After a promising beginning to his MLB career in 2015, Luis Severino has struggled in the early goings of his sophomore season. He has an unsightly 6.86 ERA with a disappointing 5.29 K/9, but his 1.37 BB/9 and 3.61 FIP hold promise for a better tomorrow. Before we can consider how he can turn things around, we have to identify what he is doing wrong.
Severino has only three walks this season, but so far he's exhibited bad command of the strikezone. A vast majority of his pitches end up in the heart of the plate because he's missing spots, throwing bad strikes, and getting punished for it.
The pitch he might have the least control over is his slider, which should be his out pitch, but is actually getting hammered. It's his second most used pitch behind his fastball, but a 48.6% swing-rate means it's swung at the most, and a 6.5% whiff-rate proves that batters aren't being fooled by it. The problem is that a good portion of the sliders he has thrown end up in the upper portion of the zone when they should be toward the bottom where batters can swing before the pitch drops out.
His slider is knocked into play 24.3% of the time, which is highest amongst his selection, and not what the pitch should be doing. When you end up with a high slider, the pitch drops into the heart of the plate as a meatball that's just waiting to get pummeled.
I took a look at some of the video MLB.com has of Severino, and a lot of the hits he allowed were due to him missing his spots. Over and over again you can see the catcher having to move his glove in order to catch the ball, but the batter has already whacked it into play. Here's a good example from when Severino allowed a home run to Mark Canha during the series against the Oakland Athletics. It was a 91 mph slider in a bad location.
In case you didn't see it, here it is again:
The green ring is where the catcher set up, and the red ring is where the ball actually went. Austin Romine was looking for a knee-high slider that could dip out of the zone and get Canha to chase, but the ball stayed up around belt-high right over the outside part of the plate, giving the batter the perfect pitch to launch out of the stadium.
As Paul O`Neill put it during Severino's last start, batters can tell right out of his hand if the pitch will be a strike or a ball. Nothing he throws gives the illusion it will be a strike before dipping out the zone, so he mostly relies on velocity to get hitters out. It's no wonder he has an 83% contact rate, after an 87.7% last year, and only a 7.8% swinging strike rate, compared to a 9.6% in 2015. While his slider is to blame for a lot of his woes, an unexpected rise in changeup velocity can't be ruled out either.
Every other pitch he throws has stayed within 1 mph of what it averaged last year, but his changeup has actually gotten 1.2 mph faster. That doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that most pitchers generally have a 10-mph difference between their fastball and changeup, Severino only having a 6.6-mph difference could cause some problems. The changeup is supposed to "change things up" from the overpowering velocity of the fastball, but if the variance isn't pronounced enough, a fast changeup really just looks like a slow fastball.
Luckily he hasn't been punished too hard by the pitch, but it's mainly because he's having trouble throwing it for strikes–it's a ball 45% of the time, which is easily the highest among his pitches. At nearly 17% it's the pitch batters have whiffed at the most so far, but considering how little he uses it in comparison to the fastball and slider, along with his control problems, it's not a number that looks very sustainable.
What is the cause of this spike in velocity? As Meredith Marakovits mentioned during a broadcast, Severino is aware his fastball and changeup aren't very far apart velocity-wise, and he blames it simply on the fact that he's a little too amped up when he takes the mound. It's understandable for a young pitcher to get excited in the big leagues, and it's good to know that it's simply a case of too much adrenaline, but now that he's identified the issue, and the cause, it's time to adjust.
His slider command and velocity spike don't sound like insurmountable problems, but Severino's inexperience will likely make adjusting a difficult process. He is only 22 and has never really struggled at any level before because he's always been able to just let it fly and reap the benefits. Now that he has to adapt and change, it could take a little longer than everyone is comfortable with, so a trip back to Scranton might not be out of the question. No matter what, Severino has a tremendous arm. It's gotten him this far, and now, for the first time in his life, he just needs to adapt. Figure out where his pitches are going, remain composed on the mound, and things will work out.