Aaron Civale and the Competitive Advantage

In modern baseball, it’s hard to win if you can’t develop talent, particularly as the sport’s best teams get even better at turning raw ingredients into functional ballplayers. The best example these days is Houston’s pattern of acquiring pitchers with high-spin fastballs or curveballs and polishing them into All-Stars. As has been detailed at length here and elsewhere, Houston’s success with that breed has powered the club to the top of baseball’s hierarchy. They’ve worked wonders with Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Ryan Pressly. They may run it back again with Aaron Sanchez and Joe Biagini.

But the Astros aren’t the only team with a competitive advantage on the mound. Before Morton and Cole exploded, Cleveland was widely considered the gold standard at developing pitching talent. They earned that reputation: former and current rotation stalwarts like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber all became significant contributors in just the last several years. Of those, only Bauer and Carrasco had major prospect hype, and even those two took their lumps in other organizations before straightening things out in Ohio. Indeed, Cleveland’s ability to turn wayward arms into productive contributors sparked their mini-dynasty in the AL Central, and may again prove decisive in this year’s playoff push.

Cleveland’s player development staff has worked its magic on a variety of pitchers; Salazar and Kluber, to name two, are very different hurlers. One commonality, though, is that they end up with a lot of right-handed pitchers who are really good at tunneling on the glove-side corner. Kluber is perhaps the best at this: The late action on his slider and two-seam fastball make the pitches perfect for starting near the corner and forcing hitters to guess which direction it’s going to move.

Increasingly, it appears that this is a replicable strategy. The latest guy to carry the mail? Aaron Civale, a 24-year-old righty who barely snuck onto Cleveland’s top prospect list earlier this spring and has flourished in three big league starts this summer. Through 18 innings, he’s allowed just two runs and has whiffed a batter per frame while walking only four.

Known primarily for his pitchability in college, Civale’s velo ticked up a bit in relief on the Cape after his sophomore season. His strong showing that summer put him on the national radar and Cleveland popped him in the third round back in 2016. Since, he’s posted solid, if unspectacular numbers in pro ball. Coming into this season, Eric and Kiley wrote:

Civale does not miss many bats because he has limited fastball velocity, but he’s a high-volume strike thrower with excellent secondary stuff, including one of the best curveball spin rates in the minors. He draws from a spacious bag of tricks to get hitters out, and has now had success at the upper levels of the minors with limited velo, so we’re buying that he can make things work as a fifth starter.

Civale is still a soft-tosser (16th percentile fastball velocity) with some serious spin on both his heater (86th) and curve (93rd). But a couple other things have changed since publication.

For one, his strikeout rates ticked up in the minors this year, modestly at first in Double-A before a big spike to nearly 10 K/9 across eight Triple-A starts. The increase in whiffs stems from a couple of developments in his game. Most notably, his two-seamer (and his command of it) took a step forward. Sinkers and two-seamers are falling out of fashion these days, but there will always be room for a ball that can take a right turn like this:

Even his teammates are impressed.

Civale is also an effective tunneler now, which suits his kitchen-sink repertoire. He works with six distinct offerings, all of which he can throw for strikes. The two-seamer pairs well with his cutter slider, a predominantly horizontal-moving breaking ball. All of it plays up because of his pitchability. Remember that two-seamer you saw just above? What a fantastic way to set up a cutter:

Like many pitchers these days, Civale lives up in the zone, perfect for his high-spin heater and a natural tunneling point for the 12-6 hook. Unlike many pitchers, he also uses his cutter up and above the letters, particularly to lefties. That gives him a third pitch to tunnel with at the top of the zone, and another weapon against opposite-handed hitters. You wouldn’t think it would generate many whiffs, but he’s been able to coax good hitters pretty high up the ladder:

It all works because of his command. Not only is he able to effectively live around the corners, but his ability to hit a spot also provides wiggle room when he inevitably works deep in the count. Look at a heat map of his strike zone plot and you’ll notice that he’s not throwing the ball down in the zone real often.

When he does work down, it’s rarely with the fastball. He gets a lot of his swinging strikes on changeups that start down the middle before tumbling below the bat. He’s also able to freeze hitters with a curve at the knees. Essentially, the game plan is to work up in the zone and let the movement on his pitches run the ball off barrels, while mixing in a few offspeed pitches in other parts of the zone. So far, he’s executed masterfully.

To be clear, Civale is not nearly as good as his numbers thus far; he’s gone 18 innings without allowing a homer and, well, that’s not going to last. While each pitch in his holster has its purpose, he’s only consistently missed bats with the changeup so far. The late action on his pitches, and his effectiveness as a tunneler, may help him compensate for that a bit in the form of more called strikes, but it’s far too early to declare that with any confidence. As it is, he’s fallen behind early in counts too often for comfort and thrown a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. Hitters will adjust; growing pains are undoubtedly in his future.

But even if Civale is just a backend starter, or an up-and-down guy, he’s a development success story and he’s made a mark on the pennant race. Four months ago, he was 10th or 11th on the club’s rotation depth chart. Today, he’s the owner of three excellent big league starts, including a six-inning, one-run gem against Minnesota’s potent lineup Sunday — a day Cleveland tied the Twins for the lead in the AL Central.

One sign of a healthy organization is a player development system that gets most of its players to reach their ceiling. Time and again, Cleveland has shown they can do this with their pitchers. This year, Bieber has turned into an All-Star and rookies like Civale and Zach Plesac have held the fort down while the Opening Day rotation battles through injury problems. The team’s ability to spin straw into gold allows them to deal from strength, and bet that they can afford to spare a pitcher of Bauer’s caliber for lineup reinforcements. So far, that bet is looking pretty good.

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4 years ago

While the credit goes heavily to the Cleveland coaching staff/front office, I wonder how much of an impact Bauer has had on his colleagues there and now he obviously is not. Given how vocal and into pitching concepts/grips/etc… he is I can’t imagine he didn’t talk to all his fellow Cleveland pitchers on things, how to improve/do something different, etc…

4 years ago
Reply to  Shauncore

I know he worked a lot with Clevinger. Haven’t heard anything about other pitchers.

4 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

Bieber said Bauer helped him a lot. He made a comment about how Bauer knew Bieber’s mechanics better than Bieber did

4 years ago
Reply to  isavage

I remember that. And honestly, their mechanics look very similar to me, particularly how they angle their bodies back during the first half of their windup.

4 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

The team seems to havd a braintrust culture among pitchers. Bauer talked about picking stuff up from Kluber and Carrasco. Maybe Clevinger has been spreading the gospel?