Why Rays pitching coach considers Civale an 'artisan'

April 19th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Two days after being traded from the Yankees to the Rays as part of a three-team deal, catcher took his place behind the plate to catch starter as Tampa Bay hosted Toronto at Tropicana Field.

Rortvedt did his research on Civale, talking as often as possible in the dugout and looking up information on Civale’s pitches the night before they worked together for the first time. Civale did his homework, too, pulling up what he called “a good amount of video” of Rortvedt catching last season to see how he set up behind the plate.

Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder calls Civale an “artisan,” a skilled craft worker. Preparation is integral to his process, and that was only a small part.

“My goal with my prep is to make sure I’m in the best position I can be to set myself up for success, knowing that I’m not going to be perfect with every pitch,” Civale said on Thursday morning. “At the end of the day, the more prepared I am, the more comfortable I am out there, given any situation.”

Civale’s pregame work has played a major role in his strong start to the season. Heading into his scheduled start Sunday at Yankee Stadium, the 28-year-old right-hander has put together a 2.74 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only four walks in his first four outings. He already has three quality starts, two more than he had in 10 games for the Rays down the stretch last year after coming over in a Trade Deadline deal with Cleveland for prospect Kyle Manzardo.

“He's a unique mind in terms of how he approaches his starts,” Snyder said. “Some guys' preparedness is, 'I'm here, and I know I can out-stuff guys.' But other guys, such as Aaron, there's a lot that goes into his preparedness that translates into that confidence and he'll take it in the game.”

Civale said it starts with making sure he’s right physically. That is his priority in the three days after each outing. He’ll look back at his last outing to see what he did well and learn what he can do better. If he’s feeling good, and everything in his six-pitch arsenal is moving the way he wants, he can focus on how to attack the next lineup he’ll face.

After his between-starts bullpen session, typically two days before he pitches, Civale starts preparing his game plan. He said he’s tried everything during his career, from overpreparing (and overthinking) to relying on less information, but he’s found what he called a “good, happy medium right now.”

“It's just fun to go out there and watch how he dissects lineups,” Rays starter Zack Littell said. “Civale does a lot of homework and has a really good idea of what he wants to do going into the game, and he's also really good at executing that plan.”

That’s mostly because Civale has learned how he learns best.

“I wish I knew it going back to school,” he said, dryly. “I could have understood history and English a little better.”

For one, he’s a visual learner. He can process a written scouting report just fine, he said, but words aren’t going to stick with him as well as videos or charts conveying the same information. He wants to see hitters’ stances and swings as much as possible to get a feel for where he can attack and where he has little room for error, even allowing for the possibility that his command won’t be pinpoint on every pitch.

He makes himself so familiar with each hitter that he proved to be pretty good -- albeit “a little bit worse at it as it’s gone on,” he said, grinning -- at the “Batter Up!” game, which challenges you to guess hitters based only on silhouettes of their stances and swings.

“The more prep work I can do going into a game, putting myself into situations, the more it feels comfortable out there,” he said. “A lot of that revolves around watching hitters’ swings and just understanding, when I see this guy in the box, then I can trigger those memories that I have from studying going in there.”

The second part is when Civale prepares. Even in school, he found he was better off studying right before tests, not trying to spread it out over several weeks. He’s the same way now, typically taking his deep dive into a lineup the night before or the day of his start. He wants the most recent information to be the most relevant information.

“Most athletes will tell you a short-term memory is the best one,” he said. “We have trained that for a lot of positive reasons, but prep-wise, it could be a negative. I like to keep that as fresh as possible.”