It’s hard to come up with more superlatives for Aaron Civale. At this point, the only worry you have with him is that it’s all a ruse; that one of these days soon a start of his is going to go sideways and he’ll revert to looking like a rookie. Which will happen, eventually. It happens to everyone. But for now, we have a young guy with a nice little repertoire, with high-level peripherals, who isn’t allowing hits all that much and is striking out a hitter an inning.
He does get hit hard sometimes, though. Hitters are good, too, and he does dance on the edge of doom at times with his attack of the upper part of the zone. It’s actually pretty stark how much he works up there when you look at his chart so far this season:
It’s a scary chart when you think about how homer-happy hitters are these days, but at least sometimes it’s actually good because of Civale’s high pitch spin rate. When utilized effectively, it allows for more break on pitches and less drop on his fastball, resulting in less hard contact.
Let’s talk about that hard contact, though. Baseball Savant has identified a 95 mph exit velocity as a major turning point for hit probability — at 94 mph, the league-wide wOBA is a slightly below league average .313, or roughly Miguel Rojas. At 95 mph it leaps to .361, right where Francisco Lindor lives this year. Like spin rate, lots more goes into it than just the exit velocity, but it’s something to start with. So far this season, Civale has allowed a batted ball 95 mph or more fourteen times, as seen below.
Seeing as the majority of his pitches in general are in that same area of the zone, and that is where hitters like to do the most clobbering, it makes sense that this is where Civale would get the most knocked around.
The real worrying part here is simply the type and placement of those pitches. In general, no pitch has fallen out of vogue more sharply the last few years than the sinker. League-wide, it peaked in usage in 2012 at 22.5%, and this year is setting another record low in usage rate across baseball at 14.7%. Remember how Trevor Bauer’s first great foray into pitch design was his creation of the “Laminar Express”, a filthy sinker that he later abandoned because hitters across baseball simply got too good at hitting sinkers?
Civale features a sinker a lot, throwing it more than any other pitch at 33.5%, a smidge more than the 30.1% cutter usage that he pairs it with. So that alone is a bit of a problem. More to the point, though, a high sinker is simply much easier to hit than a low one. Typically the whole point of it is to force ground balls, but when it’s up in the zone, it results in not-ground balls. In effect it neutralizes the very reason it exists.
Which might not be a problem for Civale. Yes, sinkers usually should be thrown lower. But he doesn’t use it for ground balls, at least not according to the numbers. His ground ball rate is just 38.5% in his first three starts, well below the league average 42.9%. No, Civale uses it in a tunnel with his cutter, keeping hitters off balance and the ball off the sweet spot of the bat. And it does pay dividends - overall he’s allowing an exit velocity 95 mph or greater just 5.2% of the time. For comparison, Shane Bieber is at 6.7%, Trevor Bauer at 5.6%, and even Max Scherzer comes in at 5.2%. So that’s pretty good. He’s also never had a ball “barreled” by Statcast’s standards, so even when it’s struck it’s not truly struck perfectly.
That chart above that shows all the balls Civale got blasted on accounts for 14 total batted balls. Three of those fell for hits, so his conversion rate even on that is pretty good. Again, none of them were hit at an optimal angle to achieve Barrel status. The sample is still very small, though 271 times now he’s thrown a ball to a major league hitter, and kept it away from their barrel every time. If the future does hold a drop-off in sinker usage in favor of a four-seam offering, one hopes he can optimize that spin and get some run to compliment his very good cutter. Right now he ranks 34th among all starters in four-seam spin-rate, above guys like Bauer and Mike Clevinger who have very live fastballs in their own right, though it’s only 17 examples. That’s not really much to draw from.
He’s demonstrated a knack for not getting hit hard so far, it’s just that you have to wonder how long that will last with his current pitch mix being trapped in 2012. As with everything with Civale, we’re going to have to wait and see if he gets an abrupt learning experience.