Like McCarthy’s cutter, the Yanks brought back Clippard’s slider after trade with Diamondbacks

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Barring an improbable run to the postseason, the 2016 Yankees will be remembered for selling at the trade deadline, something they hadn’t done in nearly three decades. Three productive veterans and Ivan Nova were dealt for a total of 12 prospects and Adam Warren. There’s an entire generation of Yankees fans who don’t know anything but contention and win at all costs. This was a big change.

The Yankees also snuck in one buyer trade at the deadline, acquiring ex-Yankee Tyler Clippard from the Diamondbacks for Vicente Campos. It was kind of a weird move but an understandable one. The Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman trades left gaping holes in the back of the bullpen, so Clippard (and Warren) were brought in to lend Dellin Betances a hand. It’s not like they gave up much to get Clippard, after all. (Campos just suffered another major arm injury, which really sucks.)

In his one month and one week with the Yankees, Clippard has taken over as the team’s primary eighth inning guy, and has allowed just one earned run in 15 innings. His strikeout (26.2%), walk (9.8%), and ground ball (34.3%) rates with the Yankees are right in line with his career norms (26.9%, 10.0%, 28.3%). The only difference so far has been the lack of home runs; Clippard has a career 1.07 HR/9 (8.6 HR/FB%) and in his 15 innings in pinstripes he’s at 0.60 HR/9 (4.8 HR/FB%).

At some point Clippard will give up a dinger or two because that’s what he does. He’s a very unique pitcher. He thrives on getting weak contact, mostly in the form of pop-ups, and he does it primarily with deception. The guy is all arms and legs with his delivery. Even at his peak with the Nationals, Clippard would live in the 93-94 mph range and bump 96 mph on occasion. Nowadays he sits 91-92 mph and will top out at 94 mph. That’s what happens to 31-year-old workhorse relievers.

Last year, in an effort to combat velocity loss, Clippard started toying around with a slider while with the Athletics. He used it during his short stint with the Mets, but, after signing with the Diamondbacks in the offseason, the slider went in his pocket. It was very rarely used. Since returning to New York, Clippard has again started using that slider as a regular part of his arsenal (via Brooks Baseball):

Tyler Clippard slider curveball usage

Clippard has always been a fastball/changeup pitcher and he always will be. They’re by far his two best pitches. He changes speeds and eye levels with high fastballs and low changeups. A slower curveball used to be his third pitch, but since the start of last season, he’s shelved it in favor of this new slider. Well, except for his few months with the D’Backs, that is.

Why did Clippard put the slider in his pocket with Arizona? Who knows. They’re not exactly a brilliantly run organization over there. Remember, when the Yankees acquired Brandon McCarthy a few years ago, he said the D’Backs told him to stop throwing his cutter. New York let McCarthy throw the cutter and boom, his performance improved dramatically. Who knows why the D’Backs do what they do. They’re a mess over there.

Anyway, Clippard threw 27 sliders with the Yankees in August, one fewer than he threw in his four months with the D’Backs. He threw eight sliders in two appearances in Baltimore over the week, more than he threw in three of his four months with Arizona. This isn’t a new pitch. It’s an old pitch Clippard has reintroduced after not throwing it most of the year. Here’s one of the sliders he threw over the weekend:

Tyler Clippard slider

First things first: that’s a bad pitch! Clippard didn’t hang it over the plate, but he missed his spot by a mile and was fortunate to get a swing through. Backup sliders like that tend to be effective swing-and-miss pitches because hitters don’t expect them and the movement is very unnatural. Too bad no one can throw them consistently.

I posted the GIF of that slider specifically because the fine folks at MASN showed a slow motion replay after the strikeout, in which you can get a look at Clippard’s grip:

Tyler Clippard slider grip

That’s a slider grip. We can deduce that. It’s definitely not a changeup grip. PitchFX will misclassify pitches on occasion, and I was worried that maybe some of Clippard’s changeups were being misclassified as sliders, but no, that’s a slider. That’s not a changeup grip and we know it wasn’t a fastball based on the movement and velocity. It’s also not a curveball because his fingers are behind the baseball and not coming around. It’s a slider. It is. Trust me.

As you’d expect, Clippard has thrown most of his sliders to right-handed batters. They haven’t swung and missed at it much — only twice in fact, so that GIF above is one of the two — so I’m sure the Yankees and Clippard are hoping that will come. The good news is his hard contact rate against righties dropped from 33.3% with the D’Backs to 22.2% with the Yankees, though the sample is obviously small. That’s something the slider can help improve.

At this point we still don’t know how much the slider has helped Clippard, if it’s helping at all. Adding another pitch seems like it can only help, but if it’s not that effective and you start getting beat on it, it’s a problem. Clippard is still a fastball/changeup pitcher and chances are he always will be. He’s in the wily veteran phase of his career, and slider is a surprise pitch. Something new to keep hitters guessing.

As injuries continue to mount in the rotation, Luis Cessa is emerging as a keeper for the Yankees

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

His performance is easy to overlook given the rest of the game, but young righty Luis Cessa turned in his fourth straight impressive start for the Yankees last night. The 24-year-old former shortstop held that ridiculously great Blue Jays’ lineup to two runs on six hits and two walks in 5.1 innings, and his defense totally sabotaged him on the second run.

Cessa came over in the Justin Wilson trade over the winter, and he actually started the season in the Opening Day bullpen. He’s spent most of the year starting in Triple-A though, which he needed to do at that point of his development. In four starts since replacing the injured Nathan Eovaldi, Cessa has allowed nine runs (eight earned) and 25 baserunners in 23.1 total innings. That’s a 3.09 ERA and 1.07 WHIP from the what, seventh starter? Eighth?

“I had a little mistake in the first inning to (Edwin) Encarnacion, but after that I stayed with the same plan we had before the game with Larry (Rothschild) and Gary (Sanchez) and a couple coaches, and just make the pitches,” said Cessa after last night’s start (video link). “After (the homer), just continue fighting. Staying on the same page with Gary is the most important thing and we did a really nice job I think.”

Cessa is not without his flaws. He’s allowed five home runs in his four starts and ten (!) in his 42 big league innings, so that’s is an obvious problem. Also, Cessa has struck out only 15 of 94 batters faced as a starter, or 17.0%, and you’d like to see that come up at some point. Overall though, Cessa has given the Yankees four nice starts and there are reasons to believe he can be part of the rotation going forward.

1. He seems to handle adversity well. Cessa was able to face a weak Angels lineup in his first big league start, and the next time put the offense but eight runs on the board against the Orioles in the first two innings. They gave him a lot of breathing room. The Yankees were able to ease Cessa into the rotation with a start against a bad team and then a ton of run support. Perfect.

The last two starts have been a bit more challenging. The Royals roughed Cessa up for four runs in the first three innings last week, including two home runs. The Yankees needed him to soak up more innings since the bullpen was taxed, and Cessa was able to settle down and retire 12 of the final 14 batters he faced to complete six full innings. Last night he gave up a monster first inning homer to Encarnacion and shook it right off.

Those are the kind of situations that can quickly unravel for a young pitcher. Giving up four runs in three innings to the defending World Series champs can spiral out of control quick. Giving up a second deck dinger to someone like Encarnacion can scare a pitcher out of the strike zone or away from the pitch that was hit out, in this case a fastball. That didn’t happen. Cessa settled down and pitched effectively the rest of the way both times. Pretty impressive.

2. He uses four pitches regularly. When the Yankees acquired Cessa, the scouting report said he threw a slider and a changeup in addition to his mid-90s fastball. We’ve seen that and more. Cessa also throws a curveball, and he throws all four of his pitches regularly too. Here is his pitch selection in his four starts:

  • Fastball: 46.4%
  • Slider: 29.2%
  • Curveball: 15.3%
  • Changeup: 9.2%

I think we’ll see more changeups going forward too. The Angels and Blue Jays both threw right-handed heavy lineups at Cessa, so he didn’t need his changeup a whole lot in two of his four starts. Once he starts facing lefties we might see the changeup a bit more.

Either way, Cessa has thrown those four pitches regularly in his four starts, and that’s a big plus. A lot of times a young pitcher comes up with a fastball and a breaking ball he trusts, and he’ll still be trying to figure out a changeup. Cessa has a deep repertoire already. That’s more than half the battle.

3. He can hold his velocity deep into games. Unless you’re a freak like Eovaldi, most pitchers lose velocity within a start as their pitch count creeps up. It’s just fatigue. It happens. The guys who go from, say, 94 mph to 90 mph have the most trouble. Cessa loses velocity like everyone else, yet in his four starts this year, he’s been able to hold mid-90s into the sixth inning. From Brooks Baseball:

Luis Cessa velocity

So far Cessa has averaged 95.6 mph in the first inning and 94.4 mph in the sixth inning in his four starts. (He’s pitched into the sixth inning in all four starts and last night was the first time he didn’t complete the sixth.) Losing roughly one mile an hour is not insignificant, though it’s not a drastic either. Sitting 94.4 mph in the sixth is plenty good enough to get outs. Cessa’s a young man and he’s very athletic — he was a shortstop, after all — so it’s not a surprise he’s strong and able to retain most of his velocity as his pitch count increases.

4. He’ll pitch inside regularly. I’m not sure how we can quantify this, but anecdotally, Cessa seems very willing to pitch inside, especially to righties. It was especially noticeable in his start against the Angels. He had no problem coming inside to set up the pitch outside and get hitters to move their feet. Cessa wasn’t trying to hit anyone. He was just taking control of the plate. It’s refreshing to see. The Yankees collectively do not seem to do enough of that as a team.

* * *

The Yankees have lost both Eovaldi and Chad Green to elbow injuries in recent weeks, plus they traded Ivan Nova, so they’ve had little choice but to give Cessa a starting spot. They’re running out of arms. He’s made the most of his opportunity so far, and he’s starting to look like a possible answer to the team’s search for controllable young pitching. Cessa won’t solve their depth issues by himself, no one will, but he does seem to have the ingredients necessary to be a big league starter. Even if he’s the fourth or fifth guy on the staff, that’s still pretty darn valuable.

Tanaka is regaining his 2014 form as he gets further away from the elbow issues

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Yesterday afternoon Masahiro Tanaka had the kind of start that usually isn’t associated with being an ace, but does show the difference between good pitchers and great pitchers. He held the high-powered Blue Jays to two runs in 6.1 innings despite clearly not having his best stuff. Tanaka wasn’t even on the mound when the second run scored. It was an inherited runner that a pair of rookie relievers couldn’t strand.

Following yesterday’s game, Tanaka is now sitting on a 3.11 ERA (3.26 FIP) in 26 starts and 179.1 innings. The FanGraphs version of WAR says he’s been the best pitcher in the AL at +4.7 WAR. (Technically tied with Chris Sale, who’s thrown 14.1 more innings.) Baseball Reference says Tanaka has been the sixth best pitcher in the AL at +4.7 WAR. You don’t need WAR to tell you he’s been really, really good though.

Tanaka has never not been good for the Yankees. Last season he had a 3.51 ERA (3.98 FIP) in 154 innings, and while that is disappointing compared to his 2014 debut, it still made him an effective starter. The Yankees have won 13 of his last 15 starts and he is far and away the best pitcher in the rotation. It’s not even close. Tanaka might not win the Cy Young, but he should get votes. Heck, you could argue he deserves MVP votes too.

“As a professional baseball player, it’s better to have attention because that means you’re doing a good job,” said Tanaka to Chad Jennings yesterday. “I think the first year, it was more like, ‘who is this guy from Japan coming here? And how is he going to make it out there?’ I think there was a lot of curiosity and interest in that sense, but as a pitcher, you always want to do well, and that means you’re getting attention. So you want that attention because you want to do well.”

Although the overall numbers don’t exactly match, Tanaka has been able to regain his 2014 pre-injury form this season, especially recently. He missed time with the partially torn elbow ligament in 2014, then had wrist and hamstring issues in 2015, and over the winter he had a bone spur removed from his elbow. Tanaka’s dealt with more than a few physical problems, and those can obviously impact a pitcher’s ability to execute and effectiveness.

Here is Tanaka’s rolling five-start ERA and FIP since his debut in 2014, via FanGraphs. He started out swell, then his performance slipped as the injuries struck, and now he’s back to what I assume is 100% effectiveness.

Masahiro Tanaka rolling ERA-FIPThe biggest different between the pre-injury version of Tanaka and the current version of Tanaka is his strikeout rate. He struck out 26.6% of the batters he faced in 2014 before the elbow started barking. It’s 20.8% this year, which is still good, but not quite as good. Tanaka has been able to compensate for the missing strikeouts by keeping the ball in the park: 1.04 HR/9 (14.4 HR/FB%) vs. 0.85 HR/9 (10.4 HR/9%).

The performance has been very good this year and ultimately that’s the most important thing. A pitcher’s job is to keep runs off the board, first and foremost, and Tanaka has done that. He’s done it while changing his style almost month-to-month. You can call it evolving if you want, but he’s gone back to his original state a few times, so yeah. Check out his four-seamer fastball and sinker usage over the years, via Brooks Baseball:

Masahiro Tanaka pitch selectionEarlier this season Tanaka was throwing a ton of sinkers and it was easy to think he was doing that because of his home run problem last year. More sinkers equals more ground balls and fewer balls leaving the park, especially in Yankee Stadium. The sinker heavy approach hasn’t lasted. Tanaka cut back on his sinker at midseason and is now using the four-seamer more. Two years ago he cut back on the four-seamer at midseason and started throwing sinkers.

As cliche as it is, Tanaka is a pitcher and a not a thrower. He’s not going to blow hitters away with fastballs, though we have seen him reach back for a little extra something in big spots. Example:

Moments like that, when Tanaka reaches back and throws a fastball by a hitter, are very rare. He can do it if necessary, but his preferred method of attack is trickery. Tanaka throws a wide array of breaking balls and offspeed pitches, and he changes speeds very well. A splitter in the dirt is his trademark. The sliders on the corner and first pitch strike-stealing curveballs are important too.

At this point it’s obvious Tanaka was smart not to have Tommy John surgery in 2014. (Can’t believe the doctors knew more than fans and reporters, you guys.) It’s a serious procedure you try to avoid. Tanaka has avoided the knife but has dealt with some other injuries, most notably the bone spur surgery. And as good as he was last year, he wasn’t as good as he was in 2014 or as good as he’s been this year. The injuries took their toll. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

“I’m not overly satisfied with the overall way of pitching, how I’m pitching this year,” said Tanaka to Jennings. “I think if I compare it with my first year — the first year, I didn’t know anything. I just was grinding it out every game because I didn’t know much about what it was like to spend a full season here. But this year I feel like I’m more in control of myself compared to the first year. In that sense, I feel sort of a sense of maybe satisfaction compared to the first year.”

The Yankees will face a bit of a conundrum with Tanaka next season, because if he stays healthy and effective, he’s going to opt-out of his contract, and pitchers of this caliber are hard to replace. For now, Tanaka is over his injury problems and pitching like the high-end starter the Yankees paid him to be. He was at his very best early in 2014, before the elbow injury. Right now he’s pitching better than he has at any point since then.

The Yankees have bats on the way, now they need to figure out the pitching staff

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two days ago, in his latest return to the rotation, Luis Severino got roughed up by the Rays and didn’t make it out of the fourth inning. He looked pretty good at times and flat out bad at others. Severino wasn’t any better than he was earlier this season, when he was getting hammered every fifth day before landing on the DL. If he was better, it wasn’t a ton better. At least his slider has improved.

In the grand scheme of things, one start doesn’t mean a whole lot. We shouldn’t change our long-term view of Severino one way or the other based on 3.2 innings. Sunday night’s start was meaningful in the sense that the Yankees are trying to build a pitching staff for the future, and Severino keeps getting opportunities because the team hopes he is a big part of that pitching staff of the future. He still has an awful lot of upside.

“I think all players hit bumps, whether you’re young or old,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings after Severino was sent down following Sunday’s start. “But one thing I think part of our focus has to be is helping those kids get through those bumps, because you don’t get here unless you’re talented enough. You don’t just come from nowhere and all of a sudden stay here. But you got to help them get through the ups and downs.”

Much of the second half is going to be spent auditioning young bats. Gary Sanchez has been up for almost two weeks now and is playing regularly. Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge came up over the weekend and both have had an immediate impact, especially Judge. The Yankees still have Clint Frazier in Triple-A and other high-end position players like Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo in the low minors.

Not all of these guys are going to work out. We know that. That’s baseball, and that’s why it’s important to have as many high-end prospects as possible. The more you have, the more likely you are to end up with bonafide star(s), something the Yankees lack right now. We’ll see Sanchez and Austin and Judge in the coming weeks. Frazier is coming next year, and Torres and Mateo hopefully soon after that.

Pitching prospects are a very different story. The Yankees have high upside position player prospects but they lack potential impact pitching prospects, especially at the upper levels. There’s Severino, who technically isn’t a prospect but still kinda is, and … Chad Green? Luis Cessa? Chance Adams? New York’s best starting pitching prospects are in High-A (Justus Sheffield) or injured (James Kaprielian).

This is why the Yankees focused so much on adding controllable starting pitching during trade talks last offseason. Aside from Green, the four starters currently in the rotation can become free agents after next season. The Yankees hope Sheffield and Kaprielian will be ready by then, and hope that someone like Cessa or Severnino or Adams emerges as another piece, but relying exclusively on those players is kinda foolish.

The upcoming free agent markets are so bad. The best free agent pitcher this offseason will be either Doug Fister or Jeremy Hellickson, depending on your preference. Jake Arrieta will be a free agent after next season, but he’s going to turn 32 during Spring Training 2018, so the Cubs are getting the best years of his career right now. It’s entirely possible the best starter on the 2017-18 free agent market will be Masahiro Tanaka, assuming he opts out.

The sudden wealth of position player prospects can help the Yankees build the pitching staff going forward through trades. Like I said, not all of these guys are going to work out, and the key is determining who is worth keeping and who should be traded. This is much much much easier said than done. I can’t help but look at Torres and Mateo, two high upside shortstops at the same level, and think one of those dudes is getting traded for an arm soon.

Getting Severino on track is step one of building the rotation of the next great Yankees team. He is, by frickin’ far, the team’s best hope for a cheap frontline starter, Sunday afternoon’s start notwithstanding. The Yankees did a really nice job building a strong position player core not just at the deadline, but over the last few years. Now they need to shift gears and bring the pitching staff up to speed.

It’s time for the Yankees to put Severino’s development before big league roster needs

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Right now, Luis Severino is not a Major League starting pitcher. I’m not just saying that because he was optioned to Triple-A yesterday. He’s not a Major League caliber starting pitcher. Following yesterday’s seven-run, 3.2-inning disaster, Severino is sitting on a 7.19 ERA (4.71 FIP) in 51.1 innings in 2016. Opponents are hitting .304/.349/.528 against him. He’s basically turned everyone into Carlos Beltran (.300/.341/.540). You don’t get to stay in the show with those numbers.

The Yankees were counting on Severino to be a big part of their rotation this season and man, he’s been a huge letdown. The team is 0-9 in his nine starts this season. 0-9! Had Severino been slightly less awful and the team gone 4-5 in his nine starts instead of 0-9, the Yankees would be a half-game back of the second wildcard spot. It’s not fair to pin the club’s current spot in the standings on one player, but let’s not kid ourselves here. Severino’s hurt their postseason odds.

“I think all players hit bumps, whether you’re young or old,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. “But one thing I think part of our focus has to be is helping those kids get through those bumps, because you don’t get here unless you’re talented enough. You don’t just come from nowhere and all of a sudden stay here. But you got to help them get through the ups and downs.”

Severino was deservedly demoted to Triple-A after yesterday’s game, just like he was demoted to Triple-A prior to his previous start as well. Nathan Eovaldi‘s elbow injury opened a rotation spot and prompted the Yankees to bring Severino back. What changed for Luis? Nothing. He wasn’t suddenly more Major League ready just because Eovaldi got hurt. The Yankees said they were sending him down so he could focus on his changeup, and he didn’t get a chance to do that. That’s why this happened:

Tuesday vs. Red Sox: Two changeups
Sunday vs. Rays: Four changeups

Severino still didn’t use his changeup yesterday even though the Rays had four lefty hitters in the lineup. Why would we expect anything different? Last week Severino admitted he’s lost confidence in the changeup — “I’m not throwing it a lot because I don’t have the same confidence I had two years ago. I have to figure it out and come back. It’s difficult to be a starter with two pitches, so I have to work,” he said to Mark Feinsand — and he didn’t get a chance to work on it since that last start.

The Yankees didn’t give Severino yesterday’s start because he deserved it. They gave it to him almost out of necessity. Eovaldi got hurt and they were in a bit of a bind, so Severino got the ball. The Yankees had other options, namely Chad Green and Luis Cessa, but they went with Severino and he again gave them no chance to win. Even if you think the team has zero chance at the postseason, his performance doesn’t meet the minimum acceptable standard of production to stay in MLB.

Had yesterday’s start been a one-time blip, it would be a different story. But is a problem that has been repeated. And no, right now I’m not talking about Severino’s performance. I’m talking about the team’s decision to use him to fill a big league need when he wasn’t ready for it. Remember, they called Severino up to fill Aroldis Chapman‘s roster spot after the trade a few weeks ago. Why? Because that was his day to start in Triple-A and he was available for long relief.

That’s not a good reason to call a highly touted young pitcher up. Not in this case. The Yankees optioned Severino to Triple-A a few weeks back because he very clearly had some things to work on, and even with his improved slider, there are some problems here. Severino should have stayed in Triple-A to continue refining his secondary pitches, but no, he was called up to replace Chapman and then to replace Eovaldi. Not the best moves, those were.

Don’t forget the Yankees were extremely aggressive with Severino. He spent one full season in the minors. One. Severino pitched a half-season of rookie ball in 2013, threw a full season in the minors in 2014, then threw a half-season in the minors in 2015 before being called up. Severino threw 256.1 minor league innings before being called up, so I guess it’s not much of a surprise he’s not close to a finished product right now.

Last season Severino had success during his eleven big league starts, but the red flags were there. There was a big disconnect between his ERA (2.89) and FIP (4.37 FIP) because he was exceptionally good at stranding runners (87.0%). Severino allowed 21 runs in 62.1 innings last year and 12 of them came on homers. He stranded almost everyone else and that just wasn’t going to continue. No one is that good at stranding runners. (The highest strand rate of the last 30 years is 86.6% by 2000 Pedro Martinez, who had arguably the greatest pitching season in history.)

Even pitching coach Larry Rothschild admitted Severino’s success last year was something of a mirage. “Last year, he came up when he was on a pretty good roll, which makes a difference. But he got away with some pitches because hitters hadn’t seen him and he executed pitches to a degree — not a lot different, but I think a little bit better,” said Rothschild to Brendan Kuty last month. Those warning signs from last year are showing up in Severino’s performance this year.

The Yankees sent Severino back to Triple-A last night and I hope they keep him there through the end of the season and even the playoffs. At this point he’s only going to make three Triple-A starts before rosters expand on September 1st, but forget about that. Let him pitch in the Triple-A postseason — the RailRiders have the best record in all of Triple-A (76-45) and should clinch a playoff spot soon — and keep working on things in games that don’t mean anything.

“My confidence is good,” said Severino to Jennings after being sent down yesterday. “I have to work more. Work on my changeup, work on my fastball command, and it will be good … It’s been tough, but a lot of players have been through this and you just have to keep working.”

Some of the club’s top hitting prospects are starting to reach the big leagues and that’s awfully exciting. There are a few more on the way too. The Yankees don’t have the upper level pitching to match the bats though and that’s something they’ll have to work on going forward. Severino is, by frickin’ far, their best young starting pitcher, and they have to make his development a priority. Using him like an up-and-down arm to plug roster holes doesn’t help that cause.

Severino has made some progress with his slider, and now he needs to do the same with his changeup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two nights ago Luis Severino returned to the rotation with a thud, not a bang. The Red Sox roughed him up for five runs on seven hits (five extra-base hits) in 4.1 innings. He struck out three and didn’t walk anyone, so … yay? The Yankees didn’t exactly set Severino up for success by starting him against MLB’s best offense in Fenway Park, but what’s done is done.

Severino earned Tuesday’s start with three strong relief outings, particularly his 4.1 inning masterpiece against the Mets last week. Overall, he allowed one run with ten strikeouts in 8.1 innings out of the bullpen. That’s after a successful ten-start stint with Triple-A Scranton. Chad Green getting smacked around by the Mets certainly played a role in the team’s decision to start Severino as well.

The Yankees sent Severino down weeks ago with a specific goal in mind: improve his secondary stuff. Both the quality of his pitches and his location. I think we’ve seen progress with his slider. First and foremost, he’s actually locating it down in the zone now. Here are his slider locations in 2016 (click for larger):

Luis Severino sliders

Severino has done a much better job burying the slider down and away to righties since being recalled, and a better job keeping it down in the zone in general. Earlier this season he was throwing cement mixers that just spun up in the zone and got hammered. At least now he’s burying them, and, as a result, the swing-and-miss rate on his slider jumped from 11.1% earlier this year to 13.9% since being recalled. (It was 8.9% last year.)

The progress Severino has made with his slider — both in terms of location and swing-and-miss rate — is promising, though it’s clear there’s still some work to be done here. The league average swing-and-miss rate on sliders is 15.2%, after all. That’s okay though! He’s a 22-year-old kid who is still developing. Severino apparently made some real progress with his slider while in Triple-A and that’s good to see.

Now, that all said, the slider is just one piece of the puzzle. The Yankees sent Severino down to work on his secondary pitches. Not secondary pitch. The changeup was supposed to be a point of emphasis too, and so far, we’ve rarely seen it since Severino was called back up. He threw 85 pitches the other night against the Red Sox, and two were changeups. Two! It’s not like he didn’t have an opportunity to throw it either; the BoSox had six lefty hitters in the lineup.

Severino has thrown six changeups out of 207 total pitches since being called back up, or 2.9%. It was 14.6% changeups last year and 14.6% changeups before being sent down earlier this year. I can understand not throwing changeups out of the bullpen, but what’s the reason for Tuesday night? Severino was throwing to Gary Sanchez, who caught him a ton in the minors, so I can’t imagine not trusting the catcher was a reason.

“I’m not throwing it a lot because I don’t have the same confidence I had two years ago,” said Severino to Chad Jennings yesterday. Tuesday night Severino was out there as a two-pitch pitcher. He threw 43 fastballs, 40 sliders, and two changeups. That’s better than being a one-pitch pitcher like he was earlier this season, but it’s still not good enough. It leads to things like this:

First time through the lineup: 2-for-9 (two singles)
Second and third time through: 5-for-11 (four doubles, one triple)

Once the lineup turned over and hitters got a second look at him, the Red Sox were over all Severino. Those doubles (and triple) were not softly hit. They were rockets off the wall and down the line. The swings were mighty comfortable, and part of that is the Red Sox just being really good at hitting, for sure. Part of it is also Severino having nothing else in his bag of tricks. Once they saw the fastball and slider, hitters had nothing else to worry about.

Throwing bad changeups is one thing. Not throwing the changeup is another. It suggests Severino is not comfortable using it at this point, which is weird, because all throughout his time in the minors we heard it was his top secondary pitch. From Baseball America in 2014 (subs. req’d):

While Severino’s mid-80s slider was his top secondary pitch before he signed, he has developed a solid changeup since signing, and it’s presently the better of the two. His slider still flashes plus but remains inconsistent.

And now from Baseball America in 2015 (subs. req’d):

He couples the fastball with a changeup that features plenty of late fade. He’s confident enough to double and triple up on the pitch at times and use it to get strikeouts against both lefthanders and righthanders.

Yeah, we didn’t see that the other night. To be fair, we’re talking about one start. A pitcher not using his changeup in relief is not uncommon at all. We need some more information before we can say anything definitive about Severino’s changeup usage, or lack thereof. It was just really discouraging to see him shy away from the pitch entirely the other night, especially since he actually got a whiff with one of the two changeups he did throw.

Luis Severino changeup

One thing has become increasingly clear this season: Severino is not the instant ace we all wanted to believe he was coming into the season. His secondary pitches need work, and to his credit, he went to the minors and improved his slider. Did he improve his changeup as well? We don’t know. Severino hasn’t thrown it since coming back, but he’ll need it to be successful. Almost every starter does.

The Yankees could have kept running Severino out there every fifth day — it’s not like they’re in the postseason race — but they opted to send him to Triple-A yesterday, which is for the best in my opinion. The team really rushed him up the minor league ladder and a lot of the things Severino is working on now are things he should have worked on in the minors, before his MLB debut. This year the Yankees have been forced to send him down to play catch up.

There’s a fine line between letting a guy go through developmental growing pains and letting him get blasted every fifth day, destroying his confidence. I think Severino is really at risk of the former. Hopefully things are different the rest of the year, and we see the same improvement with the changeup as we’ve seen with the slider whenever he comes back up. Severino’s a very important piece of the long-term picture and getting him right has to be Priority No. 1 the rest of 2016.

Starter or reliever? It doesn’t matter, it’s just good to see Severino have success again

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, for the first time this season, we got to see the dominant version of Luis Severino. I’m talking about the guy who tore through the league last season, not the guy who got hammered in seven starts earlier this season. Severino came out of the bullpen and held the Mets to one run on one hit and one walk in 4.1 innings, striking out five.

The seventh inning was standout moment for Severino. The Yankees were nursing a three-run lead and the Mets managed to load the bases with no outs on a walk, a bunt single, and an error. It was a dumb rally, but Severino was letting dumb rallies like that get out of hand earlier this season. Last night he was able to bear down and escape the jam while keeping the damage to a minimum (one run).

“Today was the best I’ve seen him,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings after last night’s game. “We were really pleased with what we saw, and (pitching coach Larry Rothschild) actually worked with him before the game on it a little bit. He did an outstanding job. His slider – as we’ve obviously talked about – has been better, but I thought his fastball command was better, and he even threw a few changeups. Obviously I think that can get better too. But tonight, what I’ve seen, was the best I’ve seen him.”

Last night’s appearance was Severino’s third since coming off the DL, all of which have been in relief. He’s allowed one run on one hit and three walks in 8.1 total innings while striking out ten. That’s really good, but it’s 8.1 innings, so we can’t get too excited. Still, when Severino dominates like that last night and Chad Green can’t complete four innings, it’s easy to understand why folks want Luis back in the rotation.

As far as I’m concerned, Severino’s role doesn’t really matter right now. As long as he pitches multiple innings and gets to experience some success after his dreadful start to the season, I couldn’t care less whether he was starting or relieving. It’s not like the Yankees are in the thick of a playoff race, you know? There are a few things I consider more important than Severino’s role.

1. He’s keeping his slider down. The single biggest problem with Severino earlier this season was his command of his offspeed pitches, or lack there of. Especially with his slider. He threw way too many cement mixers that spun up in the zone and caught too much of the plate. The Yankees optioned Severino to Triple-A a few weeks ago specifically to work on this, and, well, look at his slider locations last night, via Brooks Baseball:

Luis Severino pitches

Almost all the red dots are down in the zone, exactly where you want the slider. If it’s too far down in the zone and the hitter takes it for a ball, that’s okay! That’s better than leaving it up and watching it go for extra bases. There are good misses and there are bad misses. Missing in the dirt is better than missing in the zone. Severino’s slider location has been better in general since being called up a week or two ago. Last night it was outstanding. Best it’s been all season.

2. He’s still using his changeup. This is an important one to me, and you know what? It’s not happening. Severino threw one changeup out of 60 pitches last night. One. He’s thrown two changeups total out of 112 total pitches in his three relief appearances since coming back up. Severino hasn’t thrown the changeup in relief because he hasn’t needed it. That’s true of most relievers.

Earlier this season Severino averaged about 14.6% changeups as a starter — it was 14.6% last year as well — and I’d like to see him get back to that rate now. That changeup is an important pitch. Severino needs a third pitch to have success long-term as a starter and right now he’s dominating as a fastball/slider guy out of the bullpen. You don’t want the development of his changeup to stall out. That would be bad. Luis is still developing as a young pitcher and he needs to throw that changeup to build a reliable third pitch.

3. He’s turning the lineup over multiple times. This is difficult to do in relief but Severino was able to do it last night. He faced 16 batters yesterday, so seven Mets got to see him twice. That’s pretty important. It’s relatively easy to air it out and empty the bag of tricks when you know you’re only going to face a hitter once. Going through a lineup two or three times is a different animal, and if Severino’s going to hack it as a starter, he has to learn to do that. (That also plays a role in the development of his changeup.)

4. He’s building confidence. These days we can track slider location and changeup usage rates and all that stuff. There’s no real way to measure confidence though, and it’s pretty important. Severino got hit around very hard earlier this season. A 7.46 ERA with a .327/.373/.547 opponent’s batting line is terrible, and that’s what Severino did for seven starts to open 2016. That’s brutal.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Luis is only human and I have a hard time thinking his confidence didn’t suffer when he was taking a pounding every fifth day back in April and May. How could it not? Last night Severino looked very confident and it was evident during that seventh inning jam. He attacked hitters with the bases loaded — Jay Bruce, James Loney, and Michael Conforto saw nine total pitches with the bases loaded, and eight were strikes — and challenged them with fastballs. It was no nonsense pitching.

“He looked like he had his confidence back. He looked like he had his swag back,” said Austin Romine after the game. Severino did indeed look more confidence last night than he did earlier this season and that’s great. He needs to build back some confidence and I’m guessing the stint in Triple-A helped. Being a Major League Baseball player is hard enough as it is. Imagine trying to do it when your confidence is shot.

I thought it was smart by the Yankees to bring Severino back as a reliever just because it’s a little easier to have success in that role even though he’d never really done it before. Things went so poorly earlier this season that Severino just needed to experience some level of success in MLB in any role just to remind himself that yes, I can do this. We can see the confidence growing with each outing.

* * *

It’s very easy to make too much out of one game and I’m guessing there will be plenty of calls to put Severino in the rotation after last night. I get it. I do. But like I said before, I honestly don’t care whether Severino starts or relieves in the short-term. (Yes, he should definitely start long-term.) As long as his slider location improves, he continues to use his changeup, and he gets a chance to turn a lineup over once or twice, then the Yankees are putting Severino in position to further his development, and that’s the most important thing.