Note: The Yankees have yet to make a decision on who will start the AL Wild Card game next Wednesday. We will be making the case for each of the three possibilities: Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ.
Luis Severino came into this season as the unquestioned ace of the Yankees. He had a phenomenal year last season, finishing third in the AL Cy Young race. And through the first half of this season, Sevy was one of the best pitchers in baseball. At the all-star break, he had a 2.31 ERA to go along with stellar strikeout and walk numbers. Since then? Well, it has been a struggle.
In the second half, Sevy has pitched to a 5.74 ERA and given up nine home runs in just 58 innings. That works out to 1.40 HR/9 which is not good at all. His batting average allowed has gone up from .209 all the way to .298. His fastball has been getting hit harder, but the real issue has been his slider.
Last month, Mike Petriello of MLB.com took a thorough look at what has been going on with Severino’s slider. To sum it up, batters slugged .508 on the slider in Severino’s seven starts following the all-star break after slugging a mere .217 before the break. That is the effect, and the cause is likely because the slider is dropping less, getting less break, and spinning less. The charts below show what has been going on:
All of those changes make the slider less effective, and in turn make it easier to hit Severino’s fastball.
So how do you fix it?
Last month, I wrote about how Chad Green’s slider was less effective than last year and how he started using a changeup to compensate. The same idea can apply to Severino. The changeup gives batters a different look and makes it harder to key in on the fastball. And, to his credit, Severino has started to use the changeup more, as you can see in this chart from Brooks Baseball.
The chart shows pitch usage by start for this season. You can see how in the past month Severino has increased his changeup usage while simultaneously lowering his slider usage. That adjustment may be what has helped him be more effective in his last few starts, including his gem last week against the Red Sox.
On the R2C2 podcast, CC always talks about how Severino is comfortable throwing his changeup to both sides of the plate which makes it an incredibly useful pitch. Hopefully this increased usage of late is indicative of more confidence in the pitch.
Making the case
All of that lead-up is why I think Severino is back to being himself and ready to dominate for the rest of the season. Moreover, I think Severino’s batted-ball profile is better against the A’s than the starters in consideration. Even with his struggles in the second half, Severino’s HR/FB% is still 11.6%. Compare that to Masahiro Tanaka’s 17.5% and J.A. Happ’s 13.3%. The reason that is so important is because the A’s have the highest launch angle in baseball, fly-ball percentage, and hard hit percentage. Those stats indicate that the A’s try to hit the ball in the air, succeed at lifting the ball, and when they do, hit it hard. Against pitchers with a home run problem like Tanaka or a pitcher without dominant stuff like Happ, that can be a recipe for disaster. Home runs are the name of the game today, and limiting those could be the difference in the wild card game.
There is also the intangible aspect to consider. I started this article by calling Severino the “unquestioned ace of the staff,” and in a win-or-go-home situation, that is the guy you want on the mound. He also has a demonstrative bulldog presence on the mound that other players will feed off of. Severino will get pumped up on the mound and that can lead everyone else to get excited and ready to go.
The last consideration is talent, and I saved it for last because I think in this situation it is most important. All of these starters had a bad stretch this year. Tanaka was bad in the first half before turning it around, Happ had a large swoon right in the middle of the season, and Severino had those awful seven starts after the all-star break. None of these guys has had an unquestioned great year, and because of that, I want the most talented guy out there. Severino has by far the best stuff out of these three and the best strikeout numbers. When he is pitching well, few can dominate a game like he can.
In June, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote about Severino’s elite fastball-slider combination. In that post, there is a table of the best pitches by run value. Severino’s slider was the second best pitch in all of baseball and his fastball was the seventh bst. Can you guess how many other pitchers are featured twice on that list? None. Luis Severino is one of the best pitchers in baseball, he has made adjustments this year, he is still the ace of this staff, and that is why he should start the wild card game.