Aaron Civale Needs to Prove His 2019 Indians Debut Was No Fluke
Baseball Savant’s scouting report on starting pitcher Aaron Civale is quite an interesting read. This is especially true when adding the context of his 2019 Cleveland Indians debut.
The outlet has high praise for Civale’s command and fastball spin rate, while also complimenting his cutter. While not quite sold on his curveball or changeup, his ability to sequence these pitches with his cutter and fastball receives high marks.
However, the key quote is this – “it's uncertain whether Civale can start in the Majors.” Noting the fluctuations his strikeout rate experienced through the minors, the report questions whether Civale can create enough whiffs for Cleveland.
For all intents and purposes, Civale proved himself last summer. His final line for 2019 certainly indicates he can indeed find a home on a big-league rotation.
The Indians are certainly hoping that’s the case, especially after trading two front-line starters in the span of five months. Civale currently has a spot in Cleveland’s starting five, but to maintain it, he’ll have to prove his 2019 cameo was no fluke.
Again, his final stats from last summer leave little doubt about Civale's ability to hold his own. He finished 2019 with a 3-4 record, an ERA of 2.34, a 3.40 FIP and a WAR of 1.5. Tough to ask for more considering he was called up to replace the departed Trevor Bauer.
Determining the sustainability of this performance is tricky, though. After all, a sample size of ten starts is hardly significant. The only route to take is analyzing Civale’s performance through the final two months of the year, where all but one of his 2019 starts took place.
In doing so, you come across a handful of concerns.
Below is a look at some key stats from Civale’s five August starts, along with how these same numbers looked after four starts the following month. For added context, he took on the Rangers, Twins, Yankees, Mets and Tigers in August, with all but one game occurring on the road. His September featured starts at Minnesota and home against Detroit, sandwiched between home and away bouts with the White Sox.
Some of the shifts noted above aren’t crazy. A 2% dip in strikeout rate isn’t much of a red flag, and the same can be said for the small upticks seen with his WHIP and fly ball percentage. It’s only natural for small fluctuations like this to occur the more times a starter takes the mound.
That said, Civale’s FIP doubling month-over-month is a bit jarring. Equally so is the fact his walk rate almost quintupled. In fact, Civale threw as many walks in his first September start (3) as he did in the entire previous month combined.
As noted, the change in his fly ball percentage was minor. However, the amount of fly balls he gave up which proceeded to leave the park jumped significantly. Civale made it six starts before giving up his first big-league home run, yet finished the season giving up three in the span of his final three games.
You could make the argument that Civale’s September struggles were the result of teams having more scouting to work with. The month-over-month change in slash lines opposing hitters had on him certainly adds credibility to that point.
August – .227/.248/.345
September – .230/.314/.473
Again, this is all a bit subjective. Still, it’s fair to say Civale’s performance wasn’t trending in the right direction.
But does this indicate his 2019 season was fool's gold?
Was Civale's September was just a string of uneven starts? Or does it prove Baseball Savant was fair to question his ability to maintain a spot in an MLB rotation?
For what it’s worth, while both Steamer and FanGraphs see Civale getting a full season of big-league work this summer, neither is particularly bullish on his numbers. Both project notable jumps in ERA (4.81) and FIP (4.90), with only a small dip in WAR (1.4).
This shouldn’t be viewed as any sort of dig on Civale. He’s a solid pitcher, whose spin rate with both his fastball (85 percentile) and curve (96 percentile) were highly ranked last year.
Basically, the question isn’t whether Civale is good, but instead if he can be that good. If he can maintain an FIP which fell just between excellent and great last season.
Initial projections say no, and his late-season trends lend credence to that.
The Indians, who could use a little more certainty on the back end of the rotation, are surely hoping Civale’s September was just a slight regression, and not a sign of things to come.