February 3, 2023

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Civale trying to find old form, but headed 'in the right direction'

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MINNEAPOLIS — Guardians starter Aaron Civale hasn’t quite figured it out just yet.

Although he was able to get himself into the fifth inning after a rough first frame in which he allowed two solo homers, Civale watched his ERA escalate again in Friday night’s 12-8 loss to the Twins at Target Field. Early on, it was easy to assume that any troubles starters ran into were due to a shortened Spring Training. But as these struggles continue to follow Civale over a month into the season, it’s prompted many to wonder if there’s reason for concern.

There’s certainly a few things that have raised red flags. In each of his six starts, Civale has allowed at least four runs (though not all have been earned), including Friday’s six-run, seven-hit performance over 4 2/3 innings. His 9.85 ERA is the third worst in the Majors among those with at least four starts, behind Reiver Sanmartin of the Reds (13.78) and Kris Bubic of the Royals (12.83).

“Obviously, the numbers aren’t exactly where he wants them to be right now,” Guardians backstop Austin Hedges said, “but it’s going in the right direction.”

Wins are hardly the go-to measure for a pitcher’s success, but it’s hard to ignore that around this time last year, Civale was 5-0, outpacing all other starters in the Majors. When he sustained a right middle finger sprain in June that sidelined him for nearly three months, he had been untouchable, tallying 10 wins in that short span. That dominance has waned since his return.

Maybe part of it has to do with the cutter, which Max Kepler hit for an RBI single. His most reliable pitch in 2021, it has been hit hard this season and lost some velocity. Take a look at the difference between the offering last year compared to his first five starts entering Friday.

2021: 25% usage, .190 opponents’ average (22-for-116), .293 opp. SLG, 87.7 mph avg. velocity
2022: 30.8 % usage, .360 opponents’ average (9-for-25), .720 opp. SLG, 85.9 mph avg. velocity

“I think early on there was a little bit of a difference in terms of getting a little more depth to it, as opposed to just the lateral break,” Guardians pitching coach and acting manager Carl Willis said. “I think that has started to improve and now it’s really a matter of the command and getting it to the spot he wants to get it to. But the pitch shape itself is getting back to being close to normal as what we’ve seen last year.”

It seems as though the team is confident Civale is close to turning a corner. What might help him get there? The emergence of his curveball.

The righty’s curve has become his second most used offering behind the cutter. While he’s stumbled through most of his outings thus far, the positive takeaway each time has mostly been the effectiveness of his hook. On Friday, it was no different. Gary Sánchez hit a double off it in the first, but from there, the pitch was responsible for four of his five strikeouts, as well as a groundout and a walk.

“I can throw it until you see them start to commit to it, and then try and go away from it,” Civale explained. “So, it helps me play off some of my other pitches. Whereas some guys might throw a fastball to set up the curveball, I can throw curveballs to set up other pitches.”

“There were a couple of at-bats when he was going through that good little stretch that he kind of froze a couple of the guys,” Willis said. “I think they were waiting for that curveball, because it had been so good and he used it so effectively. So, yeah, it’s a really good pitch.”

There isn’t a clear-cut answer as to why Civale — and the rest of the rotation, for that matter — has struggled more this season than in years’ past. But as much as it seems like it’s time to panic, the Guardians remain confident that this will just be a minor bump in the road before he becomes the Civale we’ve been used to watching.

“It’s starting to click,” Hedges said of Civale. “We’re getting the action of all the pitches that we want. Now, it’s just executing them. With a shortened Spring Training, guys’ arms aren’t built up as much, so I think at this point, guys’ arms are starting to get built up nicely and stuff is starting to play like we can expect it to.”

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