The Yankees have a flame-throwing righty in their rotation, someone who has finished a season as a Cy Young finalist, and has struck out 30% of batters faced since 2017. I’m not talking about Gerrit Cole, either. The prize of the 2020 free-agent class has understandably captured most of the headlines around the Yankees this winter, but as we creep closer to Opening Day, the performance of Luis Severino may be just as important.
The similarities between the two starters is even more striking; they both put up sterling, Cy Young-adjacent seasons very early in their careers before struggling with injury and inconsistency. There may be no more fun pitching season for the Yankees in the last decade than Severino’s 2017 campaign, but perhaps none more disappointing than his second-half slide a year later.
All in all, this tandem probably represents the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball. Consider their peaks:
The only area where you really see daylight between these two is the innings count, largely due to Severino missing most of 2019, after averaging 192.2 IP in the two previous seasons. When we talk about Severino being nearly as important to the rotation as Cole, those innings are what counts.
James Paxton can be as dominant as anyone in baseball, but he’s never qualified for the ERA title, coming closest in 2018 with 160.1 innings pitched. I’m careful about labelling anyone as “injury prone”, but we can bake into our expectations for Paxton that he will likely require some time on the IL in 2020. Masahiro Tanaka, meanwhile, might just be the best postseason starter in Yankees history, but he has struggled with inconsistency in the regular season. His his ERA+ essentially grades out as average in the aggregate over the past three years: 95, 112, 100 from 2017 through 2019, respectively.
Getting 170 or so innings from league-average Tanaka is quite valuable, and 150-ish innings of ace-level Paxton is great, but Cole and Severino could put the Yankees into the conversation with the Rays or Nationals for best rotation in the game. There’s just no substitute for elite talent, and certainly no match for having that twice over.
So what does Severino have to do to be that Cy Young talent again, rather than second-half Sevy we all worried about in 2018? Health is obviously a priority, but there isn’t much we can plan for or project for that. Instead, we have to look at what he did differently a year and a half ago.
Funny enough, his K-BB%, probably the single most important predictor of pitching performance, was exactly the same in the first and second halves of 2018. What really changed was the contact; his batting average against went up 82 points in the second half, and that contact was the dangerous type, with surges in line drive rate and ISO.
That’s a tale of two halves. Hitters stopped chasing Severino’s stuff out of the zone, so he had to move back in the zone. This lead to fewer walks, but whether you throw 98 or 88, if it’s consistently in the zone, major-league hitters will make loud contact.
We don’t really have much to go on for 2019 to see what Severino did to adjust to this lack of chase. If you count the 2019 postseason, he threw a grand total of 20 innings, and even though his strikeout numbers were stellar again, we can’t really parse out any useful information. Health and chasing are really the key in 2020 to get him back in the Cy Young conversation, and it’s what we should all be watching for.