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Yankees Sequence of the Week: Luis Severino finds his fastball

How Sevy got his groove back — or at least, his ability to throw a strike with the heater.

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Throwing strikes is a lot easier said than done. Luis Severino has struggled with it for much of the season. In last Wednesday’s win against Washington, he finally turned it around, throwing 6.2 shutout innings against the last-place Nats, walking two and allowing just a single, solitary hit.

Sometimes, just being in the zone is the answer. There’s a reason that “just throw strikes!” isn’t a useful mantra in the slightest: If it was that easy, everyone would do it, and when you have high-octane stuff, the ability to fill up the zone at will is what separates the good from the great. At his best, Severino was pretty damn good at it. On Wednesday, he got back there again, even if for just a start.

The Nationals hitters aren’t great, it’s true, and as far as the major leagues go, beating them in the zone isn’t exactly a grand accomplishment. For a pitcher who’s gone through the kind season Severino is dealing with, however, re-establishing that command even against subpar hitters is a sigh of relief. Getting Dominic Smith out (91 OPS+ in 124 games for Washington this year) three times isn’t medal-worthy, but it’s good to see Sevy back to using his fastball as a weapon. Let’s take a look at the first couple of pitches of their three face-to-face matchups on Wednesday.

The cutter on which he got the out was an excellent pitch, but it’s set up by that first-pitch fastball for a strike. That fastball, which has been getting absolutely crushed all year, is going to be our focus here. Yeah, it’s right down the middle. But Smith’s first-pitch swing rate is a league-average 31 percent, and he hasn’t seen any of Severino’s stuff yet, making a first-pitch swing potentially unlikelier. It’s a worthwhile enough risk to throw a meatball for the sake of getting ahead. That’s the more important part — he got ahead in the count.

Before last Wednesday, when Severino threw an 0-0 fastball from the windup, it was in the zone 63 percent of the time. Against Washington? All seven of his first-pitch heaters with the bases empty were over the plate. Smith’s right there was the third of those, and by the time Smith came to the plate again in the fifth inning, the Nationals had seen two more of them, plus a couple of first-pitch cutters that skirted the edge of the zone. Smith is a mistake-ball hitter, and he probably wasn’t going to take another middle-middle fastball 0-0. Good thing Severino still has a plus changeup when he throws it well, because he had Smith swinging straight over the top of that vanishing cambio.

Next time, he’s giving him the fastball, but not middle-middle. He consistently paints the top of the zone in the mid- to upper-nineties, and Smith just can’t win the battle.

It’s not so much that they’re great pitches in a vacuum — there are plenty of good hitters who could probably tee off on one of the pitches that Smith fouled off or popped up — but given how often he’s simply been serving them up on a platter, it was good to see him being aggressive with one that he knew wasn’t going to beat him on 96 mph at the top of the zone. There aren’t too many Nationals in that lineup that are going to beat that pitch, when it’s executed. Sevy was executing fastballs, and the Nationals were either taking them — he got 10 called strikes on four-seamers, easily his most of the season — or putting pretty weak swings on them, averaging an 82 mph exit velocity on seven balls in play, topping out at just 96 mph on the ground. It’s definitely an improvement!

That brings us to Smith’s third time up. Sevy hasn’t seen hitters for a third time too much this year. On 0-0, he does it again, getting ahead with a fastball that catches plenty of plate. It’s not what Smith was looking for; he takes.

Now, with the count advantage, Severino tries the same thing he did in the first inning, thinking that Smith still won’t be able to turn around a cutter on the hands coming out of the same tunnel as the fastball down the middle. He misses, though, and the count is even.

Fortunately, in spite of his struggles, Sevy still has a full starter’s arsenal, and he can turn to the changeup, rather than let Smith sit on a fastball. For the second time in two tries, it works. Smith is way ahead of the pitch, and even though this one was almost a Yankee Stadium special, it’s still a pretty good outcome from a pure pitch quality standpoint.

That ball came off the bat at 92.5 mph, had a .150 expected batting average, and Yankee Stadium is the only ballpark where that’s even a close call. Not to mention, you know, Giancarlo Stanton doing large slow man things in right field.

It might be tempting to look at the paltry two strikeouts Severino managed against the Nats and attribute his success purely to batted ball luck. There’s always some involved, to be sure, but one thing that’s true is that Severino executed his fastball better than he has at any other point this season. Even if the whiffs weren’t there, the weak contact was, enabled by all the called strikes he was getting in place of the whiffs. He still has a chance to pitch his way into a reunion conversation with the Yankees after this season — and if he keeps pitching like this, it’ll be a long conversation indeed.