Thoughts on the ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees

2017 WAR projections.
2017 WAR projections.

Earlier this week, Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs released ZiPS projections for the 2017 Yankees. There are a ton of projection systems out there these days, possibly too many at this point, and ZiPS is my personal favorite. It’s been pretty accurate relative to the other systems, historically. ZiPS is my preference. You’re welcome to feel differently.

As a reminder, projections are not predictions. They’re not trying to tell you the future. Projections like ZiPS are an estimate of the player’s current talent level. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .271 in 2008, and .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change? Nah. That’s just baseball being baseball. It would be boring if it were predictable. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the ZiPS projections. They made for good talking points.

1. Sanchez is very unique. Last year Gary Sanchez came up in August and smashed 20 home runs in his final 52 games of the season. No one had ever done that before, especially not as a full-time catcher. Because of that, Sanchez is super unique as a player and projecting him is damn near impossible. That’s why ZiPS spit out Chris Hoiles (Chris Hoiles!) as Sanchez’s top statistical comp at age 24. Hoiles played six games in his age 24 season. He played 23 games in his age 25 season. It wasn’t until his age 26 season that he broke into the show full-time. And yet, ZiPS determined Hoiles was the best statistical comp for Sanchez at this age because Hoiles could really hit. The guy retired as a career .262/.366/.467 (122 wRC+) hitter who averaged 24 homers per 140 games played. Point is, Sanchez’s career path is incredibly unique. Few catchers show this much power this early. ZiPS spit out Hoiles because he had power too even though he didn’t stick for good until age 26.

2. How about that youthful power? The Yankees’ top six projected 2017 home run hitters according to ZiPS are Aaron Judge (30 dingers), Sanchez (27), Clint Frazier (22), Tyler Austin (18), Greg Bird (18), and Starlin Castro (18). Castro is the grizzled veteran of the group and he’s still only 26. Again, ZiPS is not a prediction. The system is estimating the talent level of each player at that homer total. I’ll take the under on Judge and the over on Bird, assuming his shoulder holds up, but the point is the Yankees have multiple young power bats on the roster for the first time in a long time. Last year they had three players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers (Sanchez, Castro, Didi Gregorius). They had three total from 2002-15 (Alfonso Soriano, Cano twice). Prior to last season, the last time the Yankees had multiple players age 26 or younger hit 18+ homers was 1991, when Roberto Kelly and Kevin Maas did it. Sanchez, Judge, and Bird are all serious threats to do it in 2017. Maybe Austin too if he gets enough playing time. (Castro turns 27 in Spring Training.) That is pretty awesome and exciting. Hooray for not counting on the veterans to hit the ball out of the park.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

3. The Bird projection is a good reality check. I love Greg Bird. I love his plate discipline, I love his calm at the plate, and I love his ability to hit the ball in the air with authority. We also have to remember the kid is coming back from major surgery though, and there are other flaws in his game as well. He’s not a good defender and lefties have given him trouble in the past. The ZiPS projection reflects those realities. It pegs Bird as a true talent .234/.307/.449 (108 OPS+) hitter right now, which is good in a vacuum but not great in the world of first basemen. (First basemen hit .259/.338/.453 in 2016. That’s a 114 OPS+.) Add in the lack of defense — ZiPS has Bird saving zero runs in the field, which might be generous — and you get a +0.8 WAR player. That’s disappointing to see for 2017. But you know what? ZiPS drops Mo Vaughn on Bird as the top statistical comp at age 24, and Vaughn was a monster from ages 25-30. Remember, this coming season will be Bird’s first full season in the show. There will inevitably be bumps along the way, especially following surgery. Hopefully 2017 is a stepping stone to bigger and better things in the future.

4. ZiPS hasn’t given up on Severino as a starter. More than a few folks would like to see the Yankees keep Luis Severino in the bullpen, where he was so dominant last year, and I get it. I do. Brian Cashman indicated they’re going to stick with him as a starter for now, even if it means sending him to Triple-A in 2017, and that’s the right move in my opinion. Severino is still only 22 and I’d hate to give up on him as a starter at that age, especially with the Yankees in need of long-term rotation help. Development isn’t always linear. There are obstacles to overcome along the way. Anyway, ZiPS is still on the “Severino should start” bandwagon, projected him for a 4.20 ERA (3.94 FIP) in 152 innings this coming season. That’s in 26 starts too. (And yeah, seven relief appearances.) His top statistical comp is Mike Witt, who also hot hammered as a starter and pitched well as a reliever at age 22. Witt went on to have a lot of success as a starter from age 23-28. Severino ain’t alone. He’s not the only guy who’s gone through this.

5. The other young starters don’t look so hot. Along with Severino, the Yankees figure to use some combination of Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell at the back of the rotation in 2017. Chances are we’ll see all three of those guys at some point this summer, plus others. ZiPS likes Green the most among those three guys, and the system only projects him as a +0.8 WAR player in 2017.

IP ERA FIP WAR
Cessa 126.2 5.33 5.08 -0.2
Green 128.2 4.67 4.47 +0.8
Mitchell 80 5.74 5.36 -0.6

Eek. I like Cessa more than most, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he were replacement level with a 5.00+ ERA next season. Not if he doesn’t do a better job keeping the ball in the park and/or start missing more bats. Other young arms like Jordan Montgomery (+0.5 WAR) and Chance Adams (-0.2 WAR) don’t project a whole lot better in 2017. These guys might be pretty good down the line! But, for this coming season, they carry an awful lot of risk, and ZiPS reflects that.

6. The Yankees need to figure out the rest of the bullpen. The Yankees are set in the eighth and ninth innings with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, both of whom have been excellent in recent years and project to be excellent again next season. The rest of the bullpen is a little dicey. Veteran stalwarts Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren project to be average by reliever standards, which I don’t think is unreasonable at this point of their careers. The best of the young relievers, per ZiPS, are Jonathan Holder and Gio Gallegos, who have basically zero combined time in the big leagues. (Holder threw 8.1 sporadic innings in September.) The minor leagues are littered with relievers who have great strikeout and walk rates, they’re everywhere, and not too many of those relievers are able to carry their success over to the big leagues. ZiPS projects Holder and Gallegos for a combined +0.9 WAR in nearly 140 innings in 2017. Eh. No other young reliever projects to be even replacement level. There’s some figuring out to be done in the bullpen.

Cashman indicates Luis Severino will go to Triple-A if he doesn’t win a rotation spot

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

According to Andrew Marchand, Brian Cashman recently indicated the Yankees will continue to develop Luis Severino as a starting pitcher next year, even if it has to happen in the minors. “He still possesses all that upside and ceiling, but obviously he will have to re-prove that in 2017 to earn a spot in the rotation at the Major League level. If not, the expectation is that he would go to Triple-A,” said the GM.

Severino, 22, was terrible as a starter and great as a reliever in 2016. He pitched to an 8.50 ERA (5.56 FIP) in 47.2 innings as a starter and a 0.39 ERA (2.29 FIP) in 23.1 innings as a reliever. Goodness. He was two totally different pitchers. Between big league stints, Severino had a 3.49 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 77.1 innings with Triple-A Scranton. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this and Severino’s future in general.

1. Of course the Yankees shouldn’t give up on him as a starter. Context: Luis Severino is ten days older than James Kaprielian. The Yankees would be foolish to give up on a guy this young and this talented as a starting pitcher based on 47.2 terrible starter innings (and 23.1 great relief innings) so early in his big league career. They’re in transition mode and their No. 1 goal should be maximizing their young assets, and in Severino’s case, that means continuing to let him develop as a starter.

Furthermore, the Yankees have basically no established starters under control beyond next season. CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda will be free agents next winter, and if Masahiro Tanaka doesn’t opt-out, that means something went wrong in 2017, most likely an injury. The Yankees have a nice collection of young starters and Severino is among them, along with guys like Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Jordan Montgomery, and Chance Adams. I don’t think many will argue with me saying Severino has the most upside of that group.

2. Severino needs to make up for lost development time. The Yankees probably wouldn’t have made the postseason without Severino in 2015 — they finished only two games ahead of the Angels, the first non-wildcard team — and at the end of the day, getting into the playoffs is the name of the game. Get in and you have a chance to win the World Series. Severino helped them accomplish that goal in 2015.

At the same time, I don’t think the Yankees did Severino any favors long-term by rushing him up through the minors. Look at his innings by level:

  • Rookie ball: 26.1 innings
  • Low-A: 85.1 innings
  • High-A: 23.1 innings (three during an injury rehab stint in 2016)
  • Double-A: 63 innings
  • Triple-A: 138.2 innings (77.1 innings after getting bombed in MLB early in 2016)

Severino was not some polished college arm fresh out of the draft. He was a teenager in full season ball and in Double-A by age 20. The statistical performance was excellent, no doubt about it, but there’s more to life than minor league strikeout and walk rates. Severino’s command has been pretty terrible in the big leagues, especially with his secondary pitches, and the Yankees didn’t give him a whole lot of time to work on it in the minors. It’s not a shock the kid has looked less than refined in the big leagues.

I get the temptation to stick Severino in the bullpen next year and help the Yankees win. They are still trying to do that, you know. The team didn’t spend $13M on a DH and $86M on a closer to not win in 2017. Putting Severino in the bullpen almost certainly makes the 2017 Yankees a better team. The best long-term move is letting him start though, even if he’s in Triple-A, because there are still plenty of things he can work on in games that don’t count.

3. At worst, he can be a shutdown reliever. It’s entirely possible Severino’s long-term future lies in the bullpen. He might never locate his slider and/or changeup consistently enough to start, and, frankly, I don’t have much faith in the Yankees turning him into a viable starting pitcher. It’s not just the scars of the Joba Rules either. Their development track record is pretty bad.

But, if nothing else, I do feel pretty confident Severino can at least be a really good relief pitcher if the starting thing doesn’t work out. He can dominate for an inning at a time by airing it out, even with less than stellar command. Many relievers do that, including a few in New York’s bullpen. The bullpen should be the fallback plan though. Keep trying Severino as a starter, and if it’s still not working in a few years, a relief role is a viable alternative.

4. What about a long relief role? If Severino doesn’t make the rotation to start the season, a potential alternative to Triple-A is a long relief role. I don’t mean a traditional mop-up guy who throws two or three innings in a blowout every two weeks. I mean a reliever who throws three or four innings every few days by design. Remember, the Yankees may have a bunch of kids at the back of the rotation, which means there figures to be plenty of short starts throughout the summer.

The upside of a long relief role is that Severino would still be helping the MLB team win, and he’d be giving the rest of the bullpen a regular day off. The downside is he might not get a chance to turn a lineup over multiple times. He might face 10-12 batters in a three-inning outing, so a few batters would see him twice, but that only helps him so much. Ideally, Severino would get a chance to go through the lineup three times as a starter in the minors. That won’t happen in a long relief role, not unless we’re talking extra innings or something. I don’t love the long relief idea from a development standpoint, but it’s an option.

Thoughts on Baseball Prospectus’ top ten Yankees prospects

The man kid they call Gleyber. (Presswire)
The man kid they call Gleyber. (Presswire)

I totally missed this two weeks ago, but the crew at Baseball Prospectus posted their annual look at the top ten prospects in the Yankees’ farm system. The list is available for everyone. The rest of the piece is behind the paywall, unfortunately. Here’s the top ten with some thoughts:

  1. SS Gleyber Torres
  2. OF Clint Frazier
  3. SS Jorge Mateo
  4. OF Blake Rutherford
  5. LHP Justus Sheffield
  6. RHP James Kaprielian
  7. OF Aaron Judge
  8. RHP Albert Abreu
  9. SS Tyler Wade
  10. RHP Chance Adams

1. Still high on Mateo. It’s very easy to be down on Mateo these days. He didn’t have a great regular season, he was suspended two weeks for an undisclosed violation of team policy, and he hasn’t done much in winter ball either. There’s no other way to slice it, 2016 has been really disappointing for Mateo. At the same time, he just turned 21 in June and is immensely talented. He has the most exciting tools in the farm system, I think, even moreso than Gleyber. Development isn’t always linear. There are often bumps in the road and hopefully that’s all Mateo experienced this year, a bump(s) in the road. Something he can learn from and use as a development tool going forward. Baseball Prospectus still has Mateo very high on their top ten list and it’s not in any way unreasonable given his tools.

2. Down on Judge. On the other hand, the Baseball Prospectus crew is down on Judge, who they ranked as the 18th best prospect in baseball prior to 2016. Based on their preseason rankings, both Mateo (No. 65) and Kaprielian (not ranked) managed to jump Judge despite a disappointing season and an injury-marred season, respectively. I get why folks are down on Judge. He struggled in his brief big league cameo and there have long been concerns about whether big league pitchers would exploit his massive strike zone. We saw a 95 plate appearance manifestation of those concerns. Unless Judge shrinks about five inches, there’s not much he can do about the strike zone. That’s life. But he has a history of starting slow at each new level before making the necessary adjustments, and until he shows otherwise, I feel like we have to assume the same is happening at the MLB level. The biggest difference between Judge and other prospects on this list, like Mateo and Kaprielian and Gleyber, is that he’s had a chance to fail at the big league level. Everyone else is getting the benefit of the doubt because they haven’t had that same opportunity.

3. Wade gets some love. I’m a pretty big Tyler Wade fan and it seems I’m not alone. Ranking him ninth in this system is pretty lofty. “Wade is a favorite of many scouts and evaluators because of his energy, playing style, and instincts. He’ll grow on you the more you see him,” said the write-up. Wade is not a future star or anything, and that’s kind of a problem in a system with this many shortstops. Torres and Mateo, two guys with star-caliber tools, are right behind him climbing the minor league ladder. Others like Hoy Jun Park and Wilkerman Garcia have higher ceilings too. Unseating Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro at the MLB level won’t be easy either. The Yankees had Wade play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League to prepare him for a utility role, which is by far his best path to MLB playing time with New York. If I were another team with a long-term need a shortstop (coughPadrescough), I’d be all over the Yankees trying to get Wade in a deal. He hits for no power and won’t wow you with big OPS or wRC+ numbers, but a lefty hitter who can hit for average, draw walks and get on base, steal bases, and play good defense at shortstop is a nifty little player.

Tyler Wade, outfielder. (Presswire)
Tyler Wade, outfielder. (Presswire)

4. Others of note. Each year the Baseball Prospectus farm system write-ups include information on players beyond the top ten. Among the other Yankees singled out: 3B Miguel Andujar, LHP Jordan Montgomery, OF Dustin Fowler, OF Billy McKinney, RHP Dillon Tate, and RHP Erik Swanson. Swanson’s an interesting guy who is easy to overlook in this system. He came over in the Carlos Beltran trade. “Swanson touched as high as 98 in a June viewing, regularly sitting 91-96. He also flashed a hard slider and a more usable change than one often sees from a power profile at the Low-A level,” said the write-up. Swanson turned 23 in September and he missed most of 2015 with a forearm issue, but he’s healthy now and has enough stuff to possibly start long-term. If not, don’t be shocked if he moves very quickly as a fastball/slider reliever.

5. The top ten 25-and-under talents. My favorite part of Baseball Prospectus’ annual system write-ups is their list of the top ten talents age 25 and under in the organization. For the Yankees, the 25-and-under list is essentially the same as top ten above, except with C Gary Sanchez at the top, 1B Greg Bird sixth (between Rutherford and Sheffield), and RHP Luis Severino tenth (behind Judge). A year ago Judge and Severino were first and second. Now they’re ninth and tenth. Part of that is Judge’s strikeouts and Severino’s inability to pitch well as a starter, but it also speaks to how the Yankees’ long-term outlook has improved over the last 12 months. Sanchez emerged as a force and so many young players — five of the team’s top eight prospects, according to Baseball Prospectus — have been added to the system within the last six months or so. It’s really hard to read these prospect lists and not get very, very excited about where the Yankees are heading.

2016 Winter Meetings Open Thread: Monday

2016-winter-meetingsThe four busiest days of the offseason begin today. Well, three busiest days. Usually everyone heads home following the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday morning. Anyway, the 2016 Winter Meetings begin today at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. The Yankees are expected to get down to business today after taking some time to review the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“I said, ‘Listen, give me at least 24, 48 more hours to see what sort of information we can get from baseball,'” said Brian Cashman to Ken Davidoff last week. “So hopefully we’ll be able to hit the ground running Monday at the latest, but it’s in our best interest to know what we’re dealing with, first and foremost … Speeding up the process and going with the youth movement is going to play an even more important part now, more than ever with what appears to be some of the restrictions in the marketplace that are occurring here.”

The Yankees picked up Matt Holliday to be their DH last night, but they’re still in the market for “pitching, pitching, pitching.” All types. Starters and relievers, so much so that they’re said to be in on the all the top free agent closers. We’ll keep track of the day’s Yankees-related rumors right here, so make sure you check back often for updates. All time stamps are Eastern Time.

  • 10:30am: Cashman confirmed teams have asked about Clint Frazier, Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gleyber Torres, and Justus Sheffield this offseason, among others. The GM added he is “open-minded to listen on anything.”. [Bryan Hoch]
  • 10:30am: The Yankees have not yet made a formal offer to Rich Hill, who is said to be closing in a deal with the Dodgers. New York has been connected to Hill all offseason because he is, by far, the best available free agent starter. [Jon Heyman]
  • 10:30am: Chase Headley and Brett Gardner both remain available, though “interest is relatively mild” at the moment. [Heyman]
  • 11:47am: The Yankees are among the teams looking for a lefty reliever. I assume this means a matchup guy for the middle innings, not simply Aroldis Chapman. [Heyman]
  • 12:41pm: One of the three top closers is off the board: Mark Melancon has agreed to sign with the Giants. No word on the contract terms yet. I’ll guess … four years and $60M. (Update: It’s four years and $62M.) [Buster Olney]
  • 1:16pm: Rich Hill is off the board. The Dodgers have re-signed him to a three-year deal worth $48M, the team announced. The Yankees had been in contact with him.
  • 1:36pm: The Yankees are one of several teams in “ongoing” talks with Luis Valbuena. He’s looking for multiple years and right now the team thinks his asking price is too high. [Joel Sherman]
  • 1:50pm: Chapman wants a six-year deal and says he deserves $100M+. “The only thing I have expressed is that I would like a six-year contract … There are rumors out there that I requested $100M and that’s not true at all. I believe he who deserves something, does not need to demand it,” he said. [Marly Rivera]
  • 2:45pm: The Yankees have checked in with the Twins about second baseman Brian Dozier. Interesting. He’s better and cheaper than Starlin Castro. Whether the Yankees are willing to give up pretty good prospects to get it done is another matter. [Heyman]
  • 4:07pm: Cashman shot down the Dozier rumor. “I haven’t had any dialogue with the Twins about Dozier. That’s a false report,” he said. So much for that. [MLB Network Radio]
  • 4:21pm: Cashman acknowledged the Yankees are after Chapman, but won’t go all out to sign him. “It’s going to be costly. We’re prepared to a degree to compete for that,” he said. [Casey Stern]
  • 5:15pm: The Yankees are still talking to Kenley Jansen in addition to Chapman. There are also some bullpen trade opportunities, according to Cashman. [Hoch]

Reminder: Your trade proposal sucks.

Hal indicates two rotation spots will be up for grabs in Spring Training

Mitchell. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Mitchell. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

At this very moment, with pitchers and catchers still eleven weeks away from reporting to Spring Training, the Yankees have three rotation spots accounted for. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda will occupy the top three spots in whatever order. The other two spots? Those are up in the air right now, and Hal Steinbrenner indicated both could go to young pitchers.

“There’s going to be competition in the starting rotation (in the spring), we know that,” said Hal during a recent YES Network interview (video link). “We’ve got (Adam) Warren. We’ve got (Chad) Green, (Luis) Cessa, (Luis) Severino, (Bryan) Mitchell. We’ve got good options for two spots. That’s going to be pretty fun to watch, I think.”

The Yankees are going young wherever possible, so much so that they’ve been trading productive veterans for prospects since the trade deadline. The Brian McCann trade is the most recent reminder. Going young in the rotation is slightly different than going young in the lineup because of innings limits and things like that, but it is doable. Anyway, I have a few thoughts on this.

1. Hal is probably just posturing. The Yankees would say they’re planning to go young in the rotation even if they were dead set on acquiring another starter. There’s nothing to be gained from broadcasting your free agent and trade intentions. The Yankees have been connected to a few free agent starters this year, most notably Rich Hill and Jason Hammel, and I don’t think Hal’s statement changes anything. The fact the team has gone young and put their money where their mouth is these last few months makes what Hal said even more believable, and that’s good. It’s never good to appear desperate during free and trade talks.

Severino. (Elsa/Getty)
Severino. (Elsa/Getty)

2. Severino isn’t locked into a spot. Steinbrenner mentioned Luis Severino among the pitchers set to compete for a rotation spot and that’s reassuring. I don’t think Severino should be considered a lock for the 2017 rotation by any means. Not after what happened this year. Let Severino come to Spring Training and earn a rotation spot by showing he has faith in his changeup and can consistently locate his secondary pitches. And if he does that, great. Put him in the rotation. If not, send him to Triple-A to keep working on things. Severino would be far more valuable to the Yankees in relief than in Triple-A, but this is about the big picture here, and the team shouldn’t give up on him as a starter yet. Patience, yo.

3. The competition isn’t limited to Spring Training. Spring Training competitions are overblown. They happen every year in every camp, so they are worth following, but the competition doesn’t end on Opening Day. Whoever wins the roster spot — in this case two rotation spots — has to perform well to keep the job, otherwise someone else will get a chance. The Yankees have some nice rotation depth at the moment — in addition to guys Hal listed, there will also be Chance Adams, Dietrich Enns, and Jordan Montgomery in Triple-A — so if they give someone a few starts and he’s not cutting it, they can make a change quickly. You don’t win a roster spot in Spring Training and automatically get to keep it all season. The competition never ends.

4. How will the 26th roster spot come into play? Reports indicate MLB will adopt the full-time 26th roster spot with the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement, which will change how teams build their roster at least somewhat. My guess is most teams, including the Yankees, will use that roster spot on an extra pitcher. Teams would much rather run out of position players than run out of pitchers.

The extra roster spot would give the Yankees the flexibility to do something unconventional like, say, a six-man rotation or tandem fifth starters. They could have their fifth starter go through the lineup twice, then the tandem reliever comes in to go through the lineup twice as well. That’s an entire post for another time, but the 26th roster spot could definitely impact the way the Yankees build their rotation. Heck, maybe Hal meant they’re going to use a six-man rotation, sign a starter, then let the kids compete for the fifth and sixth spots. Who knows?

A Spectrum of Expectations

This year's rookie hazing theme: Baby Bombers! (@Yankees)
This year’s rookie hazing theme: Baby Bombers! (@Yankees)

If you’re reading this site, then it you would probably find it superfluous for me to rehash the success the Yankees had when it came to integrating young talent into the Major League team or adding it to the minor league system. And it would also be repetitive to parrot the lines about excitement going forward, 2017 and beyond. Of those two things, though, I’d rather do the latter. When it comes to young players, talking about the future is always more fun than talking about the past, however recent.

Two players in particular are going to have quite lofty expectations thrown on them on 2017. In the minors, there’s Gleyber Torres, who more than held his own in a league in which he was almost four years younger than the average age. People are going to expect big things from him going forward, and I suppose I can’t blame them. He’ll be, however, just 20 years old for all of next season. On the Major League side of things, there’s Gary Sanchez.

Rookie of the Decade. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Rookie of the Decade. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Whatever adjectives you want to use to describe El Gary’s 2016 are fine with me and likely don’t even do it justice. To an even greater degree than Torres, Sanchez tore up a league he wasn’t supposed to yet, forcing himself into AL Rookie of the Year talks despite just two months of playing time. I’m worried that a segment of fans–not the ones who read this site, really–will be disappointed in Sanchez unless he puts up some ridiculous, Mike Piazza-like year. In reality, if Sanchez just repeats what he did this year over a full year, that would be pretty remarkable in and of itself. Offense like that doesn’t come from a catcher too often.

When it comes to players like Aaron Judge, Luis Cessa, and Chad Green, improvement ought to be the expectation. For Cessa and Green, that improvement needs to come in the form of pitching well enough for their roles to be defined. This does and should leave some wiggle room for them to be considered successful in 2017, whether that’s as starters or relievers. For Judge, the improvement needed is obvious: he has to make more contact and cut down on the strikeouts.

Then there’s Luis Severino. I have no earthly idea what to expect from this guy going forward. Were he to bounce back and show his 2015 form more often, I wouldn’t be shocked. Were he to repeat 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised either. But in my gut of guts, heart of hearts, whatever you want to call it, I’m expecting Severino to turn into a reliever by the end of 2017. Maybe that’s overly pessimistic, but…what else can I expect after a year of no consistent third pitch?

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

The young players in the Yankee organization are the ones that will determine its success in the coming years. With a team less reliant on old talent as those players age out, the performances of the relatively inexperienced will matter all that much more. It’s never easy to set expectations for players and there’s always a range of possibilities; hopefully, they come up more positive than negative.

Luis Severino’s Big Step Back [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For all the attention the Yankees received this year for selling at the deadline and going young in the second half, the youth movement actually started last season. Rather than make a trade to aid the 2015 postseason push, the Yankees called up some of their very best prospects and gave them prominent roles in the final two months of the season. That was a change from the previous, oh, two decades or so.

No young player received a more prominent role in the second half last season than Luis Severino, who stepped into the rotation and gave the Yankees eleven high-quality starts. The then-21-year-old had a 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) in 62.1 innings and established himself as a fixture in the 2016 rotation. Rather than build on that success this year, Severino took a step back in almost every single way this past summer.

Seven Starts in the Show

Despite a rough first outing, Severino was very good in Spring Training, leaving no doubt that he belonged in the rotation. He actually started the fourth game of the season — there were some folks pining for an Opening Day start — ahead of CC Sabathia, which tells you what the Yankees thought of Severino (and Sabathia).

Severino’s first start of the season was not good. Not terrible, but not good either. He allowed three runs on ten hits in five innings against the Tigers, including four consecutive singles in the fourth inning. One bad start is one bad start. It happens to everyone. But then, next time out, Severino got hit hard again, this time allowing four runs on eight hits and a walk in 5.2 innings.

It never got any better. Severino allowed at least four runs in four of his next five starts, including seven runs on seven hits and four walks in 2.2 innings against the White Sox on May 13th. He left that start with an injury, and ominously pointed to his elbow when trainer Steve Donohue came out to visit him.

The injury ended an absolute nightmare start to the season for Severino. He pitched to a 7.46 ERA (5.52 FIP) in 35 innings in his first seven starts of 2016, and he wasn’t missing bats (16.8% strikeout rate) or keeping the ball in the park (2.06 HR/9). Home runs were up all around the league this season, but that’s an extreme dinger rate.

Injury or no injury, it seemed like there was a pretty good chance that disaster start against the White Sox was going to be Severino’s final big league start for a while. There was chatter the Yankees would move him to the bullpen or demote him to Tripe-A, and it would have been in no way unjustified. He was terrible and costing the Yankees games. The injury provided a temporary reprieve.

A Dozen Starts in the Minors

Thankfully, the injury was nothing serious. The first thing that crosses everyone’s mind when they see a pitcher grab their elbow like that is Tommy John surgery, and I understand why. Lots and lots of pitchers are blowing out their elbows these days. Severino avoided a serious injury and instead went down with a mild triceps strain. Ex-friggin-hale.

The triceps only required two weeks of rest and one minor league rehab start, but rather than bring him back to the big leagues, the Yankees activated Severino off the disabled list on May 30th and optioned him to Triple-A. He was sent down with the goal of improving his command, specifically of his secondary stuff. Look at his slider location during those first seven starts:

Luis Severino slider locations

Yikes. That’s not good. Severino make a lot of mistakes in the middle of zone — with all his pitches, really, not just his slider — and he seemed to pay for every single one. Opponents hit .327/.373/.547 against him in those seven starts. That’s slightly better than what AL MVP candidate Mookie Betts did this year (.318/.363/.534). Severino was bad. Bad bad bad.

The Yankees sent Severino to Triple-A and they kept him there for a while. It wasn’t one of those “one or two starts and you’re coming back up” deals. Severino made ten starts with the RailRiders and his numbers were very good: 3.25 ERA (3.00 FIP) with 22.0% strikeouts and 5.8% walks in 63.2 innings. Did he actually improve his command while down there? Who knew. We were going to have to see Severino with our own eyes to find out.

“I did look at it,” said Joe Girardi in early June after one of Severino’s best Triple-A starts. “He threw some better sliders, some better changeups, but I still think there’s work to be done with location of fastball and consistency of his offspeed. I did see some better sliders.”

Back, Temporarily

Following those ten Triple-A starts, the Yankees called Severino back to the big leagues to replace Aroldis Chapman after he was traded to the Cubs. I thought it was a temporary call-up until Adam Warren reported, but nope, Severino stuck around even after that. The Yankees did not use him as a starter though. He returned as a reliever and made three mop-up appearances.

The first two of those three appearances were solid. Two scoreless innings each time. The third appearance was the masterpiece, the one that had folks thinking Severino deserved another chance to start. He replaced Chad Green in the fourth inning and fired 4.1 innings of one-hit ball against the Mets on August 3rd. Severino struck out five and allowed just one unearned run.

The Yankees were apparently among those convinced Severino was ready to start again, so they gave him the ball after Nathan Eovaldi went down with his elbow injury a week later. The results were, somewhat predictably, not good. He allowed 12 runs on 15 hits and one walk in eight innings in two starts. Yuck. So back to Triple-A Severino went for three more starts before rosters expanded.

Return as a Reliever

Once rosters expanded, the Yankees recalled Severino and again used him as a reliever, though this time he wasn’t limited to mop-up duty. Severino essentially took over as Girardi’s secondary setup man. On days Warren and Tyler Clippard weren’t available, it was Severino who got the ball in high-leverage spots, and he was excellent. One run allowed on seven hits and seven walks in 15 innings. He struck out 15. A few too many walks, but otherwise beautiful.

The Yankees gave Severino two starts at the very end of the season because Green got hurt, and that was basically out of necessity. They had no one else to start. The first of those two starts was rather eventful. Severino unintentionally hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch, J.A. Happ retaliated by hitting Chase Headley, then Severino retaliated for the retaliation by drilling Justin Smoak. Madness ensued.

Severino was ejected from the game but was somehow not suspended, which is, uh, weird. He was very obviously throwing at Smoak intentionally and the benches had already been warned. Usually that equals an automatic suspension. Severino managed to escape with just a fine. Weird. Too bad he couldn’t limit the damage on the mound the same way he limited the discipline after intentionally throwing at a guy nyuk nyuk nyuk.

Anyway, Severino made one last ineffective start (three runs in 3.2 innings) to close out his season. The total damage: 5.83 ERA (4.49 FIP) in 71 innings spread across eleven starts and eleven relief appearances. That, my friends, is a -0.3 bWAR and +0.6 fWAR pitcher. Pretty much replacement level. Worse than that as a starter, much better than that as a reliever.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 Opp. Line
as SP 47.2 8.50 5.52 16.8% 6.2% 44.3% 2.06 .337/.389/.587
as RP 23.1 0.39 3.48 25.8% 9.9% 47.9% 0.75 .105/.209/.158

This year, Severino became only the 23rd pitcher in history to make at least ten starts in the single season with an 8.50+ ERA. One of those 23 is Roy Halladay, who had to be broken down and built back up completely by the Blue Jays before becoming a two-time Cy Young award winner. Most of the others are broken down dudes trying to hang on. Not good company to keep.

At no point this season did Severino look like a competent Major League starter. Young starters struggle. It’s what they do. Usually you’re willing to live with the growing pains because you see the occasional flashes of brilliance. There were no flashes of brilliance with Severino this year. Not when he was in the rotation. His best start this season was two runs on seven hits in six innings. Yeah.

Whither the Changeup?

When the Yankees sent Severino down to Triple-A following the injury, the goal was improving the command of his secondary pitches. His slider in particular. I thought we saw improved slider location after he was called back up later in the season too. Severino did a better job burying it down and away to righties. There’s still work to be done, but there was progress.

The changeup, however, went backwards. Severino did not throw the pitch at all in relief — why would he? he was asked to get important outs in September and he leaned on the fastball and slider, his two best pitches — and he admitted he lost confidence in the pitch. He has a good changeup! It’s a quality pitch. But Severino lost confidence in it. He said as much. That’s a problem.

What Severino went through this season was not normal growing pains. He went backwards. We didn’t see any signs that he could be an effective starter, and any gains he made in slider command he gave back by losing confidence in his changeup. All he did was shift the problem. The Yankees really rushed Severino up the minor league ladder and I do think that played a role in his poor year. It doesn’t explain everything, but I do think it was a factor.

Outlook for 2017

There’s no way the Yankees can bring Severino to Spring Training counting on him to be one of their five starters next year. It made sense to give him a rotation spot last year. He pitched himself out of the rotation though. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t be given the opportunity to win a rotation spot in camp, because he should. The Yankees just can’t hand it to him though. Severino hasn’t earned it.

If nothing else, Severino showed this year he can be a pretty great reliever. It’s still way too early to give up on him as a starter. The Yankees should send him to Triple-A to start before keeping him in the big leagues as a reliever. Severino will turn 23 in February and he showed last season he can be a successful starting pitcher in the show. He got thrown off track this year. It happens. As ugly this season was for Severino, it shouldn’t be the end of his career as a starter. Hopefully it’s a learning experience and he’s better for it in the long run.