When one is young and naive, life is a collection of bright line rules, clear right and wrong, truth and deception, a certainty of outcome. Indeed, life and our understanding of its essence is easier if there are categorical certainties. Alas, baseball is a perfect medium to demonstrate our lack of certainty, and that what we know is dwarfed by what we do not know.
In Major League Baseball, much as we do in other sports, we evaluate players on their skills and project “floors” and “ceilings”. Of course, the floors constructed are often 40th percentile outcomes and ceilings 85th percentile outcomes. The unfortunate truth is that ceiling is a blind construct especially in the era of the MVP Machine.
The Indians of the past five years are a lesson in our inability to grasp ceilings.
Even Francisco Lindor an uber-prospect was discussed as a defense-first savant. Jose Ramirez was cast by many (not this author) as a utility infielder. Corey Kluber was a back of the rotation starter (this author was indeed incorrect).
Indeed, the Indians have spent the past half-decade maximizing and optimizing all sorts of pitchers. Starting with Corey Kluber, through Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and now Aaron Civale.
There is no certainty that Civale is in the big leagues two years from now. Yet, with the Indians developmental pipeline, perhaps for a moment it is reasonable to look for what may be going right, what the future may bring.
Civale has thrown 24 innings with dominant numbers 1.50 ERA, 2.14 FIP and 1.1 fWAR in four big league games. Civale to date has shown the Indians what appears to be his 99th percentile.
What if, like Bieber and others before, Civale was overlooked because of one simple barrier, velocity and strikeouts.
First, Fangraphs Eric Longenhagen/Kiley McDaniel report on Civale in 2019 and his velocity barrier:
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 has a true plus cutter/slider and elite curveball spin rate. Strong command, multiple above average secondaries, and one barrier, fastball velocity. What if he simply tore that barrier down? What if that barrier never existed?
In 2015, after carving up the Red Sox in a spring training game while at Northeastern, Civale spent the summer in the Cape Cod League out of the bullpen and his velocity spiked to 93-94 over his usually pedestrian 89-91. Upon his drafting, Civale returned to the rotation and throughout his minor league career was 88-92. Had the velocity disappeared? Was it locked away?
Beyond the velocity is an exquisitely commanded, heavy two-seamer to the outside third that would leave most right-handed hitters dumbfounded.
Now Civale’s fastball is not elite, it may not even be average but as of now, it no longer appears to be damaging. Civale’ s sinker/two-seamer has topped out at 95 through his first four games and averaged 92.5 MPH. His four seam has hit 93.5 MPH and is resting at 92.4 MPH. Essentially Civale has gone from touching 91/92 to sitting 92.5 MPH which is a dynamic value add when paired with solid command and a deep arsenal.
In a strong outing over the weekend in Yankee Stadium Civale’s hardest pitch of the game, 94.8 MPH, was his final sinker. Perhaps Civale’s velocity spike in the big league’s is the product of adrenaline.
Yet, Bieber, Clevinger, and Plesac have all added multiple MPH to their fastballs in the last two years and whether it is Trevor Bauer, Carl Willis, or the Indians development staff, it appears the Indians have an ability to tap into additional velocity. Not to be forgotten this sort of velocity is not new for Civale but only new to his time in the rotation.
This analysis has fixated on velocity, which is a singular input into a pitcher’s overall profile. However, this fixation is an active choice because Civale has plus control, an above average feel to pitch, and multiple above average secondaries. With all of these components a major barrier was velocity and he appears to have cleared the barrier. Of course, Civale is not a 1.50 ERA pitcher but who is?
The Indians have shown a proclivity towards adding velocity to high IQ pitch ability types with above average command. Aaron Civale has shown a significant velocity spike in his first four big league starts. Once again, the Indians and Civale may have lifted the top off of our misconceived ceiling.