I was excited to see Aaron Civale’s first start of the season on Tuesday. A truly fascinating subject, Civale emerged seemingly from the ether (or Northeastern University, and the third round of the draft) and in his 57.2 innings of work in 2019 was probably the Indians’ second best pitcher. It was a rotation without much beyond Shane Bieber and a bunch of rookies due to trades and the injured list, but Civale comported himself amazingly and gave hope for a brilliant 2020.
While it was a belated start, it was going to be neat to see what kind of impact he could make this year. He didn’t seem to be blessed with truly overpowering stuff last year, but the sum of his pitching arsenal seemed to be substantially more than its parts. Each pitch complimented another, with his cutter, two-seamer/sinker and fastball all looking remarkably similar till the last moment, and a change with great horizontal movement. His spin rates were intriguing, elite levels across the board, belying a barely average velocity. I was really curious to see how it worked out.
Then he pitched, and Civale reminded me that his curveball is a dummy pitch.
Somehow, the concept that his overall spin rate eliteness, so subtly damaging when he’s throwing a four-seam or a cutter, also translated to his curveball to a massive degree. Massive, in that it seems as though it just decides Jupiter-level gravity grabs a hold of it as it gets to about the 54-foot mark. At 2930 RPM in 2019, Civale’s curve spin rate ranked 16th among any pitcher in baseball, and among starters he’s all the way up at eighth. Not all spin is created equal, but when it comes to real break, Civale was in the 95th percentile in vertical break with nearly 68 inches of drop, and in the 90th percentile in horizontal. That looks like useful spin to me.
On Tuesday, he threw 22 of them out of his 100 total pitches, twice his rate from a year ago, and dropped six in for called strikes and another six for swinging strikes. It was working early too, he got Yoan Moncada to swing at this heap of filth in just the first inning:
Moncada loves swinging the bat, even on a 1-0 count, but it was still a messy thing. Edwin Encarnación is a different sort, a more polished, composed slugger, but Civale got him to whiff on this one in the second inning:
Just a nasty pitch that he had to swing at. It was a strike regardless, and it was doom for Edwin — it seemed to fall from the heavens to dot that corner. With Civale’s propensity to work up in the zone and Edwin having to watch for any of four other pitches that can be thrown for strikes on the black, this was unfair.
That’s a big separator for Civale, too. Not many veteran pitchers have the type of composed control he’s demonstrated thus far in his young career. It’s no different with the curve, either. He dropped a few in for a strike, including a really silly one here to Adam Engel:
Look, it’s nice to have a great catcher behind the dish, and Civale isn’t the only one to benefit from some questionable calls since the season has started. If I were Engel, I would be mad about this one, too. It happened though, and it wasn’t the only one Civale threw for a strike.
Civale was able to keep it around the zone for the most part, that’s what’s so impressive. There was that home run to Tim Anderson, but even that was out of the zone, really more a “good pitching, better hitting” situation. He only seemed to bounce one at the dish, otherwise keeping the hitters on their toes:
With his deadly, tight control, having a hammer like this could be the separator for Civale. He only struck out 20.3% of hitters last year, one of the few things he was sub-average at. If he continues this trend though, throwing more curves in and around the zone to compliment that otherwise neat, gnarly stuff, he’s going to have a pretty quality 2020. He had nine strikeouts on Tuesday, that’s a career high. It was against a seemingly powerful White Sox lineup too.
There’s a lot to like here, and we may be seeing that leap we were hoping for from the young pitcher. Good thing too, we don’t have a lot of time to be waiting around.