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A primer on Luis Severino

Yankees fans are watering at the mouth at the prospect of seeing Luis Severino in pinstripes on Wednesday night, and for good reason. Severino, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2012, could be one of the best starters produced by the Bombers’ farm system in a long time (that is, if he remains a starter, but more on that later.) The hype has been substantiated by the usual prospect-evaluating outlets, as Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus have all tagged him with Top Fifty status either before or during the 2015 season, with MLB.com ranking him as high as twenty-third.

After 113 solid 2014 innings between Charleston, Tampa, and Trenton in which he pitched to a 2.47 ERA with a 4.7 strikeout to walk (K/BB) ratio, Severino has arguably been even better in 2015. He picked up where he left off in Trenton to start 2015, posting a 3.38 ERA with a 4.8 K/BB ratio in 38 innings. Then, he was promoted to AAA, and he hasn’t looked back. In 61 1/3 innings, he’s pitched to a 1.91 ERA, including a six-inning, ten-strikeout, no-earned-run performance last Wednesday.

This season, Severino has done a better job of pounding the strike zone. After throwing about 64% of pitches for strikes last season, he’s upped that closer to 66% this season. Severino has done this by getting ahead in the count. He threw 36% of pitches in 0-1, 0-2, 1-2, or 2-2 counts in Trenton in 2014, but he’s thrown 40% of his pitches in those counts in 2015.

While Severino’s performance at AAA has been the best of his young career at first glance, looking to the peripherals shows a different side of the story. Severino has routinely struck out ten batters per nine innings throughout his time in the minor leagues, but that’s not been the case in Scranton, as he has struck out only 7.3 batters per nine in his 11 starts there. Batters are making much more contact against Severino. At AAA Trenton in 2014 and 2015, batters made contact with about 71% of Severino’s offerings that they swung at. In Scranton, that number has risen to 83%.

That hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in Severino’s groundball rate. In fact, that’s dropped too. His opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which lies around .300 for most pitchers, is .237 in AAA this season, signaling that he’s getting lucky because batters are hitting the ball directly at RailRider fielders. This luck can’t last forever.

Severino has been getting batters to hit more fly balls, which isn’t great (especially in Yankee Stadium) but better than having them hit line drives. One positive aspect of Severino’s performance has been the fact that he’s reduced the percentage of line drives that batters have hit above 20% earlier in his career to 16% this season. Furthermore, while Severino hasn’t been fooling batters as much as he did in the lower levels of the minor leagues, his 2.5 BB/9 is right around his career mark of 2.3 BB/9. And while he doesn’t deserve sparkling 1.91 ERA, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a measure that evaluates pitchers on the walks, strikeouts, and home runs credited to them that is acknowledged to be a better measure of the ability to prevent runs than ERA, still gives him an excellent 2.52 during his time in AAA. His career FIP across all minor league levels? 2.52.

Severino has been a monster in the minor leagues, as he’s pitched to a 2.30 ERA in 320 2/3 professional innings. It’s reasonable to expect less dominating performances in some aspects as he moves up the ranks. Nobody doubts that Severino possesses a plus major league quality arm, but questions remain about his small 6’0, 190 lb. frame. It’s hard for many to see someone that small making his way through 200 innings in a season. Baseball Prospectus scout CJ Wittmann said as much in a report from August 2014, believing Severino’s ultimate fate was as a shutdown eighth reliever. Although the pitcher doesn’t seem to have grown much since last season, another BP scout, Al Skorupa, was more optimistic when seeing Severino this May, believing him to be future closer or number three starter. The Yankees seem to also be taking an optimistic view on the 21-year-old’s durability, as Brian Cashman has said that they’re not placing an innings limit on him.

Regardless of whether Severino ends up as a starter or reliever, there’s no denying that he possesses two excellent pitches and one solid pitch to back it up. His fastball, which has increased slightly from 92-96 on average last season to 93-97 this season, and his changeup, which is deceptive and tricky, are both considered plus offerings. His slider is clearly his third best pitch, but if he can eventually establish better command with it, it should serve its purpose of being an average breaking ball. It will be fun to see the young pitcher take the Yankee Stadium mound Wednesday night.