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Most middle relievers are faceless automatons, marching in from the bullpen to a generic nu-metal dirge to face a few hitters and disappear into the dugout. Take Mike Stanton, for example. He’s been in the major leagues since 1989, but if you asked me to pick him out of a police lineup, I’m pretty sure I’d guess Curt Leskanic by mistake. That’s what makes Pat Neshek so special: he’s turned a thankless role in the Minnesota Twins’ bullpen into a sort of cult celebrity status in less than two full years in the big leagues.

For those of you who have been able to ignore the admittedly small firestorm of hype surrounding Neshek to this point, here’s a quick primer to his multi-faceted appeal:

His pitching motion: This is the most immediately noticeable eccentricity about Neshek. He hurt his wrist in high school in the suburban Twin Cities (the other ones, in Minnesota) and discovered that firing sidearm shots from his shortstop position allowed him to throw pain-free. He refined the delivery throughout his college career at Butler University, where he was the Bulldogs’ closer. Here’s a link to some video of the delivery, if you’re unfamiliar. He begins out of the stretch, then his upper body lunges downward while his right arm swoops back. As he rocks toward the plate, his arm swings across, almost like he’s leisurely skipping stones across a pond. His follow-through carries him toward the first-base line, and his hand finishes high, almost like he’s firing an imaginary pistol at the batter. And he’s no slop-throwing soft-tossing sidearmer, either: Neshek’s fastball is consistently in the low- to mid-90’s, and his frisbee slider hits the mid-80’s.

His blog: Neshek is a longtime autograph fanatic, which is a pretty endearing quality for someone who now has people clamoring for his signature. While the color combination of his blog makes it nearly impossible to read (sorry in advance), the content is really good for an athlete’s site. He has a forum for fans to discuss autograph collecting, some reviews of recent baseball card offerings, and frequent updates about his season. There’s also an address where you can send him baseball cards to sign, and he’ll return them if you enclose a SASE. Neshek’s presence in the blog culture has also made him a popular figure among his fellow Twins bloggers. Aaron Gleeman, who operates one of the most popular Twins blogs, has given him the nickname “Sideshow Pat.” You can also check out his musical tastes, which run the gamut from regular death metal to really hardcore death metal. I’m sort of kidding here, because there are many, many bands on that list which I’ve never heard of.

His diet: He recently revealed in an interview that he became a vegan last season, which is not something that you often hear about baseball players. On the other hand, Prince Fielder claimed that he was following a vegetarian diet during spring training, so maybe it’s becoming more common, but for now it makes him stand out among the carnivorous majority.

So, you may be asking yourself, is Neshek’s popularity only a product of his eccentricity, or is he actually a good major league pitcher? Well, there’s still some debate on that question. As of mid-June 2007, Neshek had an ERA of 1.72 in 68 major-league innings, with 90 strikeouts and 17 walks. By any measure, that’s excellent. Unfortunately, that’s been his peak so far in the majors. He struggled in the second half last year, posting an ERA of nearly 5.00 after the All-Star break and sitting out the last couple of weeks of the season with shoulder fatigue. Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire seemed bent on wearing out Neshek most of the year, as he was the only trusted right-handed arm in the bullpen other than closer Joe Nathan. Gardy finally succeeded, and the results haven’t been any more encouraging so far this spring. In his first nine appearances this season, he’s had seven excellent outings and was shelled twice. Unfortunately for a relief pitcher, your ERA can be colored by one or two bad outings all year. After a perfect inning against Oakland last night, he’s at an even 5.00 for the season. One encouraging note — especially coming off some shoulder issues — is that his control has been great, walking only one versus nine strikeouts in nine innings pitched.

Most sidearming pitchers have difficulty getting opposite-handed batters out, which is why they end up relegated to situational relief work. Neshek, however, both in the minors and so far in his major league career, has been almost as tough on left-handed batters as righties. This characteristic makes him much more valuable to the Twins and bodes well for long-term success overall. Will Pat Neshek continue to be a productive major leaguer while being an interesting personality? Only time will tell, but there are more people invested in his success than would normally be the case for someone in his role, and that’s a testament to his accessibility and unique outlook. Let’s hope that he has a long career ahead of him.