Aaron Civale is in the running for a rotation spot this spring. After a year that saw him debut with the Indians and post a 2.34 ERA over 57.2 innings (that ERA was under 2.00 until his last start), he probably had an inside track.
Considering who is going to be headlining the rotation if everyone is healthy, you’d be right to not be getting too psyched about what amounts to a fourth starter. Good news, though. By the time we get to the All-Star break, we won’t be looking at Civale as a back-end starter.
Officially, the hype train is shoveling coal and steaming out of the station. Hop on, won’t you?
Watching Civale last year was a treat for those who enjoy a little finesse without that horrifyingly narrow margin of error that, say, Josh Tomlin had to deal with. Tomlin himself was a pleasure to watch befuddle hitters for a year or so there, before the fastball just got too un-fast and everything backed up into itself. Civale doesn’t have that problem, because he can, at the very least, throw a league-average velocity fastball. That, combined with perhaps the most complementary repertoire without holding any single dominant pitch, makes him any pitching lover’s dream. And more than that, potential front-end starter material.
His first start this spring was almost unfair, just for how sharp his stuff already seemed to be. He got through two scoreless with three strikeouts in his debut, and it all looked so, so good. What really raised my eyebrows was this two-pitch combo he threw in the first inning to Diamondbacks star shortstop, Ketel Marte.
That’s his sinker and cutter (or possibly slider, nobody’s really sure since he gets such movement on the cutter with his high spin rates) paired so perfectly together, tunneled so beautifully that the hitter had to deal with a fully eight inch horizontal span of possible location, all while being right on the edge of the plate. The combination of location and perfect pairing make it hard enough to hit, much less square up.
There’s also his changeup, which despite not being all that heralded has a ton of movement and makes hitters look like they’re just guessing at nothing. It’s also a pitch he can locate down in the zone with impunity.
Again, this by itself is a pretty lethal pitch, moving on a similar plane to the sinker but ten or so miles per hour slower. He won’t get a lot of strikeouts with it necessarily, but he’ll get grounders and soft fouls for a good pitcher’s count. That’s enough for now.
This ability to locate at a comparatively young age though, like with Bieber, is what makes his stuff truly shine. It’s not quite as pinpoint as Bieber, but the meshing of all his pitches in their similarity makes it just as powerful. His pitch chart from that first start is a thing of beauty, just all edges and corners with only two balls even put in play with an exit velocity of 90 mph:
His ability to work that opposite side of the plate so expertly, with pitches that move in all directions, that’s just brilliant. His ability to throw anything at any time - and last year he demonstrated this by throwing his cutter 29 percent of the time, sinker 35, and slider 14 - means there’s really nothing you can sit on and nothing to expect.
Oh yeah, there’s this too:
So that pitch was called a ball. It dropped so hard it tricked the umpire. That’s his curve, which I wrote about recently as being a truly savage pitch with a spin rate in the 96 percentile. By the looks of it, that’s a lot of useful spin. Civale actually gets a ton of spin on all his pitches, his fastball spin sitting in the 85 percentile and his cutter literally 12th in all of baseball in spin rate. It’s not an end-all, be-all stat, just a piece of the larger picture, but evidence suggests that he can locate all these pitches, and all of them work perfectly with each other. That’s pretty neat.
This was what I was most excited for in 2020, was a full year of Aaron Civale. We’ve been so blessed to watch the Indians churn out pitcher after pitcher that just seems to scream out of nowhere and dominate. The Opening Day starter is literally that. From when Civale took the mound in June and shut out the Tigers for six innings until the end of the year, I was completely sold, utterly intrigued with every start.
The only hope was that he could start getting more strikeouts, and if the early showings in spring training are any indication (they aren’t, it’s all fake, but whatever) there’s a hint that the Tribe once again has something really, really special on its hands here.