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Did the Yankees’ playoff game plan hurt Luis Severino?

“Air it out before the bullpen” may not work for the young flamethrower

MLB: ALDS-Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Luis Severino is one of the crown jewels of baseball. He’s 24, throws triple digits, and plays for the most famous sports teams in the country. Not only is the team famous, but for three of his four professional seasons, has been a playoff team. Severino made a dozen starts down the stretch in the 2015 Wild Card season, and anchored the rotation in both 2017 and 2018. Yet he has just 23 innings pitched in the postseason so far, and just seven in two starts so far this year. Why?

Last year started disastrously in the Wild Card Game. Even though he recovered against Cleveland and Houston, his strikeouts were way down and walks way up from the regular season, and he posted a 5.63 ERA and 7.22 FIP. This season’s been more of the same, although Sevy’s strikeouts are up, so are his walks, and he’s sporting an unsightly 7.71 ERA. His ability to avoid home runs have kept his FIP respectable at 3.16, but in the playoffs you can’t really wait around for stats to normalize. Sample sizes are just too small.

Severino’s struggles in the postseason certainly have something to do with general fatigue. After Monday’s start against the Red Sox, he’s thrown 407.2 innings between the regular season and playoffs in the last two years. That’s a lot of stress on a young arm, and probably has been a major factor in his decline in Octobers recent.

There may be a joint cause, however, and it has something to do with the Yankees’ bullpen power. Sevy pitches in front of the most valuable ‘pen in baseball history, and for the last two seasons the strategy has been for him to air it out as long as he can, before being replaced by the likes of Chad Green, David Robertson and Dellin Betances. It was on prime display last Wednesday against Oakland. Severino was really cutting loose for four innings, got into trouble before recording an out in the fifth, and then he was gone.

Even though he was cutting loose, he really wasn’t pitching like his usual self. He was truly effectively wild last week, as his Statcast pitch data shows:

He’s all over the map, and missing especially bad in the lower quadrants, doubly so working down and away from right-handed batters...the exact placement of his slider. Monday’s loss against the Red Sox is similar:

And finally, although there’s not much data, take the infamous 2017 Wild Card game:

Severino, amped up, full of energy and knowing he can go max effort for four innings before being relieved, completely loses command of his pitches, especially in the non-fastball department. Again, just take the start against Oakland:

The only pitch he can consistently locate in the zone is his fastball. This leads to him falling behind in counts, and to avoid walks - he issued four free passes against Oakland! - he has to creep back out over the heart of the plate with his fastball. That’s bad, especially in the playoffs when everyone can hit.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Josh, this doesn’t mean Sevy’s just got a playoff problem!” Well it kind of does. Take for instance Severino’s start against the Red Sox on July 1, Sunday Night Baseball:

He has so much more command at the bottom of the zone, especially with the slider and changeup. That’s so important because when he does need to creep back into the zone, usually with his fastball, he can work closer to the edges knowing his stuff is good enough to fool hitters. You can see in that July start how few pitches are truly middle-middle, compared to his playoff starts.

Severino is a young, emotional player, and that’s fantastic. When he’s on, there may not be a more fun pitcher to watch in all of baseball. It may also be the case that that emotion, combined with knowing he only has to record nine to twelve outs in a playoff start, causes his effectiveness to drop. Going forward, it might be best to let him work his customary six innings, and if next year that means shelving him for a week to conserve workload, so be it. The Yankees can’t win just by relying on one or two starting pitchers.