In the few opportunities he’s had at the major league level, Luis Severino’s peripherals have generally been pretty good. In 62 1⁄3 innings as a rookie, his DRA was a stellar 3.16. In 2016, it was a still-more-than-acceptable 3.93.
It’s just been Severino’s actual results that have fluctuated wildly. In 2015, he outperformed even that excellent DRA figure, ending the year with a 2.89 ERA. But last season, things swung in the complete opposite direction, as his ERA ballooned to an exorbitant 5.83.
He was probably at least a little bit worse last than in his debut, but even that is unclear. Despite the much poorer results, just about the only numbers that actually got demonstrably worse were his strand rate (87% to 67%), his groundball rate (50.3% to 45.1%), and his BABIP against (.265 to .324). His velocity actually took a big spike, his strikeout numbers went up, and his walk rate and home runs per flyball both held steady.
It was a weird season, to be sure, but the results were the results and the Yankees could only stomach it for so long. After getting blown up by the White Sox on May 13, Severino wouldn’t reappear with the big club until late July, and by that point, he was mostly being used in relief (where he was excellent, it should be said).
It’s a new season, however, and Severino is back in the Yankees’ rotation to kick off 2017. He’s still barely 23 years old, and the flashes of what he could be still make it worth the team’s continuing effort to try him out in that role.
He’s only had one start thus far, with another scheduled tonight, and it was more of the same for the young right-hander: snippets of incredible potential, but one too many mistakes that end up overshadowing most of the positives.
In this instance, it was Severino cruising through four innings — after surrendering a run before recording an out in the top of the first, he settled in for no runs, four strikeouts, and no walks — before getting himself in a jam to start the fifth.
After giving up a bloop hit to Jonathan Schoop to start the inning, Severino got rid of J.J. Hardy and Seth Smith with a strikeout and a pop-up. But then he walked Adam Jones of all people, which set up Manny Machado with two on, two out. When Severino left a ball in the middle of the plate, Machado took full advantage:
There’s really no shame in giving up a bomb to Machado because he’s really damn good. But to precede that mistake with a free pass to Adam Jones and his career 4.5 percent walk rate perfectly encompasses what’s held Severino back for the most part. If he can get out of his own way, he’s great. But as soon as he leaves his opponents an opening, that’s when he gets hurt.
That’s not much different than how you would describe most pitchers, however. Major league hitters are major league hitters because they can take what seem like small mistakes at the time and turn them into game-altering disasters in a blink of an eye. Severino knows that, surely, but it’s the truth nonetheless: he has to get better at doing the little things.
He will almost definitely improve in those areas at some point. Most pitchers do. And eventually, you have to figure his luck will turn around as well. It’s hard to see a guy with Severino’s stuff running a .324 BABIP like he did last season for the rest of his career. There has to be some middle ground between that and the .265 mark from his rookie year.
There are bigger questions here as well. Yes, Severino’s stuff is impressive. He throws the ball really damn hard, and both of his secondaries — a slider and changeup — have a great deal of promise. But despite the velocity of those pitches, none are truly elite offerings. Is three decent pitches enough? To start, sure, but to be a star, probably not.
Severino already does a decent job of commanding those pitches, but that may also be something he could improve further. At the very least, it gives him a solid baseline.
With that said, I suspect that unless Severino makes big strides in one of those areas, we’re going to continue to wonder the same thing we did when he was working his way up through the Yankees’ system: how good would he be as a reliever?
Would he throw even harder in short stints? Would that lead to more swings and misses? I mentioned before that he looked great in his brief time last year in the Yankees bullpen. Will that make the club more willing to shift him into a relief role if he continues to be mercurial in a starting role?
Those are all questions we don’t have quite enough information to answer at this poing in time. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the Yankees current plan for Severino, in any case. Right now, it’s all about trying to help him succeed in a starting rotation. Take care of that first, and they won’t need to worry about finding a backup plan.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.