Why is Luis Severino now the Yankees' ace? Put some blame on the Red Sox
“K.I.S.S.”, which stands for “keep it simple, stupid” is one of the popular coaching phrases in baseball. While baseball mechanics is an amalgamation of many body parts working quickly at the same time, sometimes the simple adjustments make the big differences.
Such is the case of the 23-year-old Yankee ace Luis Severino and his offseason tutor Pedro Martinez.
After a promising cup of coffee in 2015 (5-3, 2.89 ERA in 11 starts), Severino was hit hard last year. As a starter, he went 0-8, 8.50 ERA in 11 games, which prompted the team to send him down to Triple A and relegate him to the bullpen role in the big leagues.
As a 'pen arm, Severino showed signs of excellence, pitching to a 0.39 ERA in 23 1/3 innings, which led many to speculate whether his future was a late-inning reliever. However, he was also only 22 years old, which is too young of an age to spell destiny for a pitcher who was a starter for most of his professional career.
The Yankees recognized that and gave Severino a chance to compete for a rotation spot in the spring training, which, boy, seems like a long time ago. After a solid showing in the camp (3.38 ERA in 18 2/3 innings with 6 BB and 20 K), the Yankees put Severino back to the rotation, and he has not looked back at all.
As of this moment, Severino has an 11-6 record with a 3.14 ERA in 2017. At a tender age of 23, he is powering the Yankees team that is currently in the hunt for an AL East title. If you look deeper into his numbers, Severino has struck out well over a hitter per inning (10.58 K/9), limited the amount of walks (2.48 BB/9) and did a reasonable job of keeping the ball in park (1.05 HR/9), which is no easy feat pitching in the Yankee Stadium.
Put those peripherals together and you have one of the best young pitchers of the franchise history. According to Baseball Reference's play index, Severino is the only starting pitcher age 23 or younger in Yankee history with more than a strikeout per inning and less than three walks in nine innings.
For Severino, one of his big steps towards success occurred this past offseason. In January, Brendan Kuty of NJ.com reported that Severino worked with Pedro Martinez on his mechanics. It was said that Severino saw good progress as a result, and he came into the camp with better feel for his pitches and command, which he seemingly carried over to the season.
When asked about what Martinez taught him during the offseason, Severino said that it was not anything regarding pitch mix, mental approach or complex mechanical overhaul. Instead, it was a simple tweak of hand positioning prior to the delivery to get a better rhythm throughout his delivery.
“You know, the thing was that (last year), I was starting with my hands right here,” Severino told the Sporting News, as he emulated his old hand position. Severino held his hands a bit away from his torso, as you can see below from a game from last year:
“(Martinez) told me to keep my hands closer to my body and just go over my pitches,” Severino said as he brought his hands nearer to his torso. You can see the change in the gif below:
By starting the delivery with his hands closer to the body, there are less movement for his arm to get to the high-cocked position, simplifying the process. If you looked at the two deliveries, such difference might not stand out immediately. However, a little subtlety may pay dividends and it applies to what Martinez tweeted back in May: “Pitching is all about timing and rhythm. Sometimes us pitchers just need to make small adjustments, invisible to the normal eye.”
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild can tell you about the result.
“More consistent," Rothschild told Sporting News. “Last year, you saw good pitches from him but it was (overall) inconsistent. He has stabilized his whole delivery and it’s helped develop consistent release point.”
While Martinez’s tutelage deserves credit, it would be a stretch to owe all of Severino’s 2017 success to it. Severino also told Sporting News that his changeup was the biggest difference between his 2016 and 2017 seasons.
According to Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today, Severino also worked diligently over the offseason to be comfortable with throwing his changeup at any count, creating a slider/change mix to go with his fastball. As a result, Severino has decreased the usage of his heater from 55.9 percent to 51.7 percent while increasing the changeup frequency from 9.9 percent to 13.2 percent.
Severino as a newly minted ace this season — and, hopefully for the Yankee fans, a long-term one — many wonder how long this success will last. Even as a top prospect, Severino garnered doubts for his size and mechanics. By averaging at 97.5 mph with his fastball this season, it is not far-fetched to be worried about his long-term arm health.
Also, he's already notched a career high in 2017 with 163 1/3 innings pitched. How will the Yankees control his workload especially if they have to put the pedal to the metal for the postseason? The best answer: it is too early to worry. Severino is simply taking it day-by-day instead of looking way far ahead. Right now, he feels as good as he looks on the mound.
“That’s why we got five days (to rest),” Severino said, “you get your recoveries and you work hard. And right now, I feel good. My body’s recovering very well.”