NEW YORK — On Tuesday night, in the Yankees’ 152nd game of the season, staff ace Luis Severino finally made his 2019 debut. The 25-year-old righty, who after back-to-back All-Star seasons had been laid up by shoulder woes since spring training, spun four scoreless innings in an 8-0 rout of the Angels. His fastball sizzled, topping out at 98.8 mph and sitting 96-97, and his tantalizing performance fuels hopes that he can make a substantial postseason contribution to a 99-win team whose rotation has been its weakest link.
“That’s Sevy out there,” gushed catcher Austin Romine afterwards. “We need Sevy where we’re going. He’s pitched in big games for us and we look forward to him pitching in more big games for us.”
Romine could be forgiven for forgetting the quality of Severino’s last big game (six runs in three innings in Game 3 of last year’s AL Division Series against the Red Sox) and focusing on the fact that the Yankees simply don’t have any other starter of Severino’s caliber. In both 2017 and ’18, the young righty threw least 190 innings, notching at least 220 strikeouts and 5.0 WAR, and receiving down-ballot Cy Young consideration. His 11.0 WAR in that span trailed only Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, and Corey Kluber, a group that accounted for three of the four Cy Youngs awarded.
Tuesday night qualified as a big game only in the grand scheme of things, as relatively little was at stake in the standings. The Yankees began the night with a nine-game AL East lead over the Rays, and a magic number of three to clinch, though in the battle for the AL’s top postseason seed, they were also tied with the Astros at 98-53. The Angels (68-83) have not only clinched a losing season, but their lineup has been defanged, as Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Justin Upton have recently been shut down due to season-ending injuries, while Tommy La Stella hasn’t played since July 2.
At the other end of the spectrum, Severino experienced seemingly endless delays in getting his season started. Less than three weeks after signing a four-year, $40 million extension, he was scratched from his Grapefruit League debut due to a bout of rotator cuff inflammation. Soon afterwards, he suffered a Grade 2 strain of his latissimus dorsi, then experienced a significant setback while rehabbing in late June. Not until early August did he resume throwing off a mound, and with the minor league season dwindling, his rehab became something of a race against the clock. He did manage to squeeze in a trio of minor league starts earlier this month, one at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on September 1 and then two for Double-A Trenton during the Eastern League playoffs, maxing out at 64 pitches on September 11.
Prior to Tuesday’s game, manager Aaron Boone said he expected Severino to throw a maximum of 70-75 pitches. He was upbeat about his ace’s potential: “His stuff has been good, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes out and pitches really well. He may have some rust on him, some nerves, those kind of things for being the first start.”
Severino did indeed show some rust right off the bat. Leadoff hitter Brian Goodwin fouled off five straight two-strike pitches and battled his way to a 12-pitch walk, before David Fletcher followed with a single. Severino escaped by starting a forceout off the bat of Kole Calhoun, then inducing Albert Pujols to ground into a 6-4-3 double play. Still, the fact that he threw 19 pitches in the first inning without getting a single swinging strike was a bit unsettling.
The rest of his outing went much more smoothly, as Severino retired nine of the final 11 Angels he faced. In the second inning, he notched his first swinging strike of the night (on his 30th pitch) and his first strikeout, blowing a 97-mph four-seam fastball past Jared Walsh, then fooled the next batter, Luis Rengifo, with an 85.7 mph slider for his second K. After issuing an eight-pitch walk to Michael Hermosillo to lead off the third, he came back to strike out Anthony Bemboom on a foul tip on a 97-mph heater, then needed just four pitches to dispatch Goodwin and Fletcher.
Calhoun led off the fourth with a single into left center; at 98.7 mph, it was the first hard-hit ball Severino surrendered all night. He needed just seven more pitches to get three outs, including a four-pitch strikeout of Andrelton Simmons, who foul tipped an 88.1 mph changeup into the glove of Romine. Walsh’s 106.5 mph routine grounder to second base, on Severino’s final pitch of the night, was the only other hard-hit ball he gave up.
Per Baseball Savant, Severino’s four-seamer averaged 96.6 mph for the night (one full mile per hour lower than last year’s average) and peaked at 98.8; in the fourth inning, he emptied the tank, averaging 97.8 mph on his final nine fastballs.
“I felt very comfortable out there, the pitches were working great, everything was working great,” said a cheerful Severino afterwards. “I’ve been looking forward since [the injury] happened in spring training. It’s been a long time, a long road back.”
He felt stronger as the game progressed: “[Boone] told me I was getting a little bit tired because he saw a couple 93-94. I said ‘No, I’m not done. You want to see more, I can go out there and throw 98, it’s not a problem.”
Severino generated nine swinging strikes from among his 67 pitches, for a healthy swinging strike rate of 13.4%; throw out that first inning and it was 18.3%. Seven of his nine swinging strikes came via his four-seamer, with the other two via his slider. The quality of competition aside — only the top three Angels in the lineup had a wRC+ of at least 100 — the only nit to pick was with his lack of efficiency; he averaged 4.47 pitches per batter, and generated 18 foul balls, 16 of which came with two strikes. Both hits he allowed came on two-strike pitches.
“What I loved is just how in control he was with his delivery,” said Boone. “The stuff was very good, but it wasn’t like he was reaching for it or trying to do it. He really stayed within himself the entire night and really gave us four outstanding innings… I thought he really commanded his fastball well, flashed some really good sliders, the changeup was decent. All things that hopefully will continue to get tightened up even more.”
Said Romine, “I don’t really know anything other than what you saw out there tonight from him. He’s a fierce competitor and he really likes to be out there on the mound and get after it. I enjoyed seeing the 97-98, that was fun to see. The slider had good depth… He wanted to throw [his changeup], he was confident in it. Three-pitch mix and he was throwing hard, so that’s good for us.”
Indeed, Severino’s performance was a most welcome sign for the embattled Yankees rotation, which entered Tuesday ranked sixth in the league in ERA (4.61), 10th in FIP (4.83), and eighth in WAR (9.6), all of which would be less of a problem if the AL’s other five potential postseason teams — one of which will be left on the outside looking in — didn’t outrank them in all three categories:
Of the Yankees’ starters, only James Paxton owns an ERA and a FIP better than league average. Walks and homers have been significant problems across the board:
|Lg Avg SP||4.75||102||4.64||100||1.52||21.9%||7.6%||14.3%|
Paxton aside, things have very much gone downhill in the second half:
|Masahiro Tanaka||1st Half||105.0||3.86||4.26||2.1|
|James Paxton||1st Half||76.1||4.01||3.65||2.0|
|Domingo Germán||1st Half||74.0||3.77||4.18||1.5|
|J.A. Happ||1st Half||89.2||5.02||5.37||0.7|
|CC Sabathia||1st Half||76.0||4.03||5.27||0.6|
With Severino back in the fold, and so many problems elsewhere, Boone has already made up his mind to take a decidedly unorthodox approach with his rotation in the postseason, telling Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, “We’re going to be a little untraditional. The only one we might use as a traditional starter is Paxton.”
By untraditional, Boone means a departure from the expectation that his starters will pitch as deep into games as possible before turning things over to the bullpen. Severino, Tanaka, Germán (whose 144.2 combined innings are 52.1 more than last year and 21 beyond his previous career high, set in 2017), Sabathia (who’s limping to the finish line, having just concluded his fourth stay on the injured list this season), and Happ (who’s battling biceps tendinitis) could all be used in piggyback type outings, not unlike what the Yankees did on September 12 against the Tigers, with Sabathia, in his latest return from the IL, throwing 3.1 innings and 56 pitches, and Germán following with four innings and 50 pitches. Chad Green, who’s made 14 starts totaling 18.1 innings, could be used as an opener as well. The idea is to aim for favorable matchups and limit pitchers’ exposure the third time through the order. By wOBA, all five of the above starters have been worse than league average under such conditions:
|AL SP Average||.316||.335||.334|
Of the 53 AL pitchers who have faced at least 80 batters in third-time-through situations, Sabathia’s wOBA ranks 52nd, Tanaka 50th, Paxton 44th, Germán 39th, and Happ 36th. Not pretty.
The other facet of this, of course, is the Yankees’ bullpen, which entered Tuesday ranked fifth in the AL in ERA- (89, via a 4.11 ERA), but second in FIP- (also 89, via a 4.18 FIP) and first in WAR (7.0). Their relief corps — Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, and Tommy Kahnle — haven’t collectively been as strong as last year’s unit, however, and after the game, the team found out that Dellin Betances, who had rehabbed his way back from his own shoulder miseries to make his season debut on September 15, partially tore his left Achilles tendon during that outing, shelving him for the year. Nonetheless, they do have additional depth. Green has pitched very well (2.88 ERA and 2.74 FIP in 56.1 innings) since returning from a Triple-A refresher course, Luis Cessa has been solid in the second half (2.75 ERA and 4.13 FIP in 36 innings), and Jordan Montgomery, who started 29 games as a rookie in 2017 but just six last year before undergoing Tommy John surgery, made his season debut on September 15 as well.
How that all plays out remains to be seen, but with time on the calendar for two more outings — and health permitting, of course — Severino could build up his pitch count towards 100. A fully operational ace, something the Yankees have lacked all season, would be a most welcome shot in the arm.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.