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Aaron Civale: A Tale of Two Seasons

What a lazy title. Get ready for the intro ‘graph!

Cleveland Guardians v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. It was the season of wisdom, it was the season of foolishness, it was the campaign of belief, it was the campaign of incredulity, it was the summer of Light, it was the summer of Darkness. They were the starts of hope, they were the walks off the mound of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

That was basically Aaron Civale’s 2022 season.

In a year where things just kept getting better and better for most of the Guardians’ roster, a pitcher we had the highest of hopes for just could not find comfort or success for much of the first half of the season. Pitching is hard, and hard to be good in the long term simply because it’s so unnaturally strenuous on the body. Civale felt that pain this year but spent the second half finding himself again. For that, and for what he’s working back to, there’s hope that next year may be more of the same.

Coming into 2022, Civale was supposed to be the Robin to Shane Bieber’s Batman. Triston McKenzie was still unproven, Zach Plesac had never been viewed as anything more than “fine”, and with all they’ve shipped out the last few years it was basically question marks after that. It was generally assumed that if Cleveland wanted to do any better than their projected 75 or so wins, Civale was going to have to find the best version of himself.

The thing about Civale though, even at his best he lives very much on the tipping point. He’s at the peak of the game as far as spin rate on his pitches but lives on a razor’s edge because of a merely mediocre — and that’s generous — velocity range. Pitchers that sit in the low 90s on their fastball are a dying breed in the MLB, but Civale being able to throw a massive heap of garbage (in a good way) allows him to keep hitters on their toes. So if he’s not right, if all the pieces of the machine aren’t properly tuned, he’s not going to be good at all. And that was the theme of his first few months of 2022.

Seven starts into the season, Civale had pitched all of 31 innings and had allowed 27 runs, which is very much Not What You Want To See. Everyone and their mother could tell something was off, though theories abounded about whether it was arm, leg, back, or hand, and after his May 20 start — where he was admittedly excellent, 6.1 innings of 3 hit, zero earned run ball even if it was against the Tigers — he got shipped off to the injured list with a sore butt. Technically it was a sore glute from fielding a ball, but whatever it was, he was on the shelf. Whether this was the death at the end of a thousand cuts or not, it was a blessing in disguise. That took him out for a month, and he came back on June 21 and was alright — five innings of two-run ball with seven strikeouts against the Twins.

Hope was alive, and hope got kicked in the teeth.

Civale made five starts before hitting the shelf again on Bastille Day with a sore wrist, missing another month. It would happen again in early September, a trip to the IL for 15 days because of more forearm issues. In all, the Guardians missed some ten or twelve starts out of Civale, and between ineffectiveness and injury maybe 80 or 100 innings of ball. The 200-inning starter is all but dead these days, but you want him to at least get a glimpse of 180. Those lost innings of his were filled with a murderers’ row of mediocrity, and still, Cleveland took the division. While the year ended up nicely for the team, you have to wonder what could have been if Civale had been right all year. Would we even have needed to see that dramatic rival smashing in September? Only the fates know.

Outside of injury, what was the issue? It’s hard to tell what changed with his pitch approach since he’s always been a kind of three fastball guy with some other stuff that he keeps guys off balance with.

Baseball Savant

He did fall out of love with his cutter and then found it again, though those middle-of-the-year starts were few and far between so the sample is a bit bare. And for that matter, the velocity wasn’t up or down that much, either.

Baseball Savant

So maybe it was that simple. Just a guy who wasn’t quite right in the first half and finally got a bit healthy. There might be a bit of “figuring it out”, but really he just needed to get into the rhythm that the IL kept knocking him out of. If his arm had cooperated, maybe we’d have seen 160 or so innings of solid baseball. And that’s what we want out of Civale anyway. His first to second-half splits are wild, his ERA dropping from 6.27 to 3.35 after the break, his K/BB ratio nearly doubling from 3.47 to 6.57, and his OPS against dropping from .834 to .567. This isn’t “figuring it out”, this is just a guy getting healthy. And maybe a bit of luck as his BABIP dropped from .350 to .217, so the real man is in the middle there somewhere. It’s important for any good pitcher to be lucky too.

There are some who can brute force their way through the game. Civale has never been that, and never will be. He just needs all the pieces that he’s built his career off moving in concert, and he can be a solid mid-rotation starter. That wasn’t the case in 2022. All things considered, it’s pretty amazing they navigated losing him for half a year so seamlessly. It speaks to their organizational strength, but it’ll be nice if he can just be his proper self when spring comes around.

Aaron Civale’s 2022 Stats

97 24.1% 5.4% 4.92 126 1.3

We’re reviewing (almost) all the Guardians players from 2022 now through November, starting with the top-10 MVPs as voted on by eight Covering the Corner staff members. Players were awarded points based on their one through 10 individual rankings and were ranked as such. You can find all the Year in Review posts here.