If you’re unlucky enough to own a Twitter account tapped into what many of us fondly refer to as #YankeesTwitter, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about one of this offseason’s hottest topics of debate. No, it’s not Aroldis Chapman re-signing with the club, nor is it Aaron Judge or Brett Gardner’s future on the Yankees. Instead, Luis Severino’s name is arguably the biggest point of discussion for Yankees’ fans, as his position with the organization—to use in the rotation or the bullpen?—has been hotly contested for months, and is likely to continue to be a controversial topic for years into the future.
A year ago today, this article would’ve been decried for being too overreactive, nervous, and having a complete lack of faith in the Yankees’ top pitching prospect. Severino, after all, was coming off an outstanding age-21 rookie season as the youngest starting pitcher in baseball. The wiry, flame-throwing right-hander had put on a show in the Bronx, rattling off 62.1 electric innings to the tune of a 2.89 ERA and 8.09 K/9. Possessing a mid-nineties fastball powerful enough to blow away even the best of hitters, a blazing slider which whipped across the zone, either missed by bats or pounded into the ground, and a changeup which played perfectly off the four-seamer and slider as a more-than-suitable third pitch, Severino had the arsenal of an ace. The problem was, he didn’t exactly look like an ace.
At a slight 6’0” and 195 pounds (or 6’2” and 215, depending on the source you ask), Severino didn’t have a starter’s build nor a starter’s delivery. The main point of criticism in his prospect days was the throwing motion, which scarcely incorporated the lower half and didn’t quite exude sustainability and durability over 200 innings. While I could have written an article on Severino last December and tentatively asked whether he’d surely be a stalwart in the rotation, or eventually be moved to the bullpen, my main argument would have revolved around his body and delivery, not his performance on the field.
Now, I am stuck wondering if Severino’s future will be in the bullpen, but the concern isn’t a result of what we all expected. While injury concerns did crop up in mid-May with a scary elbow injury which Severino made a (seemingly) full recovery from, the worry with Severino instead comes from his repertoire of pitches. Previously featuring an elite fastball and two possible above-average to plus offerings in his slider and changeup, his heater and change both took a step back last season and resulted in disaster on the field.
Severino was quite possibly the Yankees’ biggest disappointment in his sophomore season, as he threw just 71 innings of 5.83 ERA ball, including an 8.50 ERA as a starter (his 0.39 ERA as a reliever will come up later). An autopsy of 2016 doesn’t hold many mysteries, as it isn’t hard to see what went wrong. The 22-year-old’s luck in 2015 turned into misfortune last season, with his BABIP ballooning to .378 (as a starter) and HR/9 to 2.08. Both numbers are far from sustainable, but that doesn’t mean Severino pitched much better than his horrible numbers show.
Yankees fans are familiar with the fine line between control and command (courtesy of Michael Pineda), and Severino followed a similar pattern with a fastball that managed to find the strike zone, but rarely ended up in the correct quadrant. Far too many pitches were left up or straight down the middle, and resulted in a .302 batting average against an offering which should be a challenge to hit. And while he had control of the fastball—just not command—his changeup was completely lacking in control. Sure, the pitch had a .222 BAA, but the pitch ended up a strike just half the time it was thrown last season. Hitters simply aren’t going to have a good batting average on the pitch when it’s never in the zone, making the BAA a deceptive number. The wildness from the offspeed pitch also means one less weapon to worry about, allowing batters to focus on Sevy’s other two pitches
Severino was the second youngest starter in baseball, and the inexperience showed. He was unable to transform from a ‘thrower’ to a ‘pitcher,’ a cliché term but a problem that’s been passed around the Yankees’ rotation, from Nathan Eovaldi to Ivan Nova to Michael Pineda, and the league had little trouble figuring Severino out in his second season. He’s managed to dominate the minor leagues every season thanks to the raw stuff, so a lack of command and a shaky third offering were hardly a problem, but now the lack of refining below the big leagues has come back to bite him.
This is painting an awfully pessimistic view of Severino’s prospects, and I must admit that he’s more likely to end up a reliever than a starter at this point, but that doesn’t mean the former top prospect has no hope. As mentioned several times, Sevy possessed elite talent and has ace upside in that arm. He was quickly ushered through the minors and remains very young, with lots of possible development left. Giving up on a pitcher of his caliber already is a foolish and short-sighted decision.
Although Severino showcased the value he can bring from the bullpen late last season, with an impressive 0.39 ERA and 9.64 K/9 in 23.1 innings, there’s far more value in a mid-rotation starter than the elite reliever Severino could certainly be. This may remind you of the Joba Chamberlain dilemma that unfortunately went about as wrong as it could be for both the Yankees and Joba—he neither became a mid-rotation starter nor elite reliever—but Severino’s a completely different case.
It will take quite a bit for Severino to regain the value he held at the end of 2015, including an improvement in fastball command and further development of the third pitch in his changeup, but I would be far from shocked if he can manage to accomplish both things. The Yankees would be wise to use Severino as a big-league starter to start next season (or, at worst, put him in the Triple-A rotation to work on the changeup), but the team needs to avoid putting him in the bullpen until there are confident he won’t be a starter. There’s simply too much value to give up by squeezing a bit of production out of Severino as a reliever this early in his career, and patience should be exercised in his case. Despite making his debut two seasons ago, Severino still has plenty of work to do, but there’s still sky-high upside that is attainable—it’s just harder to see now than it was a year ago.