigers GM Al Avila will] be calling you.’”

Before he got the Tigers job, Gardenhire had gone to a Saints game and had seen Thielbar throw, but Detroit could only offer him a minor-league camp invite. “I went down, and the velo wasn’t quite there, [but] I threw really well,” said Thielbar. “The ball felt really good out of my hand, I threw really good, so they were giving me a good look. [Gardenhire] pulled me aside after camp, and he said, ‘We don’t have a spot for you, but you can stay here at extended (spring training) if you want to.’ And I was like, ‘If I want to. It’s really my only choice.’”

Thielbar spent a month and a half in extended spring training. Typically, major league teams need injury replacements, especially for pitchers. But Detroit’s staff was unusually healthy, and Thielbar spent more time in Lakeland, Fla. than expected. “I stayed there,” he said. “Just worked hard, didn’t cause any problems.”

The Tigers eventually shuffled Thielbar between Double- and Triple-A in 2018. “I did five stints in Double-A, four stints in Triple-A that year,” Thielbar said. “I threw really well, but late in the season, early August, like it finally just clicked, and my velo just averaged above 92 mph the whole rest of that season.”

He owned a 1.42 ERA in 38.0 Double-A innings and a 3.32 ERA in 19.0 Triple-A innings. “It was like, ‘Now we’re talking,’” he said, “because I wasn’t just pitching well, I was dominating guys, especially in Double-A. I’m older, I had probably my best stuff to that point in Double-A, so with my knowledge and everything, I was killing these guys.”

Thielbar re-signed with the Tigers in 2019 and had a 3.30 ERA in 76.1 innings with Triple-A Toledo. However, Detroit never called him up, and they traded him to the Atlanta Braves at the end of the year. Thielbar pitched two scoreless innings for Atlanta’s Triple-A team, but the Braves didn’t call him up either. “They told me to stay ready just in case something happened in September, but it never did,” said Thielbar. “And I had taken that coaching job at that point (at Augustana).

“After Detroit didn’t call me up that year, and then I get traded, and I thought, ‘I might have a chance here,’ and nothing happens there. That was all I got, that was the best I got. If I’m not getting a call this year, it’s not gonna happen.”

Thielbar coached at Augustana, a Lutheran college in Sioux Falls, S.D., after the 2019 season. Team USA called him in October 2019 to play in the Premier12, an international tournament for players who aren’t on major league 40-man rosters. “I thought, ‘Okay, that was a cool, good way to go out,’” Thielbar said. “I’ll play for Team USA, and that will be my last experience in baseball.”

But minor-league free agency started while he was on that trip, and Thielbar said his phone started blowing up. “I talked to seven or eight teams that day. Then a handful more called the next day, and it ended up being like half the league that ended up calling,” he said. “It was like the good teams, too. That was the thing, I don’t know, eight teams made the playoffs back then, and six of them called, and I was like, ‘Okay.’ That’s when I had to start seriously reconsidering.”

Thielbar talked to many people, including his teammates in the Premier12 tournament, and they all said he’d be crazy if he didn’t try to break into the majors one more time. “I looked through every roster in the major leagues, every 40-man roster in the major leagues. I double-looked at the ones that originally called me, and at that time, the Twins were the best fit,” he said.

“The only left-handed reliever at that point was [Taylor] Rogers, and there wasn’t really a lot of depth in the organization. And obviously, it was close to home. It just was the right fit. I wasn’t gonna let my heart make that decision. It wasn’t just that I wanted to be here. It was actually the right decision to make at that point.”

He may have made more money going to another team, but Thielbar felt he had the right opportunity to reach the majors with Minnesota. “I wasn’t worried about what I was gonna make,” he said. “I’m sure there were teams that called that would have given me way more on a minor-league deal, but that wasn’t what I was looking for at that point. I was looking for the best opportunity to get back.

“I’m still a Twins fan through this, so I was reading about their approach to pitching, and I knew that what I did, did that approach as well. So I knew that I took the approach of the Twins, and looking at the roster, it was a good fit. And it just made the most sense to me to go back.”

Thielbar was playing under a new regime. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine replaced Terry Ryan in 2017, and they hired Rocco Baldelli in 2019. The Twins were a more analytics-driven organization, and the Twins had hired Falvey in part because he had built a pitching pipeline in Cleveland. Falvey used Driveline-like biomechanics to develop pitchers, and Thielbar felt he was speaking the same language when he talked to Minnesota’s coaching staff about pitching.

“It was a really good fit. Because when I came in, it was pretty much seamless. Like things that I was talking about were the same things that they were talking about,” he said. “When I came here, it was kinda, I had to kinda relearn a couple of things because they measured them in just a slightly different way. Basically, what I was looking at was PITCHf/x numbers, and here they look at induced vertical break, horizontal break, and stuff like that. PITCHf/x isn’t quite the same, but it’s just a different way to look at it.”

Thielbar had typically used Trackman and Rapsodo to evaluate his pitches in 2018 and 2019 because that’s what he had used at Driveline and in Denver. “I was studying that Trackman reports after the game, just the raw Trackman files,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of those, but it’s a spreadsheet with columns that go [multiple decimal points deep], you know?

“But yeah, and so basically I tried to figure out how on those spreadsheets, what stuff was, really, because, like I said, there’s 50 columns on them. And then 50 columns of data for each pitch. So I was trying to figure out, ‘So, what does this mean?’ based on kinda my knowledge of Rapsodo at that point.”

Eventually, Thielbar figured out that there were only five columns that mattered to him. “When the numbers in those columns were at a certain point, that’s when I was pitching really well. And went they weren’t, those were the days that I got hit,” he said. “I just kinda made friends with the video guys at these different places and had them teach me how to find the file on my own.

“They don’t want just guys looking at it, not knowing what they’re looking at. I mean, that was essentially me,” he continued, laughing, “But I was also 31 years old in Double-A, so it’s like it didn’t really matter kinda thing, so I just kinda took advantage of that and learned as much as I could with that.”

It ended up being a perfect fit. Thielbar owns a 3.21 ERA (130 ERA+) in four years since returning to the Twins. He’s now Minnesota’s primary left-handed reliever in one of the league’s best bullpens. “Everything just fell into place,” he said. “It was obviously the right decision. I’ve been here ever since. I just don’t know if that would have happened anywhere else.”

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