The Minnesota Twins have excelled in certain areas of team-building. While they may be light years behind in developing starting pitchers, their ability to identify inexpensive bullpen talent has been impressive.
Casey Fien is one such find. For less than a million dollars of salary the 29-year-old right-hander has provided the team with over $7 million of production value, according to Fangraphs.com’s valuation. That is a significant contribution from a pitcher who was on the verge of being organizational flotsam. Had the Twins not picked him up in 2012, Fien knows it is possible that he would still be shuffling between different clubs’ Triple-A affiliates. He also acknowledges that if it were not for the Twins, he might not be the pitcher he is today.
In his life before professional baseball, Fien had already lived a fairly nomadic existence. After high school, the right-hander bounced around to three different colleges: William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California and finally, he graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In 2006, with a small farming community worth of ballplayers selected before him, the Tigers tapped him with pick number five-hundred and ninety-two.
Being selected twenty rounds deep in the major league draft does not assure anything. Unless you are a stud high school prospect with college as leverage, draftees rarely make enough to finance a used Honda Accord with their bonus money. The road to the majors is filled with plenty of detours – and Fien’s path is an example of that. Following a seven-year stint in Detroit’s organization, with ten appearances at the major league level scattered between 2009 and 2010 (a season which began in March with him being waiver-claimed by Boston, and then by Toronto, before returning to Detroit fewer than twenty days later), Fien spent 2011 with the Houston Astros. In August, minor elbow strain eventually led that club to cut ties with him in. After a winter in the Mexican Leagues, the Twins extended him a minor league contract in January 2012.
It was not as if Fien lacked the tools to succeed. After all, he had a mid-90s fastball and above average secondary pitches. Something needed to happen. It was then, in the Minnesota Twins organization, that it all clicked.
“That’s a good way to put it,” said Fien. “It just started clicking for me. I started throwing everything for strikes and once you can start someone off-speed and then locate your fastball, from then on out it’s your game, not their game.”
In a late season call-up, Fien had a 2.06 ERA, the second-lowest among rookies to throw 35 innings or more. Did a change in his approach help him succeed that year?
“I wouldn’t say ‘change it’,” said Fien, “it was more of ‘focusing on what you need to work on’.”
And helping him focus on what he needed to work on was Rochester’s trio of instructors. “The pitching coaches up and down the lineup, they tell you what you need to work on, how to get to the big leagues. Last year, I had two great coaches. I had Bobby [Cuellar], who’s in the bullpen now, and I also had [Rochester manager] Gene Glynn, who was a great person to talk to. And Bruno [Tom Brunansky], Bruno was a guy who I would go to and ask ‘what do I need to do to get these hitters out?’”
The 29-year-old California native may have a warm demeanor with a friendly smile in the clubhouse, but out on the mound he clearly has ice water in his veins. Fien says this was not always the case: in previous years he was simply trying to throw strikes instead of pitching. The lessons and skills learned during his stint Rochester in 2012 helped turn him into a reliable late innings reliever, and over the last month he is being used more frequently in high leverage situations as Jared Burton has struggled.
Moreover, in the first half of the season his services have been requested with numerous runners on base - 30 to be exact- which is the seventh highest in the American League. That is a significant undertaking and vote of confidence by the manager considering he allowed 11 of his 25 inherited runners to score last year. To his credit, Fien has allowed just four to score, or 13%, a minuscule rate when compared to the league average of 32%. Small sample size notwithstanding, he has clamped down when he needed the final out of an inning, particularly when a runner was in scoring position. According to his splits at Baseball-Reference.com, opponents are 0-for-18 with two outs and have a runner on second or third.
In April, Fien told reporters that in those RISP situations, he uses the hitters’ aggressiveness against them. As hitters begin to smell those RBIs, they tend to expand the zone in an effort to drive in those runners. Using a running cutter/slider, Fien has been able to move his pitches from one side of the strike zone to well off the plate on the other side, leaving hitters completely incapacitated.
How impressive has his cutter been? If you search Fangraphs.com’s pitch value leaderboard, Fien’s 8.8 runs above average falls within the top five of qualified relievers, one slot ahead of Mariano Rivera, whose cutter has elevated him to legendary status. Matching Rivera's approach with this stuff is a surefire method for keeping yourself in the big leagues.
“Getting confidence and sticking with your game plan,” Fien says, revealing his secret recipe for success. “Because once you try to do something that you are not supposed to…young guys, when they get here, they try to do too much. You just have to find your niche, your comfort zone.”