Not many teams could lose their ace for the year and still win 100 games, but that’s exactly what the Yankees have done. They have 102 wins this year, yet their best pitcher had nothing to do with 100 of them.
Luis Severino, who received Cy Young votes in each of the past two years, has been absent for nearly the entire season due to shoulder and lat injuries. He returned at the perfect time though, making his season debut last week. He’s thrown nine innings over two starts without allowing a run, striking out 13 and walking only two batters. He’ll probably have one more tune-up before the playoffs, but the indication is that he’s back to being a top-tier starting pitcher again.
We’ll look a little deeper into his performance, of course, but I have to note that we’re dealing with an incredibly small sample. Severino has faced just 34 batters this season, throwing a total of 147 pitches. That’s not nearly enough to make conclusions, but then again, the playoffs are all about small sample luck! In October, would you rather trust a good pitcher coming off a rough September, or a bad/injured pitcher who’s throwing great? There’s no right answer; it’s a matter of personal preference. How seriously you weigh Severino’s nine-inning workload into his postseason projection is up to you.
Disclaimer firmly in place, here’s how he compares to his old self in a few metrics:
Luis Severino 2017-2019
Fortunately for the Yankees, he appears to be the same guy that he was the past two years. There are a few differences in this season’s stats, but they’re mostly explainable. His strikeout rate is ten percentage points higher than last year, but his swinging strike rate is down a little. He’s missing plenty of bats, but not more than usual. Only three of his 13 strikeouts have been backwards K’s, so perhaps he just happens to be getting his whiffs in two-strike counts.
His pitch mix also looks a little different, with fewer sliders in favor of more fastballs and changeups. That’s contrary to the league-wide trend of throwing more breaking pitches, but there’s a good explanation here, too. He’s faced 23 left-handed hitters this season compared to just 11 right-handers. His slider is more effective against righties, and he’ll throw it less against lefties (as would almost any right-handed pitcher). For reference, he faced 351 lefties and 429 righties in 2018.
As far as the quality of the pitches, the fastball and changeup are pretty much back to normal (though the heater velocity is down a tick). The slider is a little different, though. He’s throwing it three mph slower than last year (85 mph, down from 88.1). That hasn’t impacted his results thus far— clearly no one has hit any of his pitches very well at all— but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Regarding the slider, Derek Albin of Views from 314 Ft. has a theory. “It looks like Severino may be purposely varying his slider’s velocity and movement.” According to Albin, there’s a -0.2 correlation between his slider velo and horizontal movement. That’s not terribly strong, but it could be indicative of an intentional alteration to his best pitch. He certainly had enough time off to tinker!
Shortly after the trade deadline, I wrote about the Yankees decision not to improve their pitching staff, and how they compared with the Cole/Verlander/Greinke Astros. At the time, I posited that even if the Yankees optimize their elite bullpen as best as possible to balance out their mediocre starting pitching, they still come up a little short. I was even more dubious given that know one knew if Severino and Dellin Betances would return to form (or at all).
Well, it appears that Severino is indeed back on point (Betances... not so much). It also looks like manager Aaron Boone does intend to use something akin to bullpen games for much of the postseason. As told to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci:
“We’re going to be a little untraditional,” manager Aaron Boone said. “The only one we might use as a traditional starter is [James] Paxton.”
Boone made that remark on September 16th— the day before Severino’s first start. Perhaps his performance since then has made the manager reconsider. If the Yankees have two horses to ride instead of one, that will go a long way towards a World Series push.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.