A striking season: Thielbar looks back on successful season

Skyler Jackson, Sports Editor (He/Him)

At age 34, South Dakota State alum Caleb Thielbar just put together his best season yet.

After not playing any major league ball for more than five years, the 6-foot southpaw made his long-awaited return in 2020 with the Minnesota Twins, and he didn’t waste the opportunity. He posted a 7-0 record this past season with 77 strikeouts and a 3.23 earned run average in 59 appearances.

He also pitched 64 innings, the most of his major league career.

“I feel like my mechanics are in a really good spot, and my arm action is in a really good spot to be able to throw with little stress,” said the Northfield, Minnesota, native. “You also have to take care of yourself off the field. Learning to actually sleep a lot, learning to eat right, and learning when you can eat to be able to sleep. There’s a whole lot of things that go into it.”

Now 12 years out of from college, Thielbar is an entirely different pitcher than he was at SDSU.

“It’s night and day,” Thielbar said. “Just understanding what’s going on with the body and understanding mechanics, in general, is a big thing. But I would say I had a basic understanding of why I started to throw harder when I was in college. Pitch selection and pitch characteristics are definitely night and day from when I was at college.”

Since leaving SDSU, Thielbar has had a long and tumultuous journey throughout his professional baseball career. But everything seemed to come together for him last season.

“I think I’m in a good position,” Thielbar said. “The goal is always just to stay healthy all year long. If you stay healthy and you feel good, the results are probably going to be there. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to do that.”

Thielbar was an 18th round draft pick in 2009 by the Milwaukee Brewers, where he was then sent to pitch in the rookie leagues. After playing well at that level, he moved up to the Class A Midwest League, where he struggled and was eventually released.

From there, Thielbar signed with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association in 2011. In 43 games, Thielbar posted a 2.43 ERA and 62 strikeouts. That got the attention of the Twins, who signed him before the 2012 season.

He was sent to Class-A Fort Myers, where he impressed, and a year later, he was called up to the majors—the first Jackrabbit to ever make it that far.

“I don’t know if there was just a mindset shift, but there was definitely an approaching shift that helped as far as how I attacked hitters, but I really didn’t know what to expect,” Thielbar said. “I was just happy to have another opportunity and ended up making the most of it.”

Thielbar made his major league debut in 2013 and pitched two scoreless innings. That season, he posted a 1.76 ERA in 49 games. The following year, he spent the entire season in Minnesota, recording a 3.59 ERA in 54 appearances.

But by early 2015, Thielbar was released after pitching only five games. After that, he returned to St. Paul and pitched two more years for the Saints, trying to keep his hopes of returning to the MLB alive.

“I had a lot of things figured out at that point in my life,” Thielbar said. “My shoulder had hurt quite a bit in the second half of 2014 and the whole year in 2015, and I just wasn’t the same guy. I just had to figure out why that was happening and then fix it.”

After two solid seasons with the Saints in 2016 and 2017, Thielbar got another chance in the Detroit Tigers minor league system, but never got the call-up to Detroit. After a brief stop in Gwinnett under the Atlanta Braves Triple-A affiliate in 2019, Thielbar’s chance at an MLB return seemed to be over.

He then began coaching at Augustana in 2019, where he still occasionally helps out during the offseason. His time at Augustana taught him a lot about his limitations as a pitcher.

“That’s definitely been one of the main keys of being able to be back with the Twins is figuring out where I’m limited and how I can work through that,” Thielbar said. “And trying to help other guys do that has kind of helped me be able to learn that about myself as well.”

His experience at Augustana helped him get re-signed by his hometown team in 2020.

Many pitchers would have given up, but Thielbar was always confident that he could get big league batters out. He stayed determined to prove he could make it in the majors throughout his journey.

But Thielbar knows he still has room to improve, and he’s committed to making his second stint in the majors a lengthy one and continuing to build off his successful season.

“I want to be able to decide for myself when I want to be done playing and not have the game decide that for me,” Thielbar said.

“I think, at this point, just take it year by year and hopefully have another good season next year and see what the year after that brings.”