Former South Dakota State standout Caleb Thielbar fires a pitch for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, a Midwest League affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, earlier this season.
APPLETON, Wisc. — Last summer, Caleb Thielbar began a whirlwind tour of the minor league system when he was drafted in the 18th round of the 2009 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Prior to the draft, the Brewers faintly registered on his radar, as the Twins and Tigers were among the suitors that had heavily pursued the lefty ace of the Jackrabbits. Thielbar was told by Jackrabbit head coach Ritchie Price and several scouts to be expecting a call during the draft.
“It was a surprise,” said Thielbar of the Brewers call. “I didn’t even talk to the Brewers until the day of the draft. I had seen one of their scouts at one of our games and talked to him briefly. But after that I didn’t have any contact with them during the next two months.”
Coming in with no idea of what to expect, Thielbar relied on former teammates Craig Parry and Jake Rogers, along with Price, to understand the ropes of the minor league systems.
Starting off with the Helena Brewers, Thielbar pitched in only two games during his stint with Helena. The Randolph, Minn., native shook off the dust of not pitching on a consistent basis and showed the Brewers what he was made of in the Arizona League. Posting an Arizona League-best 1.59 ERA and tying for first in the league with six wins, Thielbar saw action in 14 games, making two starts while striking out 46 batters in 45 1-3 innings.
“My first couple times out weren’t good,” Thielbar said. “I think a lot of that was due to not pitching during the layoff. Once I got back in the swing of things, I was able to pitch better. It was just about pitching well and facing a lot of inexperienced hitters that helped out last summer. This summer they are better. They don’t chase as many balls out of the strike zone and are more disciplined at the plate.”
During the fall, Thielbar was on campus and using the weight room to work out on a daily basis. Once the fall semester ended, he trained back home, running, lifting and throwing to get ready for his first spring training with the Brewers.
“It (spring training) was a completely new experience,” Thielbar said. “You had the chance to meet a lot of guys throughout the farm system at the different levels. My locker was next to Triple A, Double A and Single A guys. We’d pitch every two or three days. It was basically baseball all the time and nothing more.”
In his time at SDSU, Thielbar pitched some in middle relief, while making several starts. With the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers of the Midwest League, the 6-foot lefty made an easy transition from starter to middle reliever. Added into the mix this year is the wear and tear of the 140-game schedule.
“With the short season last summer, you would get a little worn down,” said Thielbar. “But it wasn’t like every single day for five to six months. It is the biggest thing that everyone goes through.”
Just past the midway point of the season with the Timber Rattlers, the former 556th pick of the Brewers has seen action in 26 games. With an 0-2 record, two saves and an earned run average of 5.32, it takes just one bad outing to inflate the ERA and many good ones to deflate.
He also has 39 strikeouts and 10 walks in 45 2-3 innings.
Since the league’s All-Star break two weeks ago, the lefty has seen action in three games which have ballooned the ERA. And while there have been more bad outings than good as of late for Thielbar, the ability to forget the bad outings has pushed him on.
“It is basically a cycle with everyone,” Thielbar said. “Our pitching coach told us, ‘Everyone is going to have good streaks and bad streaks.’ It is all a matter of keeping the good streaks going as long as possible. I wasn’t getting lucky at the start of the season and I got hit pretty hard. I started to figure out to get the ball down and throw breaking balls and changeups for strikes. Ever since then, I feel like I have been pitching well just getting a few bad breaks here and there.”
Not letting the game pass him by, the former Jackrabbit has enjoyed his ‘full-time’ job with the Timber Rattlers so far.
A normal day consists of getting to the ball park by 2 or 3 p.m. for 7 p.m. games, and not leaving the ballpark until 11 p.m., if lucky. Conditioning, weight training and running are the norm for Thielbar, occasionally followed up by throwing sessions and batting practice.
“There’s really not a whole lot of free time,” said Thielbar. “(Recently), I got up early to go golfing. There are usually a lot of courses around that cater to us. But people look at it and say, ‘They only work for three hours a day.’ That’s not really the whole truth. It isn’t exactly what people on the outside looking in think it is.”
While the ultimate goal is a promotion to the Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League, a High A club, or the Huntsville Stars of the Double A Southern League, Thielbar has taken things in stride during this dream experience. The fan base of 4,000 to 5,000 is a far cry from that witnessed at Erv Huether Field or Miller Park, but it keeps Thielbar motivated
“There are just so many different things that happen on a daily basis,” Thielbar said. “It is hard to even think about the promotions.
“It is a great experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything right now. You get to play baseball for fun. What else do you want to do? It was the thing I wanted to do most, and I am finally getting a chance to do it.”