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Grading Luis Severino’s first MLB start in seven months

The 29-year-old righty looked sharp in his first start back from injury.

New York Yankees v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

After nearly seven months, Luis Severino made his triumphant return to an MLB mound. He may not have gotten the decision, but his impressive efforts put the Yankees in prime position to wrap up the win over the Reds for their second sweep of the season. He was on a strict 75 pitch limit, but boy did he flash some encouraging signs in that sample of pitches.

Just to return to a big league mound from his second lat injury in as many seasons is progress in and of itself, but to dominate a major league lineup for stretches in the manner Severino did is beyond what any of us could have hoped for. Remember, this is a pitcher who has been limited to 140.2 total innings since the start of 2019 due to several serious injuries. It was more than reasonable to expect a healthy amount of rust, but neither Severino’s pitches nor his command showed significant signs of tarnish.

We’ll start with the basics. Severino threw exactly 75 pitches, 54 of which were thrown for strikes. His usage breaks down as follows: 44 four-seamers (59 percent), 16 changeups (21 percent), 14 sliders (19 percent) and one sinker. That’s a tad heavy on the fastball relative to his dominant 2017 and 2018 campaigns, when he threw about 50 percent fastballs, 36 percent sliders, and 14 percent changeups. He also notably did not throw a single cutter, a pitch he incorporated into his repertoire last season and employed to great effect.

The four-seamer’s spin rate was right in line with his career average, and though it exhibited roughly an inch less rise than last season, it still induced eight whiffs on 24 swings. The changeup appeared to have significantly more armside run and garnered three whiffs on nine swings. The slider is the biggest work in progress from a command and shape perspective, though it was interesting to see it resemble the shorter, sharper version of his earlier seasons than the slider with more curveball characteristics he paired off his cutter last season. All told, these 75 pitches allowed Severino to go 4.2 innings, giving up a run on four hits and a walk against five strikeouts without a single hard-hit ball on the afternoon.

Here is the pitch chart for Severino’s entire outing:

While the location of slider and changeup was a bit haphazard, pay attention to the command of the four-seamer. For the most part, he was living in the upper gloveside quadrant of the zone, with the vast majority of his misses falling close enough to the strike zone to be competitive pitches.

If we zoom in on the fastball, we can see a clear plan of attack from Severino. Here are the 13 called strikes and whiffs on the pitch, good for an above-average called-strike-plus-whiff rate (CSW%) of 29.5 percent.

The four-seamer averaged 96.7 mph and topped out at 99. He appeared to be pitching with slightly diminished velocity in the first, the four-seamer hovering around 95-96. However, the velo steadily rose throughout the outing, with Severino himself revealing he was saving some bullets for his final batters.

I love seeing Severino able to reach into the tank mid-outing for a little extra juice on the heater. The best fastball throwers over the last half-decade — guys like Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander — find extra effectiveness by adding or subtracting on the fastball depending on the situation. What’s more, after failing to throw a pitch that registered 99 mph in 2019, ‘20, and ‘21, Severino hitting that mark this year and last shows he still has access to some of the octane from his earlier seasons.

The outing started in about the most inauspicious manner possible, with Severino issuing a four-pitch leadoff walk to Jonathan India. Three of the four heaters missed wide of the zone gloveside. However, that allows me to make the first of the two most encouraging observations from the outing — Severino’s ability to make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat and even within a single plate appearance.

After that four-pitch walk to India, Severino employed a slight mechanical tweak to get into a better lane with the heater. Here is a freeze frame of his first pitch of the outing:

And here is a freeze frame from the fifth inning, when Severino struck out Kevin Newman swinging on a 99 mph four-seamer:

The adjustment is subtle, but it appears to me that Severino is opening his front shoulder just a hair earlier. This cleared room for his pitching arm to stay behind the baseball and travel a more direct line toward the plate, whereas facing India, the front shoulder staying closed a fraction too late caused his pitching arm to pull across his body.

Speaking of that heater to Newman, let’s take a look at the AB in question to see how Severino made an adjustment from pitch to pitch. After running the count to 1-2, Severino attacks Newman with a pair of fastballs at the top of the zone and out over the plate.

Newman is right on them and fouls the pitches off with a pair of healthy hacks. Severino, perhaps picking up that Newman is keying in on that elevated location, adjusts his sights low and away, unleashing his fastest pitch of the day. The pitch appears to catch Newman by surprise, and it’s by him practically as he’s starting his swing.

That brings us to the second sign of encouragement, something Aaron Boone referred to as Severino “managing his misses” in postgame comments. No pitcher in the league has perfect execution to every single spot in an outing. Every pitch comes inbuilt with a certain margin of error informed by the hitter’s tendencies and the situation — the best pitchers leverage that margin of error toward their favor. This means that when a pitcher misses his spot, the aim is to miss in a location that doesn’t advantage the hitter.

Three of the four hits Severino surrendered came in two-strike counts. That he was able to push counts to two-strikes without much difficulty is encouraging in it’s own right. That said, on the first two of those hits, Severino did not manage his misses in an optimal fashion, giving up the controversy-stirring double to Spencer Steer in the first and a single to Stuart Fairchild in the second.

Courtesy of Statcast

On both these pitches, Severino is operating perhaps a little too close to the zone when count leverage affords him the ability to live a little farther away from the plate. Fast-forward to the fifth inning and what would be Severino’s final pitch of the outing. Yes, it was a single that likely cost him a chance at the decision, but it was still a well-executed, well-missed fastball that Luke Maile put a good piece of hitting on.

After missing badly low and away with a 1-2 changeup, Severino goes back to the same location with a heater. He executes perfectly to his spot a few inches off the plate. It’s an area that severely limits the amount of damage Maile can do on the pitch — his only chance at a hit is to poke it into right for a harmless single.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with the pitches that got me most excited during the outing. As Esteban put it in the PSA Slack channel, “Sevy’s changeup is still ridiculous!” With the increased horizontal run on the changeup, Severino was able to use it for called strikes away from righties and to induce whiffs to both handed batters. The crispness the pitch demonstrated in just his first start is reassuring given that he really seemed to miss the pitch last year. I always have faith in him finding his nasty slider — to have another elite secondary pitch alongside the breaker could go miles in returning Severino to his former glory.