The last two World Series have been won thanks in part to strong pitching. Should-have-been World Series MVP David Price was a huge factor in the Red Sox’s 2018 championship, while Stephen Strasburg won the World Series MVP award in 2019 for the Nationals.
What do these hurlers have in common? Neither was considered the team’s “ace” in the rotation – the Red Sox had Chris Sale, while the Nats had Max Scherzer. However, the edge they got by running out a far superior No. 2 starter than the average helped them to baseball’s ultimate prize.
Now the Yankees have the chance to do something similar. Even if he doesn’t start on Opening Day (an honor that could plausibly go to Masahiro Tanaka or Luis Severino), Gerrit Cole is the Yankees’ undisputed ace – he might be the best pitcher in all of baseball right now, so he’s absolutely the Yankees’ top arm. That pushes everyone in the rotation down a peg, including former ace Luis Severino. Severino will look to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2019 season, but he will be doing so as the team’s No. 2 starter.
There are a few reasons that this could benefit Severino. It might be unfair to expect him to come back from injury and dominate. Having not pitched at full strength for the better part of a year, Severino could be a little rusty in 2020 at first. Expecting him to be the club’s ace from the get-go could be a mistake, but now he has the benefit of slipping a little lower in the club’s rotation, where there’s less pressure on him.
Severino knows who he is at this point of his career. Entering his age-26 season, he’s a power pitcher with a blazing fastball and a sharp slider. Although he’s done pretty well on his own, Cole is actually a pretty similar pitcher. Cole mixes in a curveball on occasion, but he’s also predominantly a fastball-slider guy with a rare changeup. It’s just speculation, but I’d bet Cole could make a pretty good guide for Severino at this stage of his career. Their relationship as not just teammates, but fellow starting pitchers, could be something worth monitoring as the season progresses, especially with a new pitching coach in town.
Due to injuries and previous poor playoff performances, there was an occasional and unfair narrative that Severino could never be the ace of a World Series team. That is simply not true, and not the reason the Yankees acquired Cole – they got Cole because every team could use an ace like him, and because the team was short on capable starters to begin with. It was not and never will be an indictment on Severino, who has grown into one of the elite pitchers in the American League.
However, his serious shoulder injury, combined with rising expectations as the staff ace, could have placed overwhelming pressure on him in 2020. Now, Cole can take on some of that load and let Severino regain his swagger at his own pace, while possibly adding some insight as well. Three years from now, when the Yankees have hopefully won the World Series and Luis Severino has continued the Price-Strasburg trend of No. 2 pitchers stealing the spotlight in October, any doubting of Severino after his difficult 2019 season will be something we can laugh about in retrospect.