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Grading Luis Severino’s first start in over 900 days

Aside from the lone mistake to Alex Verdugo, Sevy looked sharp in three-plus innings of work.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Yesterday, Luis Severino started his first game since Game 3 of the 2019 ALCS against the Astros. It has been a long and arduous road for Severino to get to this point, having been limited by injury to just 19.1 innings since the end of 2018. He looked sharp in his final spring outing, and seemed to have carried the progress from that start into the game against the Red Sox.

Severino went three-plus innings, giving up two runs on five hits with five strikeouts and no walks, and racked up a 33 percent whiff rate on his changeup, cutter, and slider. He threw 65 pitches, which is right in line with the pitch count Aaron Boone laid out pregame. It was a bit surprising to see Severino come back out for the fourth inning given the laborious previous two frames, but he was pulled after giving a leadoff single to Verdugo and ultimately wound up with the no decision.

Given that this was his first start in over 900 days, I’m not at all concerned with the results. For example, I don’t care about the home run he gave up to Verdugo. I just want to see that he has a good process. Is he executing his pitches to his spots? How does the velocity look? Is he achieving the desired shape on his pitches? With that rubric in mind, let’s break down the good and the bad of his outing.

Severino definitely came out raring to go, and the adrenaline was evident with the first two batters. His first six pitches were all fastballs at 97 and 98 mph, a good tick above his average fastball velocity in his two cameo appearances in 2019 and 2021 as well as during spring training.

He logged two strikeouts in the first: a 98 mph fastball painted on the inside corner to Rafael Devers and a slider that fooled Xander Bogaerts.

I was particularly intrigued when he busted out a nasty cutter to Bogaerts, a pitch he has thrown just 60 times in six previous big league seasons. He went on to throw 10 further cutters, though I suspect Statcast had some trouble differentiating between his cutter and slider, leading to a handful of mischaracterized pitches. It operated between 91 and 94 mph and featured sharp, late-breaking movement down and away from righties. This particular pitch tunnels effectively with his four-seamer, something I hope to talk more about in the coming days.

In the next inning, Severino was absolutely not helped by his defense. Anthony Rizzo misplayed a J.D. Martinez foul popup and Isiah Kiner-Falefa bobbled a groundball two pitches later to put traffic on and force Sevy to pitch out of the stretch. Of course, the Yankees were punished the very next batter, with Alex Verdugo crushing a low-middle 2-1 fastball for a two-run homer.

Now, I’m not making excuses for Severino, because the pitch that Verdugo hit into the seats was probably his lone mistake of the day. Kyle Higashioka set up low and away and Sevy yanked it into the zone. Knowing that Verdugo feasts on fastballs down and in, Severino has to do a better job managing his misses in that spot. But as I like to say, bad defense turns solo shots into crooked numbers.

Courtesy of FanGraphs

Severino settled in after that lone blip, and the only other adversity he’d face was a tough 12-pitch battle against Christian Vázquez with two on and two out in the second, ultimately winning the at-bat with a perfectly executed cutter down and away to get the soft groundout.

For the most part the four-seam command was actually crisper than expected given the limited spring ramp up — we saw with Cole how it took a few innings to dial in his fastball location. I thought there were a couple of two-strike counts where Severino could have located the fastball towards the edges rather than challenge the hitter in the middle of the zone, but by and large he commanded the fastball on the corners or near enough the zone to be too close to take. If there’s one thing to watch out for, he only got one whiff on 20 swings on the four-seamer, far below his more than 20 percent career whiff rate with the pitch.

Courtesy of Statcast

As well as he was throwing his fastball, I was actually most impressed by the changeup. It’s a pitch he’s gradually increased confidence in to the point that it was his go-to strikeout weapon in the third inning.

The pitch featured wicked diving and fading movement and he was throwing it 3.5 mph faster than his career average. He showed equal confidence throwing it to righties and lefties, which as David Cone mentioned in the game recap is the most difficult hurdle to master when throwing the offspeed. If I had any gripe about the pitch it’s that perhaps he grew a bit too comfortable throwing it — to the point that hitters were starting to identify changeups after seeing two or three back-to-back — but honestly when he was executing it as well as he did I don’t blame him for sticking with the pitch.

My only other concern was the lack of sliders he threw. The slider is traditionally his best pitch and go-to out pitch, yet he threw just four against Boston (which again might be a symptom of Statcast’s pitch characterization hiccups). Severino had a couple of ideal counts (Kiké Hernández in the second, Vázquez in the second, J.D. in the third) to use the slider for the K but opted for the changeup instead.

The reason this caught my eye is because I had noticed Severino’s slider looked a bit flat in spring training. At his peak, Severino’s slider featured some of the greatest downward movement of any slider in baseball, so to see it lose some of that drop was concerning. Encouragingly, the few he did throw were right back to the depth we’re used to seeing, if thrown a few mph slower than in 2017 and 2018.

I don’t think one can come away from Severino’s start feeling anything more than thrilled. I like to think of him as the icing on the Yankees season — given how long it’s been since he threw a regular starter’s load of innings, it’s hard to set a level of expectations for him this year. However, he flashed some of the ability that made him one of the best pitchers in the game in 2017 and 2018, and I can’t wait to see what he does in his next start.