Aaron Civale is a very specific type of pitcher. Where many other starters live off the power of one or two pitches, it’s anybody’s guess what kind of pitch — what kind of sequence — you might see from Civale at-bat to at-bat. I won’t go so far as to say he’s a garbageman, but he’s certainly more a Kyle Hendricks or latter-career Greg Maddux than Randy Johnson or even Shane Bieber.
It’s about command, control, and getting by without having an overpowering fastball. Trickery, et cetera.
Which is why it seems so odd that, thus far in 2021, Civale is throwing a career-high number of four-seam fastballs. Not just by a few points, either — right now it’s his most common pitch at 27.1% of his total, compared to just 2.5% last year and 3.3% the year before. This is a guy who, because he actually sits consistently below league-average with all his pitches, is forced to throw complex sequences of several pitches with good movement and command but low velocity to get outs. Yet here he is pumping four-seamers and succeeding.
He has pitches he should be leaning on, at least one or two, like he did last year. His cutter is consistently above average, ranking 15th in spin rate and with 80% more break than the average cutter. His slider is solid as well, with 7% more vertical break than average and 46% more horizontal. That said, his sinker, which was his most used pitch last year at 28.9%, is a consistently below-average pitch, breaking 17% less vertically than average and 20% less horizontally. For a guy without dominant velocity, featuring a pitch that’s fallen out of vogue because hitters are so good at hitting it, and throwing it higher in the zone than one would expect makes sense, and with such mediocre-at-best break, that’s dangerous.
In essence, Civale needs to hide his sinker, along with using it to play off his cutter. That’s where the four-seam comes in. He sits in the 65th percentile in fastball spin, which means it doesn’t drop as much as the typical fastball. In real numbers, that’s a 6% better break than average, or just under an inch less drop than average. By itself, that’s not particularly impressive. But when paired with a cutter that’s pretty damn good, it works to trick hitters and make them whiff at nothing.
Aaron Judge is great at hitting pitches on the outer edge of the zone. Civale got lucky on this fastball out there and took advantage. When Judge doesn’t recognize where the pitch is going, whether it’s a sinker diving in or a cutter running away, or now just a bullet on the black, he’s caught waving even if the pitches are all in the same velocity window.
So that’s how it’s helping the cutter. But what about the sinker? It’s not a particularly swing-and-miss pitch, with hitters whiff on it 11.3% of the time last year and just 5.3% of the time this year. No, this is a pitch of deception.
As Civale’s spin chart shows, his sinker and four-seamer rotate at similar axes, and don’t have that giveaway red dot look that a slider might have, so it tricks hitters who are looking for one or the other.
This means if they’re sitting one and he goes the other, he can snag an outside corner on a backdoor sinker as he needs to.
Clint Frazier has fast hands, but in this case, he was just frozen solid. After he took the high fastball, he didn’t expect the next to swing back and poke the same part of the zone.
If this is the type of command we can expect from Civale, he’s going to have a fine season. It’s not just the other fastballs that are going to pair well here — hiding the four-seam in the slider, or even being able to dot the bottom edge of the zone than follow up with a curve that buries itself, it opens up a world of tunnels and sequences.
Velocity is the king in pitching at the end of the day. If he can’t do that, throwing four or five pitches with effective location, and pairing them nicely, can at least help him float past dangerous situations. It’s going to mean some long home runs too, but if he continues to mitigate free passes and singles, it shouldn’t be a death knell for him.