Aaron Civale: The Indians’ Own Dolly the Sheep

Sometimes watching Aaron Civale pitch feels incredibly familiar. Almost like you've seen it all before. Daniel Port shows you just how right you are and how important that is for your upcoming fantasy season.

I remember when I heard about Dolly the Sheep (the world’s first cloned mammal) for the first time. Dolly was born in 1996 so I was a grand total of 11 years old at the time but I recall being absolutely fascinated by it. I had just finished reading Ira Levine’s The Boys From Brazil where the Nazi’s try to clone Hitler but fail to raise the same child and ultimately fail (spoiler alert from 1976), so I couldn’t help but be fascinated by seeing the same concept of cloning put into action in the real world.

It became an obsession for me as I read pretty much everything about Dolly I could get my hands on and even after the Zeitgeist’s interest said specific sheep, my wonder at the idea of cloning remained for me for the next 23 odd years. This came to a head when one-day last year I was watching 2019 footage of Indians starter Aaron Civale pitch just a few months ago. There was a point where I specifically remember watching him paint the bottom of the zone with a beautiful slider and had the strangest feeling I had seen the pitch before. I rewound it and watched that pitch over and over again for about ten minutes and afterward I was left with one simple question. Did the Indians clone Corey Kluber?

If you’ve read anything I’ve written lately or listened to my recent podcast and live stream appearances, one of my favorite things in baseball is when a good, analytics heavy organization finds a player archetype that works and then just invests in it over and over in that player. It creates a sort of assurance that the team has found something that works and simply says, “Wait, what if we just did more of that?”

Once you see them, it’s pretty easy to spot. The Astros love getting guys who are one pitch mix or spin rate adjustment away from breaking out and using advanced metrics to set those pitchers free. For a long time, the Pirates found a ton of success by finding pitchers that fit the Ray Searge model or the Mets looked for hurlers who they thought could turn their sliders into the fabled Warthon slider. Teams often find themselves preferring prep players or grabbing toolsy players over sure things. When you see these patterns emerge it’s reassuring because it feels like there’s a plan in place for the player and that makes it that much easier to project the player’s path to success in the future.

The Indians are one of these teams. They made an art out of taking a pitcher with cruddy fastballs and excellent breaking stuff and turning them into aces in spite of their heaters’ shortcomings. Carlos Carrasco, Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, and Trevor Bauer were all pitchers that fit that description and they made all of them into top of the rotation starters. The most important (and perhaps the original template) of this pitcher of the Indians was two-time Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber. The thing is the Indians may have the perfect clone of this archetype on the team in Aaron Civale.

It’s almost eerie how much Civale resembles the Kluber mold and it gives me a lot of hope that Civale might be on the verge of a huge breakout if he stays on the path he is on. Despite this, many are skeptical that Civale can be a useful fantasy pitcher without an elite fastball. Today what I want to demonstrate is just how closely Civale mirrors Kluber’s arsenal and development. This isn’t an attempt to convince you that Civale will become Corey Kluber, or win multiple Cy Youngs. The real goal of this comparison is to demonstrate that we can’t just dismiss Civale’s success outright, that a path exists for Civale to continue being successful in the majors.

Before we get too far into said comparison let’s summarize Civale’s 2019 season.

 

It’s hard for a young pitcher to have a better 2019, especially when you consider the fact that he spent most of the year as a 23-year-old. So why aren’t we tripping all ourselves to draft Civale this season?

 

There’s an interesting mix of underwhelming and unsustainable numbers in the above table but they don’t tell the whole story either. Let’s add in the statcast numbers.

 

Those are incredible. Civale demonstrated over his 50 some odd innings in the majors an ability to induce weak contact and the xStats back that up. This is a good sign as it can help show a path to Civale being successful even if he never sees a major bump in his strikeouts. The thing is I think there might actually be a path to that strikeout increase as well. Let’s look back at the numbers for a second in a different context.

 

If you ignore the ERA and WHIP, Civale’s 2019 bears a striking resemblance to Kluber’s 2012 season. In fact, the fun thing about that is that Kluber’s 2013 and 2014 seasons lay the groundwork for the strides that Civale needs to take as his career continues in the Majors. He needs to throw it in the zone way more often, while cutting down on walks and getting more swinging strikes if he wants to replicate Kluber’s breakout.

The uncanny similarity between these two pitchers goes beyond just the stats. Their repertoires at this stage of their careers could be carbon copies of themselves.

 

There is one point of clarification to make here that will help make things less confusing down the line. When we start talking about the Statcast side of things it can get murky. As you’ll see in a moment Kluber’s slider is a strange pitch that is like some sort of cross between a curveball, slider and cutter and for obvious reasons this befuddles Statcast when it comes to classification. Fangraphs refers to this pitch as a slider, while baseball savant will call it a curveball. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to it as a slider for this piece since Civale’s slider mirrors it much more closely than his curveball does.

The only major difference in their arsenals was that Kluber relied more on a changeup to get lefties out while Civale utilizes a curveball to do so. We can dive into the individual pitches here in a moment but I did want to mention how Kluber’s pitch mix changed over the years. Slowly yet surely Kluber has been using his best pitches more and more and moving further and further away from his mediocre sinker. This is important for comparing their heaters and what we’d like to see Civale do this season.

 

Cut Fastball

 

Let’s start with the main weapon in both pitcher’s arsenal, the cut fastball. First, let’s watch them both. Here’s Kluber’s:

 

And then Civale’s:

 

It can’t be a coincidence that they look this similar. The movement numbers back it up as well.

Aaron Civale/Corey Kluber Cutter Comparison

 

The numbers line up pretty perfectly across the board including their per pitch pVAL. The major difference comes in terms of SwStr% and CSW%. I think location can explain the difference in these numbers.

 

These are the locations of all called and swinging strikes that Kluber got in 2018 against RHB. See how the vast majority of the pitches essentially point down and away from RHB and essentially straddle the border of the strike zone? That’s the picture-perfect location for a cutter. What about Civale?

 

It’s so close. There’s still that great clumping there on the border down and away from righties. That’s what we want to see and would help explain the still really good 12.2 SwStr%. Unfortunately, we also see too many of them way off base or falling into the heart of the plate. Most of those ended up taken for called strikes but would account for why he got a good amount of called strikes as opposed to swinging strikes.

Outside of whiffs, Civale’s cutter had a .167 xBA, .175 xwOBA, and an 80.5 MPH Exit Velocity, 37.7-degree Launch Angle, and a 0.0 BBL% when he throws it there. It’s really encouraging that he’s following the Kluber location plan for his cutter, we just need to see him tighten things up before we see the full-on 1.8 pVAL/C cutter that Kluber unleashes on the league.

 

Breaking Balls

 

Now on to the truly destructive force in both pitchers arsenals, the breaking ball. I mentioned this in the beginning of the piece but it’s really hard to classify Kluber’s breaking ball. Pitch f/X calls it a slider, Statcast calls it a curveball. Once you see it you understand their dilemma:

 

I still don’t know how anyone hits that pitch. There’s less disagreement in classifying Civale’s breaker as a slider but when you look at it…

 

You see all you need to know. They’re very similar pitches. Just know that if you’re looking up info for these two pitches, we’ll essentially be pulling slider information for Kluber from Fangraphs and Curveball info from baseball savant.

Civale/Kluber Main Breaking Ball Comparison

 

So while they are similar in appearance, velocity, and movement, the results rapidly differ when it comes to strikeouts. Kluber’s breaking ball is K-machine that he uses to mow down opposing hitters at an incredible rate. Civale’s is average at best. Given their resemblance, why the major difference in whiffs and strikeouts? Location, location, location. The key to all this lies in their respective Zone%. If you recall from my recent piece on John Means, I am a firm believer in an idea that I’ve decided to call The Trevor Bauer rule.

The idea that the key to a successful breaking ball is being able to throw it down in the zone AND getting hitters to chase it outside the zone. Once you’ve established that you can throw the pitch for strikes, the batter can no longer lay off the pitch simply because they see your breaker. I named it after Bauer because his curveball is perhaps the greatest example of this and we have seasons where it has great success because he follows the rule and seasons where it isn’t because he can’t throw it for strikes. It’s not groundbreaking by any means but I don’t think we talk about it enough when evaluating the effectiveness of a pitch.

Anyways, back to the matter at hand. Check out the pitch chart for Kluber’s Curveball:

 

Once again that’s pretty much picture-perfect location for an elite breaking ball. I want to take a quick moment to point out that it also pretty much reflects the placement Kluber uses for his cutter as well. Having two different pitches at different velocities that look familiar until it’s too late can be devastating to hitters. How does Civale measure up?

 

It’s so close it almost hurts right? Essentially Civale took the perfect pitch chart and shifted it down slightly on a diagonal line. It had the same spirit, it just wasn’t able to establish itself in the zone in the same way that Kluber’s did. To further demonstrate why this is important. Hitters swung at 54.6% of the curveballs Kluber threw in 2018 while batters swung at just 43.1% of Civale’s sliders.

If you applied that rate to Kluber’s 691 curveballs in 2018, that drops its total swings from 377 all the way down to 297. That’s a huge difference when you consider at a 19.8 SwStr% and a 47.0 O-Swing% that’s 59 fewer whiffs, and 57 fewer chases out of the zone. That adds up in a big way and shows that the ability to throw your breaking pitches in and out of the zone has a huge effect on its success.  The best part is that fixing this is a tweak, not a major change. Civale already has the pitch and concept down he just needs to dial in his command a bit more and this could be every bit as devastating a pitch as Kluber’s breaker was.

 

Sinker

 

This pitch has long been the bane of Kluber’s existence. Reducing how much he relied on his sinker was a huge part of what made Kluber a perennial Cy Young candidate. At the beginning of his career, he threw his sinker nearly 50.0% of the time. By 2015 he had cut that usage all the way down to 30.1% and The Sheriff was born. Here’s the thing, Civale has already made that adjustment, as he threw his sinker just 35.4% of the time in 2019. In fact, while it was a much smaller sample, Civale had a ton more success with his sinker in 2019 than Kluber ever did.

Kluber/Civale Sinker Comparison

 

While Civale got fewer strikeouts with his sinker he did a better job limiting hits and home runs and that is the real key difference. The question, of course, is how? In terms of velocity, movement, and nearly every single plate discipline number they are pretty much identical. First things first despite their similarities they were very different in terms of the quality of contact they drew.

Kluber/Civale Sinker Comparison

 

It clear that Civale’s sinker did a much better job of creating weak fly ball contact than Kluber’s. At first, I thought it had be spin rate related since a sinker with a high spin rate should draw more poor fly ball contact and Civale’s has excellent spin but no, both pitches were pretty much identical in both average spin rate and active spin.

What about location?

Aaron Civale – Sinker Performance by Location

 

Corey Kluber – 2018 Sinker Performance by Location

 

The biggest difference that you can see between how both sinkers performed is that Civale’s sinker did a much better job of drawing weak contact than Kluber’s. Outside of the bottom of the zone, Civale’s sinker generated lower BA, wOBA, SLG, Exit Velocity and Distance than it’s mirror image. It’s worth wondering if there is some regression coming for Civale’s sinker but if you remember it did a pretty good job drawing poor flyball contact and a ton of infield flyballs without sacrificing much in the way of groundballs either, then maybe the results are more legit than we realize.

Also with these results in mind suddenly Civale’s 3.4% advantage in active spin on his sinker becomes much more relevant. I don’t expect Civale to have this much success with his sinker this season but there does seem to be some evidence that he won’t be as much of an anchor that Kluber’s has been throughout his career.

 

Changeup

 

The changeup isn’t a massive weapon in either pitcher’s arsenal but I think it’s worth taking a quick look.

Kluber/Civale Changeup Comparison

 

It’s interesting. Despite being incredibly similar in Velo, O-Swing%, Zone%, and CSW%, the end results couldn’t have been any more different. Why? How did Civale manage to not strikeout a single batter with his changeup while Kluber had a 28.2 K% with his? I think it’s somewhat due to small sample weirdness that would have worked itself out in a full season. For one thing of the 56 times Civale threw his changeup in 2019 he only tossed it 6 times in two-strike counts, so that helps explain the 0.0 K%.

Considering Civale’s #2 and #3 pitches are so good, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing but one would have to assume if stretched out over a full season, that Civale K% with his changeup would more than likely resemble Kluber’s over the course of a full season. Small sample weirdness could also help explain the AVG as it was actually only put into play eight times. I’d be really interested to see what the actual results would be for his changeup if he threw it more often with strikes and over a much larger sample.

 

Curveball

 

This pitch is all Civale, since as we stated before Kluber ‘s curveball has more in common with Civale’s slider. It’s just such a weird pitch that Statcast doesn’t know what to do with it, so we’ll be talking about Civale’s curveball solo to wrap things up. First, you have to see this beautiful, beautiful pitch:

 

R.I.P. Gleyber Torres, that’s one mighty hack and one mighty whiff. So we know it’s nasty but just how sick is it?

Aaron Civale Curveball of Doom

 

Great Googa-Mooga. Look at that 57.8 O-Swing% and ridiculous 41.7 K%. That’s the 12th best O-Swing% in all of baseball amongst curveballs thrown more than 50 times. So the numbers back up the filthiness of Civale’s curveball. Unfortunately, he only threw it 11.1% of the time. There’s a part of me that would love to see Civale eliminate the changeup and it’s 6.5% usage and throw his curveball more and get its usage up closer to 15.0%.

This could really help bump up that 20.3 K%. Think of it this way, Over 57.2 IP, Civale threw 863 pitches, 96 of which were curveballs, which netted him 10 of his 46 strikeouts. Let’s play a slight proration game. If you bump that curveball % up to 15% that would make his CU total 129 and would net him three extra strikeouts.  That alone would bump his K% up to 21.9% simply by throwing his curveball more. That’s just improvement from one single pitch! If he manages to also adjust his cutter and slider location and we could see his K% skyrocket.

 

Conclusion

 

I feel over the course of this article I have accurately demonstrated that there are plenty of similarities between Aaron Civale and Corey Kluber. Their pitches look almost identical and they use them in much the same way. With some slight adjustments in location you could practically swap one pitcher for the other and you wouldn’t blink an eye. This absolutely can’t be by coincidence. It’s the same team that turned a 4th round nobody in Kluber into a two time Cy Young award winner, and they have a pitcher in Civale who fits the same exact mold and seems to display the same skills and tendencies as the greatest pitcher the organization has seen since Bob Feller.

Does this mean I think Civale is going to win a Cy Young next year? Of course not. As I mentioned throughout this article there are still adjustments and changes Civale needs to make to get on peak Kluber level. This comparison accomplishes two goals. One, by comparing him to Kluber we do a fine job of establishing a true ceiling for Civale if everything goes all right and lay out a path for him to hit that ceiling. Two, we establish just how far along the path Civale, really is. It’s worth noting that Civale seems way more polished than Kluber was at this point in his career and that is really encouraging.

So what do I expect this year from Civale? I don’t think it’s crazy to expect something similar to Kluber’s 2015 season with an ERA between 3.50 and 3.75 and a 1.10 to 1.15 WHIP with a somewhere around a strikeout per inning over about 160 to 180 innings and a shot at so much more. Right now Aaron Civale is going at pick 264 in NFBC drafts (18th round in 15 teamers), pick 244 in Yahoo leagues (21st round in 12 team leagues) and pick 194 in CBS leagues (17th round in 12 teamers) so at the moment the cost is pretty low to take a shot on a pitcher that could return incredible value if he continues to develop.

Photos by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Daniel Port

Daniel is a Fantasy Baseball writer, Brewer, and Theatrical Technician, located in Denver, Colorado. A lifelong fan of baseball and the Cleveland Indians since before Albert Belle tried to murder Fernando Vina, he used to tell his Mom he loved her using Sammy Sosa's home run salute, has a perfectly reasonable amount of love for Joey Votto and believes everything in life should be announced using bat flips. If you want to talk baseball, beer, or really anything at all you can find him on twitter at @DanielJPort !

  • Avatar Daniel LaRue says:

    This article is incredible

  • Avatar SwaggerJackers says:

    Great summary. Definitely someone to target later in fantasy drafts.

  • Avatar brian s lind says:

    Quick Canning or Civale because I’m looking for a strong upside play towards the back of my dynasty h2h team with a rotation of Verlander, Snell, Corbin, Flaherty, Castillo, E-rod, Hendricks, and Fried. I have Canning alreay but it costs nothing to get Civale and represents more of a roster crunch between Civale and Canning.

  • Avatar Bubbahotep says:

    Top notch. Excellent analysis. Thanks for creating this.

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