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Luis Severino is missing a vertical weapon

Sevy’s ugly results may be in part due to the tweak in his arsenal favoring the cutter over the changeup.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Luis Severino couldn’t get any traction coming off the IL in late May, failing to string together any prolonged run of quality starts in May, June, and July. His first start went well but was capped at 75 pitches, in which he almost qualified for the win — 4.2 innings and one earned run against the upstart Reds in a hitter-friendly ballpark. He hasn’t recaptured success consistently since then.

As we all know, Sevy is a bulldog, and more often than not wills himself through at least five innings even on days when he doesn’t have it. To see him struggle like he has is rare if not unprecedented. He insists he’s healthy, but something is very wrong, injury or not. The juxtaposition of his Statcast page for each year is perplexing. Hitters decline quickly and sometimes suddenly, a la Josh Donaldson, but an established above-average starting pitcher doesn’t normally lose it over the course of one offseason.

In his abbreviated 2022, Severino posted these metrics more or less aligned with his career numbers. Great at limiting hits and slugging, some hard contact problems, but a strike-thrower with great stuff providing plenty of whiffs:

The 2023 version is not a great sequel. This many bottom quartiles on all facets of his game is alarming:

What might be at fault for his seemingly inexplicable decline? Severino’s only significant arsenal change from last year to this one was his cutter’s slight uptick in usage and in movement. It hasn’t worked well — right now, with a .400 batting average against on the pitch, he’s turning opposing hitters into Ted Williams more often than not with his reworked cutter. This year, it’s come in a few ticks slower with less depth and more horizontal cutting action.

Clarke Schmidt made virtually the same adjustment around June with his cutter to turn his season around. His was averaging about 91 mph with mediocre movement, stuck in the no-man’s-land of not being firm enough to blow by hitters, yet not being bendy enough to miss bats. Severino faces this same dilemma without the tools Schmidt has, namely the sweeper which has a pronounced vertical element.

It worked for Schmidt because the decreased velocity and increased movement pattern offered a new dimension of cutting action that differentiated it further from his sinker and sweeper. The thing is, though, his breaking ball behaves differently from Severino’s. Schmidt has the vertical plane accounted for with his north-south sweeper — Severino does not have a weapon that dives out of the zone except for his changeup, a flatter pitch erring away from a Tommy Kahnle-esque deep diver.

The lack of strikeout numbers could plausibly come back to the same reason. At 10.4 inches of horizontal movement, Sevy’s slider doubles the average major league slider. He has a devastatingly slanted east-west shape on it — so much so that the cutter represents a similar pattern, but with less movement at a lower velocity. He’s got giddyup on his fastball, yes, but because hitters can sit east-west on his secondary stuff, that becomes less useful. The book on Sevy for a right-handed hitter is now simple: foul off the fastballs and key in on the horizontal movement on the outside half.

Severino’s cutter has been tattooed by hitters and it may be his wipeout slider creating a comfort level for hitters seeing the cutter. The shape now is pushing closer to his slider shape and arguably the two pitches have become counterproductive to one another.

The changeup is his only moderately effective pitch so far for this same reason with an xBA of .256. It adds the third dimension of vertical break — the hitter must account for this downward turn, even a mediocre one, rather than simply judging the magnitude of cutting action. The cutter plays more like a traditional “cut-fastball” that we saw from the likes of Jon Lester for many years and his slider is handcuffed by the cutter.

None of these revelations fix his walk rate and he’s a long way off from contributing. Veteran pitchers don’t normally start walking batters at a ballooning rate without there being an underlying injury issue; Severino’s diminished velocity, climbing walk rate and decreased extension make that theory hold even more water. Carlos Rodón’s return makes it sting less, but only a little. Yankees fans would’ve loved to see the long-tenured Severino put up a strong walk year and secure the bag for himself after we watched him grow from a rookie to a veteran leader.

One thing about Sevy is even amid struggles, when the lights are brightest, he always finds a way to show up and help the team win. He’s overcome remarkable injury adversity in his career and if there’s anyone I have faith in to make the adjustment, it’s Severino.