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Aaron Civale is on the way

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There’s nothing surprising about Civale, least of all his growth as a pitcher

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Civale was something approaching great on Wednesday night. In six innings of work, he allowed just two runs on seven hits and three walks while striking out three, navigating constant traffic on the basepaths against a first-place Cubs team that, despite some depressed offensive numbers in 2020, does pack some punch.

The three walks were a surprise for what he’s shown so far, and he was let down again by his own offense, but it was another example of incremental growth from Civale that, amid a turbulent season for a myriad of reasons, has been a little dose of pleasantness. Civale isn’t growing by leaps and bounds, but he’s certainly on his way to excellence.

Civale’s 2019 season was a fun combination of exciting and intriguing. He posted a 2.34 ERA in an abbreviated rookie campaign of just 57.2 innings, but those that watched were impressed by an uncommon poise, a truly incredible command of his entire repertoire, and generally the fact that he was another top-end starter Cleveland seemed to just pull from the ether. We all knew that he wasn’t the second coming of Jacob deGrom or anything with that ERA, not when he barely cracks 93 mph on the radar gun with his seldom-used four-seamer, but here was a guy who seemed to have the mental game down at a level far beyond his years. That, it appears, is not a mirage.

Nobody on the pitching staff mixes pitches like Civale. Everything comes out of his hand between about 10% and 30% of the time. This is a level that only true masters of the sheer art of pitching approach, and his mix of four-seam, cutter, change, curve, and the slider is honestly unmatched.

Kyle Hendricks is the only guy I would even start to draw comparisons to as far as sheer command of a repertoire and pitching whiteout having any velocity to work with, and perhaps Hun-Jin Ryu or Shane Bieber mix pitches even more than Hendricks, but in certain ways, Civale is unmatched in this:

Aaron Civale pitch mix comps

Name FB% SL% CT% CB% CH%
Name FB% SL% CT% CB% CH%
Shane Bieber 36.4% 12.9% 17.2% 26.1% 7.3%
Kenta Maeda 25.6% 40.1% 2.4% 3.1% 28.9%
Kyle Hendricks 54.2% x x 15.2% 30.6%
Aaron Civale 32.1% 9.6% 29.3% 19.7% 9.4%

Any pitcher could do this of course, but most would be lobbing garbage at the plate for large chunks of the game and hoping for the best. There’s a reason you see guys throwing four-seamers or sliders a combined 75% or so of the time. Civale has the pitches to do it though. His movement might not be hyper-elite, but for the most part, it all works for him:

Aaron Civale pitch movement

Pitch Type Velocity Inches of Drop Drop Vs. Average % vs. Average Horiz. Movement Movement vs. Avg % vs. Average
Pitch Type Velocity Inches of Drop Drop Vs. Average % vs. Average Horiz. Movement Movement vs. Avg % vs. Average
Cutter 87.3 27.2 1 4 5.3 2.3 77
Changeup 85.4 28.6 -2 -7 15.5 2.2 17
Slider 81.9 42.4 2 5 7.5 0.6 8
Sinker 91.8 20.7 -1.7 -8 13.7 -0.9 -6
4-Seamer 91.2 16.8 -0.3 -2 4.3 -2.3 -35
Curveball 75.7 63.7 4.4 7 11.9 2.1 22

It’s remarkable for a pitcher to have even two above-average pitches, but four is borderline silly. To be clear, I probably wrote a very similar article to this last year. Civale was neat, he was pitching like a salty vet, and he had an ERA in the low 2.00’s. The advanced numbers, whether the 3.40 FIP, the strikeout rate a middling 20%, the too-low 6.6% home run rate, told a story of regression.

And he did regress — all the way to being merely a really good pitcher. His 3.80 ERA actually tells a story of under-performing at this point, and while his BABIP and home run rate have normalized to the low .300’s and around 12% respectively, his strikeout rate has bumped up a bit, his walk rate has dropped two full points to 5%, placing him in the top 7% of the league, and he even boosted his ground ball rate to 45.5%, a four-point improvement from a year ago. These are the small boosts that, down the line, lead to a big breakout.

There is nothing flashy about Aaron Civale. I’ll be the first to admit that. He’s not packing a wipeout slider or a stunning fastball, but like Zach Plesac he hides pitches within each other, he seems to know when to throw what (it helps to have Roberto Pérez back there most nights on that) and he has a surgical control of probably the broadest arsenal on the team, if not in the league. It would be wrong to say that he’s more than the sum of his parts because many pitchers would love to have even a pair of his better offerings. He’s not a master of his craft yet, either. He’s blessed with and built a wonderful repertoire, and in just 120 innings he’s quickly learning what works and how to dominate excellent hitters.

This is an arc you can project towards greatness within another year or so. Maybe he won’t experience the same leap that Plesac saw from one year to the next, but the growing excellence of Civale is plain, it’s projectable, and when he inevitably peaks, it won’t be a surprise.