Ever since the trade deadline, you’ve heard the same chorus from reporters, talking heads, bloggers, and other fans: the return of Luis Severino and Dellin Betances from the IL will be the equivalent of two major trade acquisitions. As the clock ticked and the hot summer days flew by, it became fair to question whether the two pitchers would be ready in time to rehab and be able to pitch at all this season.
Now that both are far enough along, with Severino having pitched in a rehab game on Sunday and Betances building up arm strength, it’s time to ask another, arguably more concerning, question: is it realistic to think that a pitcher who has not pitched all season will be able to make an impact down the stretch?
Has it even happened before?
While the easy answer is, “Yes, of course, guys return from injuries in September all the time,” the real situation the Yankees face is much murkier. Not only have both of these pitchers not played in a single game all year, they are both expected to be counted on for important, high-leverage, and stressful innings in the postseason. For this to be a win for the Yankees, not only do they have to return, they also have to hit the ground running as dominant pitchers.
To find out, I ventured into the depths of the MLB Transaction Archives, starting in 2018 and moving backwards, looking at every single pitcher activated from the 60-day IL in the month of September. I was prepared to search through at least twenty years of data. Fortunately, I only had to go through four.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a plethora of relief pitchers who have missed the entire season, made their season debut in September, and pitched well. These include Cleveland’s Gavin Floyd, who pitched his first game on September 2, 2015, due to an elbow injury in spring training, and Jake Diekman, who only made 11 appearances for Texas at the end of 2017 due to chronic ulcerative colitis.
The most reassuring of these to me, however, would be Carson Smith, a reliever for the Boston Red Sox. After making three appearances in 2016, Smith underwent Tommy John surgery in May. Although expected to return in June 2017, he was not activated from the IL until September 5. He gave up one run in 6.2 innings over eight appearances, giving up 7 hits, striking out 7, and walking 2. In the postseason, he pitched in two games, throwing 1.1 scoreless innings.
Although Boston attempted to use him in as many low-leverage situations as possible, he did find himself pitching in multiple close games, notching a save in an extra-inning game on September 18 and pitching two scoreless innings in a 6-4 loss to Toronto on September 25. Additionally, despite the fact that he was used in back-to-back games only twice, he pitched four times within a week, from the 18th through the 25th. Betances would certainly be used in more high-leverage situations than Smith was. Nonetheless, Smith demonstrates that it is possible for a relief pitcher to return from the IL in September after not having pitched since the previous season and dominate.
Finding a starting pitcher who did the same proved a much more difficult enterprise. Last season, Matt Shoemaker and Adam Wainwright each missed almost the entire season before returning in September, with the former heading to the IL after his first start of the season on March 31 and the latter making only four starts before September, all of which occurred before May 14. In 2017, Garrett Richards made his second start of the season on September 5, five months to the day after his first start. Of these three, only Richards posted an ERA under 4.84 after his injury (his was a 2.74). However, all three put together performances similar to the surrounding seasons, suggesting that their injuries played little to no part.
Neither of these, however, are perfect models for Luis Severino, as they had full spring trainings and at least a cameo in the big leagues before September. Furthermore, none of their teams were major playoff contenders. In order to find a starting pitcher who missed the entire season before September, played for a contender, and pitched meaningful games down the stretch and in the playoffs, we have to wind the clock back to 2015 and look at Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays.
During spring training in 2015, Stroman suffered a torn ACL, which caused him to miss most of a season in which the Blue Jays and Yankees spent the summer months battling for first place in the division. He would make four starts in the regular season, going at least seven innings in three of them, and giving up only 5 runs in 27 innings. In the playoffs, he served as the Blue Jays’ number two starter behind David Price. He pitched at least six innings in each of his three starts, including a big Game 5 win over the Rangers in the ALDS in which he gave up only 2 runs in 6 innings.
This is the type of performance that the Yankees are looking for from Luis Severino when he returns from the IL this month. And although it’s rare for pitchers of his quality to be making their season debut in September, Marcus Stroman’s successful stint in 2015 shows that it is possible for Sevy to be the impact starter that the Yankees need this October.