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Luis Cessa may have turned a corner for the Yankees

Cessa made adjustments last year that carried over into the spring.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Losing Luis Severino proved a gut punch for the Yankees. Though guys like Luis Cessa, Domingo German or Jonathan Loaisiga can fill Severino’s spot in the rotation, they can’t fully replace him. His absence leaves the Yankees short on star power and depth in their rotation.

But one of those replacement-level arms, Cessa, has been outstanding this spring. Cessa is out of minor league options, which means he likely would have began the year with the Yankees regardless, but he has truly earned his roster spot with a dynamite performance in spring training.

Cessa has allowed just one run in nine innings of Grapefruit League action, striking out 10 batters in the process. His last performance, a sharp outing against the Orioles, saw him allow just one baserunner in four innings of work.

We’ve been here before with several young players, Cessa included. A few solid early performances gets the fanbase excited, and then the player regresses to his expected output over time. However, there are some trends in Cessa’s metrics dating back to last year that show that he may have started to turn a corner as a pitcher.

No one has ever questioned Cessa’s stuff. His fastball averages 95 mph and his slider is sharp. However, when Cessa gets into trouble, he loses command of his pitches and is susceptible to home runs after falling behind in counts. The right-hander seems to have taken note of this and worked on correcting these flaws.

Cessa was more aggressive last year. He threw the highest percentage of strikes in his career (65 percent) and cut down his pitches per plate appearance to just 3.61, also a career-best. This may have been the change that resulted in the best K/9 of Cessa’s career (7.86) and second-best BB/9 (2.62), as well as his best home run rate (1.01 per nine innings) to date.

Some other metrics show that there may be some substance to this, not just simple luck. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a metric that takes errant fielding out of the equation, and just focuses on things the pitcher can control. In kind, Cessa’s 2018 FIP checked in as the best of his career at 3.74 last year. It was significantly lower than his actual ERA, which usually points to some unluckiness.

Cessa also saw an increase in his groundball rate, which helped lead to the decline in home runs allowed. This can be attributed to Cessa’s newfound aggressiveness, as well as his pitch location. Consider these three heatmaps, showing Cessa’s pitch placement in 2016, 2017 and 2018:

Notice how the last heatmap (the one from 2018) is darker lower in the zone, and even has some red out of the zone? Cessa is hanging out less in the middle of the zone. If he sustains this smarter pitch location, he can avoid the gopher balls that haunted him at his lowest points.

This change in pitch placement also goes hand in hand with a change in pitch selection. When Cessa came into the bigs in 2016, he was a four-pitch pitcher; he threw a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup.

Last year though, Cessa effectively became a two-pitch pitcher. He threw his fastball and slider 41 percent of the time each, which accounts for 82 percent of his pitches. The remaining 18 percent were occasional changeups and curves to keep hitters honest.

Changing pitch selection like this doesn’t work for every pitcher, but it makes sense for Cessa. Those are clearly his two best offerings, and he should prioritize their usage. It seems to be working, as his chase rate and whiff rate both rose to career highs.

Luis Cessa isn’t going to become the next great Yankees ace overnight. Heck, he might not ever be more than a fifth starter or decent long reliever. However, the presence of these trends from last year proves that his spring training performance may not be smoke and mirrors.

This is Cessa’s fourth year with the Yankees. He’s out of options and he’s approaching his 27th birthday. If he actually managed to figure things out, he looks to be on his way to contributing in 2019.