For the last two seasons, the Yankees have had one of the best starting pitchers in baseball with Luis Severino. Shaking off the ineffectiveness of his first full-time go as a starter in 2016, Sevy has been an All-Star and received Cy Young votes in consecutive seasons, something no Yankees starter has done since 2009-11 CC Sabathia.
But Severino’s second half of 2018 was rough. Not rough enough to prevent him from signing a lucrative extension, yet it still casts doubt on his overall ability. With that in mind, can we expect a rebound to form in 2018?
- 2018 Totals: 191 1/3 IP, 3.39 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 10.35 K/9, 2.16 BB/9, 5.7 fWAR
- ZiPS: 186 IP, 3.34 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 9.92 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 4.9 WAR
- Steamer: 196 IP, 3.45 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 10.16 K/9, 2.47 BB/9, 4.5 WAR
- PECOTA: 174 IP, 3.55 ERA, 3.70 DRA, 9.93 K/9, 2.79 BB/9, 3.5 WARP
The ZiPS and Steamer projections are more or less in line with Severino’s performance from the last two seasons, giving more weight to his 2018 campaign than his superior 2017 finish. Still, those are the top marks for Yankees pitchers. ZiPS has him tied for fifth in WAR among pitchers, behind just Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber. Steamer has him tied for sixth with Justin Verlander sneaking ahead.
Meanwhile, PECOTA is clearly down on Sevy. They have him second in the Bronx in pitching WAR behind James Paxton despite the 25-year-old righty having not too dissimilar projections from other systems. These systems are conservative by design, so Severino shouldn’t be expected to fall exactly in line.
Fatigue and Tipping Pitches
This may be a tired topic, however, we have to address it: Severino had a troublesome second half last season. Actually, his late-season swoon started a couple starts before the second half despite a strong outing in the All-Star Game (and a nice catch to boot).
Recounting the Severino 2018 splits one last time:
- Opening Day through July 1: 118 1/3 IP, 1.98 ERA, .195/.251/.282 line against, 138 strikeouts vs. 29 walks, six homers and a 13-2 record
- July 7 through end of season: 73 IP, 5.67 ERA, .299/.340/.515 line against, 82 strikeouts vs. 17 walks, 13 homers and a 6-6 record
Two things jump out: The home runs and the batting average. He allowed more than double the homers in about 2/3 the innings. Meanwhile, the batting average jumped more than 100 points.
Each of these can be explained by two factors: Fatigue and pitch tipping. The Yankees insisted Severino wasn’t injured down the stretch and considering he threw nearly 200 innings (playoffs included), it’s dubious to think they were hiding a serious injury.
Fatigue, however, makes plenty of sense. He leaped from 142 2/3 innings in 2016 to 209 1/3 in 2017. Cole Hamels experienced a similar surge from 2007 to 2008 en route to a World Series title. In 2009, he also saw a drop off in performance, making it through the entire season into the Fall Classic but not putting up exemplary results. He would bounce back completely over the next few seasons.
Severino could repeat Hamels’ progression after losing something, not velocity, but some zip off his stuff in the second half. That may have manifested itself in his changeup results as it rated out as below average after being one of his top offerings in 2017. Being used to the larger workload coming to camp in The Best Shape of His Life™ furthers the rebound narrative.
Pitch tipping could explain the struggles as well. The Red Sox seemed to be all over his pitches in the playoffs and their players were literally calling out the pitches as he went along. That’s easily correctable. Still, it wasn’t too widespread considering how Severino shut down the Athletics for four innings in the Wild Card Game.
Expectations and Extension
Fatigue and pitching tipping are no longer valid excuses for Severino. They both can be filed under the “fool me once” doctrine and Sevy now needs to find the next step in his progression.
The projections above weren’t high on Severino for no reason. He’s fifth in fWAR since the beginning of 2017. He’s sixth in strikeout percentage and 18th in HR/FB rate despite pitching half his games in Yankee Stadium. His FIP- in fourth and his xFIP- is fourth. Even with a dreadful second half, he’s still been an elite starter for the past two years.
This year, therefore, marks the inflection point for Severino. Can he establish himself once and for all as an ace? Can he leave behind the 2018 (and not so distant 2016) issues that plagued him to achieve more consistent results? If not, he’ll remain a quandary, eerily unreliable in the eyes of baseball fans. A return to 2017 gives him credit as one of the game’s top pitchers without qualifiers.
The extension he signed last month also changes how he appears to baseball as a whole. His four-year deal worth $40 million guaranteed locks him into a below-market rate while buying out a free agent year with a club option. That solidifies his spot in the Yankees’ hierarchy as their ace for the foreseeable future and shows the team’s faith in his ability to shake off the bitter end to last season.
The real Severino
The real Luis Severino will be the one we see in 2019. He’s brought himself to the brink of stardom without tipping over into bonafide acedom. The electrifying right-hander will assuredly start Opening Day in the Bronx and carry the expectations of being a No. 1 starter on a title contender. That’s a lot, but nothing he hasn’t shown he can handle.
Severino ultimately remains the best experience to watch among Yankees starter. That’s what we look for at the ballpark and on TV, right? In my lifetime, the Yankees haven’t had an in-his-prime pitcher with Severino’s stuff who isn’t pitching the ninth inning. Even with the promise of James Paxton, the eclectic repertoire of Masahiro Tanaka and the Old Man Game of CC Sabathia, Severino is the starter by whom you mark your calendar. That shouldn’t change in 2019.