The Next Saberhagen

August 7, 2020
 
To date, Nate Pearson has lived up to his hype as a first-line starter capable of reaching triple digits on the radar gun. Over in Los Angeles, Dustin May’s fastball, though a touch slower, has a lateral movement that defies physics. With a lot of established aces on the injured list, these young pitchers are giving us a reason to enjoy the strange 2020 baseball season.
 
You can have the gunners. For my money, the best young pitcher in baseball is Aaron Civale, a twenty-five year old righthander with Cleveland. Civale does not have a vaunted pedigree: he was a third-round pick in the 2016 draft, and while he had a strong season moving from Double-A to the majors last year, he is not currently recognized as a star in the making.
 
Don’t sleep on him: Aaron Civale going to be a great one
 
Civale does not posses a blow-them-away fastball: his fastball typically sits around 92-93, and his splitter hits 88. What he possesses, instead, is an uncanny ability to throw four pitches exactly where he is meant to throw them. If he needs to throw a fastball up and in to a left-hander, he can get it there. If he needs to throw a curveball for a first-pitch strike, he can do it. If a pitch needs to be in the dirt, it will be there, and if it needs to be close enough to get a chase, he'll get it there. He has the ability to throw four pitches in any count and make any of them go exacrtly where they need to go.
 
This is a tremendous asset. But Civale has two other traits that make me very optimistic about his future.  
 
The first is that Civale has a profound aversion to working behind in the count. I have forgotten the tally from his first start against the White Sox (and I am not going to look it up now) but Civale started 0-2 or 1-2 against about 75% of the hitters he faced. The same trend carried into Minnesota.
 
This is a tremendous advantage, because when a hitter is behind in the count against Civale, they are forced into a guessing game. Curveball or splitter? Off the plate away or in and down? It’s a guess.
 
Civale was not much of a strikeout pitcher in the minors, but he has notched 18 strikeouts over 12 innings this year. Eighteen strikeouts…and one walk. It is, admittedly, a small sample, and I don’t think that Civale will wind up ever leading the league in strikeouts. But I expect him to have seasons where he has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio.
 
The other reason I’m optimistic about Civale is his response after a hitter makes the right guess, and knocks one out.
 
Tim Anderson was the first hitter to homer off Civale this year. The White Sox batting champ had struck out in his first at-bat against Civale, but he caught a hanger and bounced one off a cardboard cutout in center-right.
 
Civale took a breath and then struck out Yoan Moncada – on three pitches – to end the inning.
 
The same thing happened after Mitch Garver took him deep in Minnesota. Garver, batting in the first, got into a 2-2 count before Jorge Polanco got thrown out trying to steal second. Given a re-do in the second, Garver worked the count full before hitting his first homerun of the season.
 
Civale struck out the next batter, Luis Arraez. Three pitches. Then he whiffed Miguel Sano.
 
Well…what does that matter?
 
It matters because it shows confidence. Civale pitches with confidence.
 
A pitcher who can throw multiple pitchers for strikes very much has the upper-hand in any at-bat. Civale pitches like he’s internalized that fact: he knows at the start of the at-bat that he’s the one holding the baseball.
 
I watched Nate Pearson last night, and the sub-story of the night was how emotive he was. Good pitch, bad pitch, he’s react a little bit. Small things: scowl, grin. Shake of the head.
 
I certainly don’t slight a young man making his second start under tremendous pressure for showing emotions. Players should be able to show emotion, and I’m not going to write off Pearson’s future because he made a face on a bad pitch, or pumped his fist after a good one. He is a human being, and these are strange times, and there is no rule that the only way to succeed as a pitcher is by being a stone-faced automaton.
 
That said, pitching has a significant mental component, and a challenge that all pitchers is how they’re going to deal with it. Pedro Martinez was exceptional in part because he was incredibly gifted at getting into the heads of opposing players, of playing cocky or showing off a seething anger or seeming to be indifferent: he’s put on a different mode as the moment called. Greg Maddux intellectualized it: every at-bat became a kind of math problem. Nolan Ryan decided to just go…just throw it up as hard as he could. Zack Greinke thinks like Pedro, but his thinking is inwardly focused. Whereas Pedro made the mental game a challenge of his opponent, Greinke seems indifferent to the team he is facing: his test is within himself.
 
Some pitchers struggle to figure out that part of it. Roger Clemens is the great example: as gifted as Rocket was, he just couldn’t figure out how to handle the mental side of it: in pressure situations he’d let the moment control him, time and time again. The only exception, for Clemens, were his Toronto years, when he was motivated to show Boston how wrong they were to write him off. If Clemens could’ve come up with a few more chips to carry on his shoulders, he would’ve won 400 games.
 
Anyway, Aaron Civale does not let the moment control him. Civale controls the game.
 
The best demonstration of this was the fourth inning against the White Sox. The first hitter, Jose Abreu, clocked a leadoff double.
 
The next batter was Yasmani Grandal. Grandal is a disciplined hitter: he walked 109 times last year. A base was open, but Civale didn’t walk him. He struck out Grandal on four pitches.
 
Edwin Encarnacion was next. Civale got two strikes and then E.E. hit a weak grounder to third base, a grounder which would’ve been the second out of the inning nine-times-in-ten. This was the one time it wasn’t: Encarnacion was credited with an infield single.
 
Civale walked the next batter. It was not a matter of a young pitcher losing composure: all of the pitches were close. The umpire just didn’t call ‘em. Bases loaded.
 
The next hitter, Luis Robert, hit a weak grounder to Civale, who threw home for a force. The hitter after that grounded out to first base. No runs. No damage.
 
The inning, in summary:
 
- Double.
- Strikeout.
- Slow groundball to third, single.
- Walk.
- Slow groundball to pitcher, force at plate.
- Groundball out to first.
 
Civale can strike out hitters, but he also generates weak contact. When a hitter hits him, it happens because he is ahead in the count, and he leaks one over the challenge the hitter. When the stakes are high, he doesn’t make that mistake.
 
Civale is a thinking pitcher: you have a sense, watching him, that he is testing for the weaknesses of opposing hitters, trying to guess what they’re guessing and then doing something else. He is terrific fun to watch because he gets ahead of hitters and doesn’t mess around by throwing a couple in the dirt, praying for a chase. He pitches close to the zone, keeping the hitters on their toes.
 
Civale is still new to the game, but if I had to pick one starting pitcher to build a team around, I’d take Civale.. He is older than Pearson and May and he doesn’t have a significant record of pitching a lot as a younger player. He doesn’t throw hard, and he is efficient with his pitches…I think he has a good chance to stay health, which is about 50% of the battle these days.
 
And if he does stay healthy, I think he has the chance to be another Saberhagen or Maddux or Greinke: a pitcher who wins because he is able to control the strike zone, control the game, and control himself.
 
We’re a long way from that, of course, and 2020 is going to provide us only a few glimpses at the career Civale might have. Tonight is one chance: Civale is getting a second start against the White Sox. The South Siders have a talented lineup, but they’re an aggressive team: they like to take their cuts. The White Sox are probably a harder team for a pitcher like Civale to pitch against than a disciplined lineup. Good hitters…old hitters…will look for a pitch early, and Civale can work against that. Younger hitters, freer swingers…they can’t be set up as effectively.
 
But I think Civale is up to the task, and I think we're seeing the start of something great. If you've got nothing else to do tonight, check him out.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in southwestern Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

DaveFleming
I think you might've watched a different game, Steve161. Civale issued just one walk during his last start. Five strikeouts.
8:07 AM Aug 11th
 
steve161
Seven very nice innings against the White Sox, despite the five walks. Unfortunately he ran into a four-hit shutout. He definitely looks like a pitcher to watch, though I'm hesitant to predict superstardom. Thanks for the tip, Dave. I probably would have watched a different game otherwise.
8:41 AM Aug 10th
 
wovenstrap
I'm an Indians fan and I've watched most of the games so far with some attention. Obviously I am very pleased with the pitching staff so far.

I was very impressed with Civale's last start. After his last start I said to a friend, Civale pitches like he's 36 years old. Maybe less Saberhagen (that would be quite a trick) and more like Buehrle, a wide-body, superficially unsexy innings-eater who can control a ballgame.
2:53 PM Aug 9th
 
MarisFan61
Dave: Thanks for such a thorough (and nice!) answer.
I didn't fail to read the sports pages during that period :-) especially for about the first 15 years of it, when I was fairly addicted to the last 20 pages of the New York Post -- and I don't recall ever coming across much of anything of that nature, nor hearing it. If I did, it wasn't much and I probably dismissed it as what Bill has sometimes called "bull$hit," about supposed narratives to explain given results.
Like: The main such example I recall was about Reggie Jackson's "Mr. October" stuff reflecting something about "character."

I would be far more inclined to attribute those aspects of Clemens' big-game performance to things other than not being able to handle the mental aspect or the pressure, and his greater success in those instances with Toronto to other things than that he needed extra motivation to compensate for such a weakness.
2:11 PM Aug 8th
 
DaveFleming
Maris: you must've skipped over the sports pages for most of 1986-2006.

That was probably THE story about Rocket, that he couldn't win the big ones. Every time he matched up against Dave Stewart, when the conversation at the time was who was the best pitcher in the AL, Clemens would lose....he was 1-7 or 1-8 against Stewart, and frequently they'd be blowouts. Playoffs, Rocket got booted from the first inning of Game 4 of the 1990 ALDS, a must-win, for grousing about balls and strikes. He made nine playoff starts for Boston and got ONE win. That win was Game 7 of the 1986 ALCS, when the Sox staked him to a 7-0 lead by the fourth inning. Much later, in pinstripes, he threw that bat at Piazza during the WS. It was a sizable, repeating story about Clemens - throughout his Boston years and afterwards - was that he was prone to cracking under pressure over and over again, that he was a great pitcher, but not the guy you'd really want to have holding the ball in a big game, that he couldn't control himself and reign himself in for the big games.

The Jays motivation is also fairly well-established: Sox GM Dan Duquette said they wanted to keep Roger for the 'twilight' of his career, and the press blew it up because the press hated him. His first start in Boston as a Jay, he dominated the Sox and then made a face at the owner's box. He snubbed Boston, emphasized how happy he was in Toronto. There's little question he was very motivated by feeling slighted by the Red Sox.
1:01 PM Aug 8th
 
MichaelPat
Promising start to his career. That kind of maturity is always nice to see in a young player. Another Cleveland pitcher worth watching!

That said, projecting a Saberhagen-esque career seems a big stretch. At the same age, Bret Saberhagen was working on his second Cy Young Award; by the end of his age 25 season, he had started 178 major league games and won 92 of them...
12:38 PM Aug 8th
 
MarisFan61
Oppositely from MWeddell's comment: I would extremely question the Clemens thing. It sticks out to me in multiple respects.
OK, maybe just 2. :-)

-- Couldn't figure out how to handle the mental side, succumbed to pressure? I'm not particularly any great fan of his; if anything I'm a non-fan of his -- but that seems to me like (1) unwarranted speculation on a dynamic, and (2) probably wrong. I haven't been aware even of any lore of that sort about him; is there?? Even if it is, I wouldn't be inclined to take it as an actual thing.
I'm not even sure what exactly it refers to, whether it's his results in post-season games or apparent emotional meltdown moments, both of which I would attribute more likely to other things.

-- Did better under pressure with Toronto because other than that he wasn't motivated enough? Where does that come from? Again, is this some lore I'm not aware of? (Similarly, even if so....)

I would far more likely attribute those things to other causes, of various kinds.

Very good article -- but the Clemens thing seemed to me liked a gratuitous, really unrelated thing stuck in there that sticks out as odd speculations.
5:03 AM Aug 8th
 
MWeddell
Nice side comment about Roger Clemens too. Thanks for writing, Dave.
4:26 PM Aug 7th
 
DaveFleming
Interestingly...I just looked into the pitches/PA for starting pitchers with 10+ IP this year, and Civale has the 6th highest number of pitchers per PA (4.29). There are 83 pitchers in the group, running from Bauer (4.59) to Yarborough (3.31).

Civale's Strike % is the 19th best (66.5%). Dylan Bundy is first at 71.7, while Robbie Ray is (predictably) the worst, at 53.2%. I doubt these rates are reliable yet, but I wanted to throw some numbers in.

3:01 PM Aug 7th
 
DaveFleming
He wasn't on my radar, either...I had no idea who he was before the season started. I happened to catch his first start and came away impressed, and I made a point to see his second one. He was just as good in that one.

And he's fun to watch, because pitching ahead necessitates action. A hitter starts 2-0...they're most likely not swinging at pitch #3. A hitter starts 0-2...they've gotta defend.
2:52 PM Aug 7th
 
jgf704
Oh sure. *Now* you tell me. My fantasy league draft was 2 weeks ago. :)
11:02 AM Aug 7th
 
 
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