Indians Preview: Is Aaron Civale the Next Unexpected Star of Cleveland's Rotation?
If you’ve followed the Cleveland Indians, you know the club has a tendency to churn out quality starting pitching seemingly out of nowhere. From that perspective, Aaron Civale’s 2019 rise isn’t that surprising.
Civale opened last season with Double-A Akron, modestly ranked among Cleveland’s prospects. He ended it by putting his name in the running for the Tribe’s 2020 starting rotation.
Arriving with little fanfare last June, Civale calmly and quickly made his presence known, striking out the side in his very first big-league inning. By the time the season wrapped up, he had the best ERA- (49) and WHIP (1.04) among all Indians’ starters.
At first glance, Civale’s quick ascension feels eerily familiar. It was the same type of quietly impressive upswing seen from the likes of Corey Kluber and Shane Bieber.
Is that what we’re witnessing here? Is 2020 the year Civale cements his status as the next unexpected star of Cleveland’s rotation?
Before we get too far ahead of our skis, it’s worth noting Civale technically still needs to earn a spot among the Indians’ starting five.
With the top of the Tribe’s rotation cemented with Bieber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco, only two spots remain up for grabs. Alongside Civale, Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko are also vying for one of the final vacancies.
When comparing these starters, Civale’s 2019 numbers were far superior. His ERA was the most impressive of the three (2.34), and he humbled hitters far more frequently, allowing a batting average (.216), slugging percentage (.368) and wOBA (.269) topped only by Clevinger.
This certainly isn’t meant to undercut Plutko or Plesac. However, when making the case for who deserves one of the final rotation spots, these stats can’t be ignored.
Neither can the fact that, when compared to those two, Civale boasts the most intriguing pitch arsenal.
Civale keeps opposing hitters on their toes with a combination of six different pitches. What he lacks in high velocity, he makes up for with movement and spin rate.
His cutter -- one of the pitches he relies upon the most -- boasts 5.5 inches of horizontal break, 3.5 more inches than similar cutters at his velocity. Only six other pitchers had more added horizontal movement with this pitch last season.
All but two of Civale’s pitches had better horizontal movement vs. average in 2019. Though his most heavily utilized pitch -- sinker -- doesn't move much, opposing hitters still struggled to do anything against it. Overall, Civale allowed a batting average of .213 and a paltry wOBA (.252) on 302 sinkers thrown.
From a spin rate perspective, there’s even more to love.
Baseball Savant ranked Civale’s fastball spin in the 85th percentile of the league in 2019. With an average range of 2,805 revolutions per minute, the spin on his slider befuddled hitters to the point where he only allowed two hits with this pitch last season.
The highest spin rate happens to occur with his most intriguing offering -- the curveball.
Civale's curve boasts an average range of 2,930 revolutions per minute, good enough to rank in the 95th percentile. It also happens to drop 67.7 inches, an amount of vertical curve movement bested by only eight pitchers last year.
Strictly from a weapons standpoint, it certainly seems like Civale is ready to make a name for himself in 2020.
Equally encouraging is the fact that, when reevaluating his rookie debut, there isn’t a ton of deception in his surface-level stats.
Civale allowed very little quality contact in 2019, with a low average exit velocity (86.6) and a minuscule barrel rate (2.4%). As a result, his expected outcome stats for slugging percentage (.347 xSLG) and wOBA (.278 xwOBA) aren’t far off from his actual numbers mentioned above.
Despite this, projections for Civale are notably unfavorable.
Almost all outlets predict his ERA will land in the high 4’s this season, perhaps discouraged by the increases in FIP, WHIP and walk rate he displayed during the final month of last season. Essentially, Civale’s 2020 campaign will clarify as to whether this was a result of hitters solving his pitches or if this was merely a handful of shaky starts.
That said, thanks to the kind of movement and spin he unleashes with his pitches, there’s reason to believe those questionable projections may be off-base.
Civale opened last year as Cleveland's 19th ranked prospect. If he can maintain the success he displayed in 2019, his time on the farm will quickly become a distant memory.
So, too, will the idea of him needing to compete for a spot in the rotation.