2016 In Review: Luis Severino

Preseason Expectations

In retrospect, the expectations of Luis Severino entering this past season were lofty. It’s easy to say that after witnessing his frustrating 2016. Yet, it was hard not to salivate about Severino’s future after he touted a 2.89 ERA in his first eleven big league starts. Would he establish himself as the co-ace with Masahiro Tanaka? I don’t think anybody reasonably expected that, but you couldn’t blame anyone for dreaming. For as great as Severino’s results were in his debut, his 4.37 FIP helped keep expectations a bit more honest. The realistic plan was to have Severino establish himself in the back end of the rotation with something akin to a high-3 ERA and FIP. That would have made him an above average pitcher relative to the rest of the league, which for a 22-year old is a lot to ask of, but didn’t seem crazy at the time.

ZiPS thought Severino was destined for a strong 2016 too. In 154 innings across 30 starts, the model estimated Severino’s ERA/FIP to be 3.80/3.87. That was an excellent projection for a starter of his age, and I think generally covers what most of us hoped out of Severino prior to 2016. After all, his track record seemed to merit it. He dominated the minors and fared quite well with the Yankees during the final stretch of 2015.

What Happened

Severino was never able to get into a groove as a starter. His first start was mediocre, in which he allowed 3 runs over 5 innings on the road against the Tigers. From there, his performance deteriorated. Over his next six starts, Severino allowed less than 4 runs only once. On May 13th, the sixth start in that stretch, he left the game while grabbing his elbow area. Forget that he allowed 7 runs in 2.2 innings, the team’s prized pitcher appeared to be seriously injured. That was far more worrisome than his struggles on the mound. Fortunately, it turned out to be a triceps strain that wouldn’t cost him a significant chunk of the season.

When Severino returned from the disabled list, he was immediately optioned to Triple-A.  While there, the Yankees stressed the importance of Severino resolving his feel for his slider and changeup. Why? His slider lacked the bite it had previously showed, and his changeup was, well, nonexistent. He had no confidence in throwing it whatsoever. Despite better results in Scranton, it wasn’t always enough.

“He threw some better sliders, some better changeups, but I still think there’s work to be done with location of fastball and consistency of his off-speed. I did see some better sliders.”

At the end of July, Severino returned to the big leagues as a reliever and impressed right away. In his first three outings out of the bullpen, he allowed only one run in 8.1 innings. That earned him two starts thereafter, which unfortunately, didn’t go nearly as well. After surrendering 12 runs in those two starts, it was back to the minors for the 22 year-old.

After a couple of tuneups in Scranton, Severino rejoined the Yankees when rosters expanded in September. He was relegated to the bullpen, but pitched well in the role. He made two starts in the last week of the season, but only because the Yankees needed a body in the rotation with Tanaka down.

The split between his performance in the rotation compared to the bullpen was astounding. His 8.50 ERA in 47.2 innings as a starter was cringeworthy, while his 0.39 ERA in 23.1 bullpen frames was impressive.

The silver lining to Severino’s 2016 is that, at minimum, Severino showed the ability to be a dominant reliever. However, overall, this year was a disappointment. Starters are more valuable than relievers, and Severino was expected to be the former. A young starter struggling in his first full season wouldn’t have been a total surprise, even with the high expectations he had. However, a complete flop in the rotation came out of nowhere.

Looking Ahead

The Yankees will have the bullpen as a fallback option, but Severino will undoubtedly enter camp as a starter in the spring. Hopefully, the Yankees let Severino pitch every fifth day for the entire season, whether or not that means spending some time in the minors. Of course, going to Triple-A would mean continued struggles at the big league level, but unless the bullpen is in dire need of help, I’d prefer Severino to remain in the rotation, whether or not it’s at the big league level.

Aside from needing to fill out a questionable rotation next season, long-term rotation options are important as well. Severino’s in the mix with Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green, and Luis Cessa as present options, with others like James Kaprielian down the road. None of these pitchers are expected to offer much in 2017, but none of them were as highly touted as Severino. Kaprielian is the closest in terms of talent, but is also furthest from the majors. With Severino’s innate ability, a bullpen transition shouldn’t be in the cards yet.

By mid-2018, if starting still isn’t working out, then it would make sense to transition him to the bullpen full-time. The Yankees gave Dellin Betances every opportunity to start before giving up on the role, and he never saw the success that Severino has had in the minors. Hopefully, the Yankees remain patient with this talented pitcher as well.

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