Aaron Civale – Engineering Success on the Mound for Lynchburg
David Freier | On 27, Jul 2017
High-A Lynchburg Hillcats starting pitcher Aaron Civale got started in baseball by following his older brother.
“I wanted to do everything he did, compete at what he did,” he said. “He played baseball, basketball, and soccer. I did the same.”
In grade school, he rotated through the three sports – soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. Baseball was the sport that captured his attention and affection, even when he was playing other sports.
As he advanced through little league and other organized levels of baseball, he remained both a hitter and a pitcher. Eventually, as the right-hander found a comfort zone on the mound, pitching began to be the object of his baseball attention. It was not until college that he shifted to pitching full time.
Not getting the attention of scouts while coming out of Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, he sought a college experience with strong academics and an opportunity to play baseball. He found both at Northeastern University under head coach and alumnus Mike Glavine (brother of Hall of Famer Tom Glavine).
“I wasn’t on the radar for the pros at that point,” said Civale. “Northeastern was a good program and I was looking for schools that had good baseball and good academics.”
A mechanical engineering major, Civale pitched in a relief role during his freshman and sophomore seasons, getting only a single start. The thought of a professional career in baseball was not yet the focus of his future.
That would change. First, he had the opportunity to pitch an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox at their spring training home, JetBlue Park in Florida. Second, he spent the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons in the prestigious Cape Cod League.
Civale had not started a game all season long for the Huskies, but on this spring day, he would go out and pitch against some of the most well-known names in Red Sox history, including David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.
“I found out the night before, at a team dinner,” he said about when he knew he would get the starting nod. “We had a game the day before and I was in the bullpen possibly ready to go in the game. We scored six or seven runs in the seventh inning. So I wasn’t needed for that game, I was available for the next day.”
Being rested, coach Glavine offered him the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Coach Glavine asked me at the dinner, ‘So you want to start tomorrow?’. Absolutely!” said Civale.
Reflecting back on this game, he describes the experience as surreal.
“Being there, taking it all in beforehand, it seemed as big a deal as it was. Once I got on the mound, it was about baseball again.”
Facing Big Papi (Ortiz) was an experience he will never forget.
“I grew up a Red Sox fan, following his whole career. He is one of my favorite players, still. A bigger-than-life personality, both on and off the field. The opportunity to pitch against him was an honor.”
Ortiz was one of four strikeouts Civale tallied against the Boston lineup that day. Red Sox manager John Farrell was impressed with him. According to comments in the Boston Globe, ‘He had a good late cutter and attacked the strike zone.’
That summer, he would go on to pitch for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks as he prepared himself to be a starting pitcher for his junior season.
“I’d been to some of the games as a kid up to the Cape for a weekend,” Civale shared. “It was a big summer, learning and experience wise. I went into it as a temp, and was fortunate enough to pitch well early and gain the trust of the coaches and earn a full contract.”
Civale did more than just earn a contract. He was named the top New England prospect for his summer efforts. Civale also participated in the summer league’s All-Star game, pitching a single inning with one strikeout. Even with this success, he took nothing for granted.
“Every day I went into it that this was my last day, that temp contract still in my mind.”
This changed his path toward baseball as a professional. Cleveland selected him in the third round, the 92nd position overall, in the 2016 First Year Player Draft, making him the top pitcher drafted by the Indians that year.
After signing, he got 13 starts for rookie level Mahoning Valley, building on his college experience. This earned him the number 20 organizational prospect spot in the Cleveland farm system as determined by Baseball America. He has not slowed down in 2017.
Unlike many pitchers, Civale has five offerings he can deal out to opposing hitters. He features a two-seam fastball, and mixes that up with a cutter, a slider, a curveball, and his most recent addition, a change-up.
“The goal this season is development of that change-up,” he said. “As a reliever for two years, I didn’t really need a change-up. I relied on my fastball, cutter, and slider. In high school, I didn’t throw the change-up, so it’s not a pitch I’m familiar with.”
Working on the change-up with Hillcats pitching coach Rigo Beltran gives him an off-speed offering that can mix-up hitters and keep them off balance. Since entering the Indians farm system, Civale has worked as a starter, taking the mound every fifth day. In 34 starts as a professional, he has 138 strikeouts and only 21 walks – all in just a shade over 160 innings.
Promoted from Low-A Lake County on June 1, Civale won his Advanced-A debut with a 3-1 victory over the Potomac Nationals. In ten starts since, he has a 5-2 record and a 3.04 ERA. Along with teammate Triston McKenzie, the two look to continue their success as the Hillcats pursue the second half Northern Division title in the Carolina League.
His continuing success hinges on learning to adapt to the longer season and to maintain his conditioning and endurance through August and the playoffs.
“Staying healthy is a big goal of mine,” said Civale. “My first full season, just gaining nuances, understanding everything your body goes through. Learning what you need to push through on and what you need to pull back on.”
So far he has pushed and pulled successfully in a Hillcats uniform.
Like many of his teammates, he enjoys golfing and video games, but there is not too much down time during a 140-game minor league season to pursue those activities. As Civale continues to toe the rubber every fifth day, he aims to be balanced and maintain a consistent level of performance.
“I just take pride in making sure I’m 100% every fifth day.”