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March 8th, 2016
With the exception of closer Glen Perkins and veteran setup man Jared Burton, just about everyone else is making around the league minimum, according to Cot’s Contracts. Two converted starters, Brian Duensing and Anthony Swarzak, make more -- $2 million and $935,000, respectively -- but everyone except Perkins can become a free agent after next season (Burton has an option in 2015).
Fien is emotional on the field; everyone else is even-keeled. Swarzak came right out of high school; the rest went to college. Perkins has a complete understanding of sabermetrics; Burton can’t stand them. And yet, despite all their differences, this group is extremely close. To understand how this works, it’s best to look at each personality individually first before observing the group dynamic as a whole.
Casey Fien: The Emotional One
Fien is the only player that expresses a lot of emotion on the field. Other players may be expressive in the locker room, but for the most part, all of them, by nature, stay even-keeled as much as possible. “Casey’s really the outlier as far as on-the-field emotion," says Perkins. “I wish I could be like that, but it’s just not my personality or my style."
Early on in his career, Fien, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 20th round out of Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., was occasionally told by his minor league coaches to calm things down a bit. But he says that his personality has been embraced in Minnesota, and it is part of the reason why he resurrected his career with the Twins after being released by both the Tigers and Houston Astros. “I was a little nervous with it in the beginning," he admits, “but then Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) told me, he goes, ‘It worries me when you don’t show emotion’ because that’s when I know you’re thinking too much. Just let it go, let it loose."
As a result, Fien can be seen pumping his fist violently when he strikes a batter out, leaping in the air when he gets out of an inning or yelling at himself when he gives up a lead.
These emotions are genuine and were not always part of his game, even when they weren’t suppressed. When he was coming up with the Tigers, he often performed mop-up duty when the game was out of hand. That meant he came into games where his team was up 10-1 or down 1-10; rarely did his pitching affect the outcome of the game. “It’s kind of like ehh…well, c’mon," he says, laughing, “but now that I’m pitching in bigger situations, the crowd is more into it. I just fuel off the fans pretty much."
He says that he has always been an emotional guy, but rarely shows it like he does now. He made his major league debut in 2009, but only pitched 11 games in his first two seasons with the Tigers, did not play in the major leagues in 2011 and spent that summer playing in the Mexican league. It wasn’t until he was in a Twins uniform that he regularly started playing in front of significant crowds on a regular basis. “I’ve always been an emotional guy, but I’ve usually never shown it like I do now," he says. “But when you’re in front of 35,000 fans, and you hear them roar, I mean, if you can’t get up for that, then you shouldn’t be playing baseball."
Caleb Thielbar: The Everyman
Thielbar was playing for the St. Paul Saints in 2011. The Milwaukee Brewers had released him two years after drafting him in the 18th round, and the former South Dakota State pitcher appeared to be out of the major leagues. He spent two years in rookie ball and never got past Class A.
Two years later, the Randolph, Minn., native went 19 2/3 innings without allowing a run to begin his career with the Twins.
I covered his ascent from the Saints to the Twins last year. In my reporting, I found him to be unchanged by his instant success. Still to this day, he has remained humble about his play, “This year I haven’t been real impressive with my performance," he says. “I have been giving up a lot of hard hit balls, and right now they’re going at people, but it’s baseball and that’s not going to be the case all the time." This coming from a player that through his first 24.0 inning pitched had only given up nine runs, had a 19:6 strikeout to walk ratio and owns a WHIP of less than 1.00.
He was encouraged to continue pursuing his major league career by Tyler Walker, an eight-year veteran that was playing with the Saints at the time. Thielbar learned his slider from an up-and-coming prospect in Milwaukee named Jake Odorizzi and on May 20, 2013 became the first South Dakota State player to reach the major leagues.
His coach in Brookings, current Sacramento State skipper Reggie Christiansen, said he is the best athlete he ever coached at SDSU. Thielbar came to South Dakota State, a newly-minted Division I program, with the ability to do a 360-degree dunk on the basketball court. That’s impressive for anybody, but especially exceptional for a guy that is a stocky 6’0", 195 pounds.
It’s hard to know exactly how a guy from a relatively unknown school who was drafted in the 18th round and is two years removed from independent baseball has had so much success, but Glen Perkins, a fellow Minnesotan, has a theory. “I think he got healthy," says the closer, who grew up in Stillwater. “Obviously I never saw him throw a pitch until he came to camp with us two years ago, and I know we signed him…and obviously he had a pretty good run in career.
“Obviously the stuff he has now wouldn’t lead you to get released so I’m guessing that his stuff has gotten a lot better, he’s gotten healthier, whatever it might be, but he’s obviously a different pitcher than he was."
A different pitcher, maybe, but that’s about all that has changed. That much is obvious.
Brian Duensing: The Self-Critic
After famously starting against CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees in the 2009 ALDS and going 10-3 with a 2.62 ERA in 2010, there was perhaps some thought that Duensing, a third-round pick out of the University of Nebraska in 2005, would be a starter in Minnesota. His ERA spiked above 5.00 in subsequent seasons, however, and he was sent to the bullpen after 11 starts in 2012 where he was a better fit.
During his tenure as a starter, Duensing was notoriously tough on himself. He never made up excuses in post-game interviews and could be seen crestfallen while sitting in front of his stall in an empty locker room long after the game had ended.
He appears to be better suited, and more content, now that he is a reliever. He throws better from the stretch and has posted a career ERA more than a full run better out of the pen than in the rotation. “There’s times where I’ll have that drive to be a starter and feel like I can still do it," he says, “but there’s days when the bullpen thing is going really well and you think, ‘Things are going well, maybe I should stay in this role.’"
For the time being, it appears that he’ll remain there. He appears better able to handle the ups and downs of baseball as a reliever than he did as a starter, and in a game that relies heavily on a player’s mentality, that can be as important as anything. As far as personality goes, Duensing is closest to Thielbar. “Brian’s just a normal dude," says Perkins. “That’s the weird thing about him is that he just goes out and does his thing and doesn’t really expect much at any point."
Duensing might not have changed much as a person, but he seems to be more at ease now that he’s a reliever -- and that’s a good thing.
Anthony Swarzak: The Goofball
Within a few minutes of speaking with Swarzak, it’s easy to identify him as a little goofier than the rest of his fellow relievers. Although he offers a sincere, firm handshake, he can’t hold back a playful grin. When he’s with his teammates, he tends to keep things loose with a wisecrack or a clever phrase, and his mannerisms alone are enough to turn a downtrodden player’s mood around. But as soon as he gets the call from the bullpen, he becomes as serious as any other player in the game.
“That’s probably why he succeeded in that role," says Perkins, who has known Swarzak since the two players were drafted in 2004, “he can flip a switch, and he pays attention, and then he really zones in when the phone rings and they tell him to get up. He probably knows scouting reports on guys as well as anyone that I played with."
Swarzak’s role is difficult because he can get that call at just about any time during the game. Unlike other players in the bullpen that have a set role and tend to pitch the same amount of time during each outing, Swarzak will pitch in long relief as well as high-leverage situations. “He doesn’t know when he’s going to throw," explains starter Kyle Gibson. “He could throw four innings one day a month in long relief and one inning in short relief. I mean, that’s a tough role to be in. You’ve got to have the right mindset."
“The year he had last year was unbelievable considering he had to be focused from Pitch 1 to Pitch 100, and that’s not easy to do," echoes Perkins. “When you know you’re going to go in a game or have an idea when you’re going into a game, it’s a lot easier to prepare yourself and get yourself in the right mindset to get ready to go."
“The most impressive thing is him being able to bounce back," echoes Guerrier. “He throws two or three one day, he’s available the next day to pitch if need be. That’s the hardest part is going over the hump of saying, ‘Shoot, I threw three innings two days ago. Am I available today?’ and he puts himself in a good spot."
“Be prepared for anything," Swarzak says of his mindset. “Make sure you are warm and your body is in good shape in case the team needs you to pick up three or four innings, and also be ready to come in with your best stuff right out of the gate to get that big double play ball with runners on first and second, first and third, whatever it is."
This is easier said than done, of course, and while Swarzak appears to be settled into his role in the bullpen, he holds out hope to be a starter again one day -- something that differentiates himself from both Duensing and Perkins. “I would love to start," he says emphatically. “I would love the opportunity to start. I’m never going to get rid of the windup with nobody on. It’s just something that I won’t let go.
“I know I can do it, but I also know my value here is to help the team any way I can, and I’m willing to do whatever I can to put on a major league uniform every day."
Wanting to change his role with the team even though he’s mastered an extremely difficult one in the bullpen seems a little bit goofy. But for Swarzak, that might just be fitting.
Michael Tonkin: The New Guy
Tonkin could have easily felt excluded when he joined the Twins bullpen this season. Yes, he was called up last season and yes, he has good stuff, but he is also a quiet, 30th-round pick that few pundits felt would ever make it to the major leagues. Most players selected that late choose to go to college, and those that don’t often spend most of their careers in the minor leagues.
Tonkin had his brother-in-law Jason Kubel on the team during his stint in Minnesota this year, but it was Duensing and Burton who made him feel most at home in the major league clubhouse. “Both of them have been around for a while," says Tonkin. “It’s basically the guys with the most time that I feel comfortable asking questions. Pretty much it’s as simple as that, really."
This is a good sign, of course, because if the veterans in the bullpen were not approachable, younger players would feel less included. Younger players like Tonkin get sent up and down frequently and don’t always feel like they are part of the team because of that, but the ability to approach veteran relievers about anything that is on his mind has made Tonkin feel welcome. “The questions aren’t always about baseball or aren’t always about strategies or facing a batter," he says, “it’s more just what do I want to do right now and where do I want to be?"
“He came up a little bit last year and he was just one of those kids that didn’t say much and just always had a feel of the right and wrong thing," said Burton. “He would ask questions, this and that, and he’d surprise you with something funny, too."
Burton won’t reveal any specifics -- he says they will stay within the clubhouse -- but says Tonkin is one of the goofiest, most random people he has ever met. “He’d be sitting, not saying a word, and then all of sudden he’d say something, and the whole bullpen would be laughing at him."
“He’s a good kid," says Duensing. “He comes in and he keeps his mouth shut, really. If he has questions, he asks, and he works hard and wants to win as much as the rest of us."
Burton and Duensing, as well as Swarzak and Fien, have specifically said that they feel Tonkin has major league ready stuff and plenty of confidence to throw it in the strike zone. He’s also noticeably raw and relies heavily on his fastball, which he likes to use to blow by batters. That strategy works in the minor leagues, where many players are not able to get ahead of his pitches, but has hurt him at the game’s highest level.
“You can’t just live on a fastball up here," said manager Ron Gardenhire before the team sent Tonkin down in mid-May. “He doesn’t throw 98 mph. He throws 94-95 mph, and you’ve got to have a secondary pitch, you have to have something to get them out."
There’s reason to believe Tonkin will be back, however, if he improves his secondary pitches. And if he does get another call up, it is certain that he will be accepted as one of the guys once again. “Tonkin’s been fun to watch," says Swarzak. “He’s got a little ways to go early on here, but he’s got the mindset and the personality to be very, very effective in a major league bullpen."
Matt Guerrier: The Prodigal Son
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Guerrier is the wily old veteran who is extremely familiar with the organization. Only four pitchers have made more appearances in a Twins uniform than Guerrier: Eddie Guardado, Rick Aguilera, Jim Kaat and Joe Nathan. He, along with Kubel and Jason Bartlett, was part of a wave of old faces from the team’s glory years that are ostensibly finishing up their careers in Minnesota.
Guerrier took a little longer to join the team than others because he was coming off of surgery that had taken place in August to repair a flexor mass in his throwing arm, but he also appears to have the most staying power. Instead of being the setup man, as he was before he left in 2010, he has embraced being more of a utility guy. “I definitely feel like I’m kind of an interchangeable piece down there," he says. “I can go a couple innings if I have to and can fill in for guys if somebody needs a day off."
It can’t be ignored that he is also sort of a prodigal son. The Clevelander was drafted by the White Sox and debuted with Minnesota in 2004 at age 25, but left for Southern California to join the Los Angeles Dodgers and had a brief stint with the Cubs before returning to Minnesota this season. He somehow managed to play for the Twins during most of their peak years while watching the team self-destruct from the West Coast.
Yet, despite missing out on Mauer and Justin Morneau’s injury-plagued 2011, the Tsuyoshi Nishioka experiment and the implosion of the pitching rotation that resulted in three straight 90-loss seasons immediately after he left, he got a warm welcome in the Twins’ clubhouse as the team makes an attempt to get above .500 this season.
“It has to do with the guys," he says. “Guys like Duensing and Burton are really easy to get along with and Perk’s witty and fun to be around.
“That makes it easier when the veterans aren’t hard-nosed tough guys and not worried about someone taking their job or something. They embrace it with another guy coming in and you gotta make them feel comfortable so they can go out there and win some games for us."
Jared Burton: The Old School Guy
Ask any reliever in the Twins’ clubhouse and they will tell you that, without a doubt, Perkins and Burton are the leaders of the bullpen. “Perkins obviously has that closer, leader role aspect going and Burton is more like the voice of the bullpen," says Duensing. “We feed off of each other, and we’ll talk about things -- how we want things to go, get things done or whatever, and Burton is the kind of guy that will speak his mind about it for us as a whole."
“They’re the key to our success last year and [show] how to be a professional, how to go about your job and what the bullpen asks of you," adds Fien, who took over Burton’s role as the eighth inning setup man this season. “They just tell you and teach you how to prepare and how to get people out in the big leagues."
The funny thing is that Perkins and Burton couldn’t be more different. Perkins is a first-rounder that came up a starter; Burton is an eighth-rounder that has pitched in relief since A-ball. Perkins is witty and gregarious; Burton is relaxed and soft-spoken. Perkins loves advanced stats; Burton loathes them.
“I don’t care anything about that," he says, emphatically, when asked about sabermetrics. “I’m a traditional guy, and what happens on the field is sacred to me. All of that stuff, yes, it’s a way for people to assess players, assess the game, but I don’t even want to talk about it."
Burton says this with a thick southern drawl. He’s a Carolina guy who went from an eighth-rounder out of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., to Lights-Out Levi -- a nod to his given name -- at the major league level with the Cincinnati Reds before joining Minnesota. He’s a man who will offer a firm handshake, look you directly in the eye and ask your name twice to ensure he has it right. He also is not one to get uptight about things.
“There’s not a lot of high-strung guys that play this game," he says, smiling. “There are a few, but most guys have a laid back side to them. It’s just kind of the vibe of this game."
The one thing that will make him raise his voice in disdain is somebody who tries to take humanity out of the game. Suddenly his drawl is a little less pronounced and his vowels start rolling off the tongue a little quicker than usual.
“It don’t mean anything," he says of sabermetrics. “It don’t have anything to do with what’s inside of a guy when he’s in a tough situation, back against the wall. It has no idea how to rate that player. The human element is pretty irrelevant and most of those guys take a number and plug it in with what they think’s going to happen and it has nothing to do with whether somebody’s locked in for a couple days or if they’re slumping."
While some players may fall back on advanced statistics, Burton says that his success comes as a result of how much effort he puts into preparing for a game. “Confidence is huge in this game for any offense, defense, pitching, whatever, but I always feel like if I feel prepared, then I’m going to be confident," he says, adding that he watches video and has become familiar with most of the established major league hitters by now. “I just glance at the hitters and see what their natural swing is, and then it’s just down to executing pitches.
“In the pitcher’s meetings, you could say, ‘This guy hits fastballs in really well,’ but if your strength is throwing sinkers in, then I’m going to bet that I’m going to execute more than him so you’ve just got to stay with your stuff more times than not and be confident in it.
“And if his strength is your strength, then you’re gonna go, ‘Well, I’m better than you are, so here it is.’"
Just because Perkins knows FIP, BABIP and WHIP, doesn’t mean that he fails to acknowledge the human side of the game. “There’s multiple ways to look at it," he says. “Being someone that understands most or all of the numbers and also someone that’s in this clubhouse and on that mound and in that bullpen, I know there’s a human element."
The thing about Perkins is he doesn’t seem like a guy that would delve into advanced statistics: He once forgot to zip his fly during an outing, bought a round of beers for some hard-core fans during a rain delay and picked a fight with Josh Donaldson of the Oakland Athletics to get his team fired up. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was some regular old guy from Stillwater that spends his nights sipping on a Lift Bridge seasonal at Rafters or The Freight House.
“Perk is Perk," says Fien.
The bottom line is that a person who is as human as Perkins is -- seriously, he left his zipper down in front of 40,000 people -- can’t ignore that element of the game when it comes to his preparation. “The hard-core sabermetricians want to throw that out because there’s no way to quantify it and they feel that everything should be quantified," he says. “And it can’t be; it’s not possible."
The stat that Perkins uses most is Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, which measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average. “I have a 3.00 ERA, I have a FIP that’s 1.30," he says. “I know that the longer I keep doing what I’ve been doing so far for my first 22 innings this season, that the more innings I get, the closer my ERA is going to be to my FIP."
“The four hits against Boston," he adds, referencing a blown save against the Red Sox on May 15, “I know that those hits are going to happen and that they’re going to find holes and then things like the other night happen, and when I give up a leadoff triple and three balls in play get hit to fielders -- it evens out and your batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is going to be what it is."
It ultimately comes down to a search for confidence. For Burton, it is derived from his preparation; for Perkins it is in advanced metrics, although he does rely heavily on a unique routine to get ready for his outings.
Instead of staying in the bullpen, he will sit in the clubhouse for the first five or six innings and then join the rest of the relievers in the seventh. He knows that he won’t have to pitch until the ninth inning and likes to watch the hitters up close on the clubhouse monitors. At that point he could care less what an opposing hitter has done in the last few days, he’s concerned about how that guy is playing on that particular day. “There’s days where guys are on and days when guys are off and you can see that on TV that day," he says. “I want to know if a guy’s bat is slow one day because maybe he went out the night before and he’s dragging a little bit."
That’s the balance Perkins has struck: He knows when the stats matter and when they don’t. Stats will tell you if your ERA is too high or too low and what a player has done over a course of time, but when it comes down to getting three outs with your team ahead by less than four runs, you’ve just gotta know how well each batter is doing that day. “I want to see what a guy did that day, which is kind of opposite of what sabermetric thinking would be," he says. “It’s a small sample size, but that’s all that really matters to me (that day)."
Perhaps it takes a man who leaves his fly open to bring the sabermetricians and old school baseball thinkers together. At the very least, the Society for American Baseball Research should add another acronym to their collection, one specifically designed for Mr. Perkins: XYZ.
The Twins bullpen has somehow made this work. Despite their different personalities, backgrounds and approaches to the game, there is a core group in Minnesota that has found a way to get the job done -- even when the rest of the team has been performing poorly. Some of it is finding their roles -- Perkins as the closer, Fien stepping in for Burton as the setup man, Swarzak as the long reliever, et cetera -- and some of it is just the nature of sitting around with the same group of guys for hours on end, especially when many of those guys played in the minors together. But some of it is just the way it is.
“I mean, I think it’s just how it works," says Perkins. “You want to do well, and when I was throwing earlier in games, when I was setting up and coming in with guys on base, you almost want to try harder in those situations to pick up the guy behind you and make sure that his runs don’t score.
“Part of it is you go in in a certain situation, and the next day you’re back down in the pen and you want to look the guy in the eye and know that you got him and that all reciprocates."
The fact that most of the guys in the bullpen have specific roles is big, according to many of the relievers. In situations where the closer and setup man, or even the long reliever, is not doing his job and everyone is competing to replace him, there can be conflict among the members of the bullpen that can lead to an overall drop in performance. “No one feels like they are stepping on each other’s toes or that they are competing with the next guy or anything like that," says Duensing. “We’re all out there for the same reason and that’s to pick up the starters and give our team a chance to win."
That means that when Fien was able to take over Burton’s job, it was huge that he still respected him as a leader. It also is important that Fien and Burton are both capable of doing Perkins’ job if he’s had multiple outings in a row or gotten injured. And because Duensing has experience as a starter, he can fill in for Swarzak if he’s pitched a lot of innings in a row over the course of a week.
What it comes down to, though, is that they all face the same burdens. They all get too much work during one month and then not enough the next. They all have to come in at odd times with men on base or in high-pressure situations. They all get no attention when they do their job, but become scapegoated when they give up even as many as one or two runs during a game.
“You approach the game the same way if you’re in the bullpen," says Burton. “You’re down there, you sit down there, you watch the game, you shoot the s*** for six, seven, eight innings every night together. Every guy we’ve had here we haven’t had any problems with whatsoever. Any young guy that comes here, they just immediately fit right in."