PHOENIX -- Aaron Civale was everything the Tribe could have asked for in his rookie season in 2019, when he was called on to fill holes in the rotation after injuries and trades. When he returned in 2020, he wasn’t as dominant, as his stats floated around league average.
So, what does a pitcher do when he’s coming off two decent seasons early in his career? Well, Civale decided to change everything.
Civale got a call early in the offseason from Indians assistant pitching coach Ruben Niebla, who suggested Civale try a different arm angle.
“I have a really good relationship with Ruben,” Civale said. “He was my pitching coordinator when I got drafted. … I decided if he's going to suggest something, I think I should give it a shot.”
Civale started from scratch, learning a new windup and arm angle and relearning how to throw all of his pitches. It’s a process that began with throwing a football so that he could dissociate from throwing a baseball.
“So the delivery is based a lot around timing,” Niebla said. “That’s one of the things that, when Civale’s pitch shape has gotten a little big, it was the timing getting disrupted, so his arm would bar out just a little bit. So it was just really to get him a little bit tighter, to be able to rotate through the torso a little bit better and more efficiently.”
Civale said he didn’t have any hesitations about making the change, however the only problem he and Niebla faced was making the tweaks from opposite sides of the country.
“He’s out in the Northeast and I’m in Southern California, so it was definitely phone calls, videos,” Niebla said. “It was full support from the full staff. He does a great job with communication and making sure that he was keeping us informed on how things were going.”
Not only did Civale revamp his entire delivery, he also decided to develop a split-change instead of throwing his changeup. In 2019, opponents hit .286 off his changeup, but they only batted .111 against it in 2020.
“It feels pretty good,” Civale said of the split-change. “The action is there, just learning when and how to use it and go from there. It's a learning curve.”
At the end of this process, Civale arrived back at Spring Training this year with a shorter arm path and a windup that almost looks like he’s pitching out of the stretch.
“That will be my windup for the year,” Civale said. “I did a lot of my work out of the stretch in the offseason. Changing my arm path, I didn't want to add any rotation into my delivery that could alter that. Just decided to keep it simple. I didn't do too much work on that windup, it's just a little stutter-step. Not really shifting too much weight. A lot of the work I did to transition to the new arm path was out of the stretch. Less movement is less chance for error.”
“It almost looks like a stretch,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “He takes that one little step back with his left foot and then he’s raring to go and I agree with him. [Carlos] Carrasco did it completely out of the stretch. Consistency and repeating your delivery is so big and anything that they can do to enhance that is welcome.”
“It's not only the split-change,” Civale said. “It's a new slider grip and … more four-seams and working on that. That was another reasoning behind the arm-path change -- I was to be able to square up the ball a little bit better and get some better profiles on my pitches. Every outing is going to be a learning curve and seeing where things are at with where my stuff is at right now.”
Civale’s stuff stayed just as sharp in his second trip to the mound. In Thursday’s 5-1 win over the Brewers at American Family Fields of Phoenix, he tossed three perfect frames in his first Cactus League start.
“I'm very happy I made the decision,” Civale said. “I'm glad Ruben made that call. It was a pretty natural transition. A lot of different drills went into it, a lot of video and a lot of phone calls. Glad to see it's paying off.”