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Aaron Civale proved to be a worthy starter through ups and downs of 2020 season

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The mystery of the second-year starter’s sinker and high-spin curveball was mostly solved, but he continued to work through it and be an effective rotation member

Cleveland Indians v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

When Aaron Civale burst onto the scene as a rookie with one of the highest spin rates in baseball, there was a reason to drool over his potential. He was avoiding bats and walks like a seasoned vet, and his future was bright.

That future is still bright for Aaron Civale, but 2020 may have given us some much-needed perspective on the young starter. As I’m sure we’ll see throughout these year-in-review posts, a lot of this season can be taken with a grain of salt if you want. This was an incredibly strange sprint, and any player who relies on even a bit of routine was likely thrown off their game.

Out of the gate, Civale picked up where he left off in 2019. He held opponents to fewer than four runs in all but one of his first five starts, and he only walked three in a combined 34.0 innings pitched. His best game came as a complete-game victory over the Pirates on Aug. 19. He allowed just five hits and walked none in that start — his only run allowed was an RBI double by Cole Tucker in a failed ninth-inning rally. It was purely Civale at his best, with his sinker, curveball, changeup, and cutter all getting used and painted for called strikes.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only time Civale faced the Pirates, and they weren’t so easily fooled against him in his last outing of the season.

Civale’s numbers were a bit skewed by an absolute clunker in his last start of the year against Pittsburgh, in which he allowed eight runs in 4.0 innings (his penultimate start against the White Sox wasn’t much better, either). Without that game, he had a sub-4.00 ERA and FIP. But, of course, you cannot do that. With the final game — by far his worst of the season, Civale finished the year with a 4.74 ERA, 22.1 strikeout rate, 5.1% walk rate, 44.2% groundball rate, and an ERA- just barely below average at 103. That is a far cry from the 49 ERA- he put up last season in only a handful more innings pitched.

The results are not hard to figure out. When Civale was missing bats riding his spinning fastball up the zone paired with his groundball-inducing sinker and curve effectively, he was fine. But when he was hit, he was hit incredibly hard. His barrel rate was right around the middle of the pack — as opposed to its elite level last season — and his expected stats (xwOBA, xERA, xSLG, etc.) all suffered along with the harder contact.

As Merritt Rohlfing wrote last month, Civale features four pitches that profile as above-average, which is absurd. None of them are elite by any stretch, but he makes them work. This season like in his rookie campaign, he used his sinker, cutter, curve combination nearly 60% of the time and filled in the rest with sliders, fastballs, and the occasional four-seamer. His curve lacked the same vertical bite of last season, dropping from 67.7 inches to 63.9 inches. The side-to-side movement of his cutter was lacking as well, dipping from 5.5 inches in 2019 to 5.1 inches in 2020. That may not sound like much, the “cut” of his cutter was at an elite level when he was at his best.

With the midseason deal that sent Mike Clevinger to Minnesota, Civale assumed the Tribe’s No. 4 starter role behind Shane Beiber, Zach Plesac, and Carlos Carrasco. Given the Indians’ quick exit from the playoffs, he never got to make his first postseason start, but he will get there. A lot of his struggles this season can be attributed to dumb luck, a slow death-by-a-billion-BABIPs. Unless he makes significant steps backwards while Cal Quantrill and Triston McKenzie flourishes, he figures to have another lengthy shot at a rotation spot in 2021 and he has more than earned it.