When Luis Severino was first called up to the majors, I had visions in my head of an ace. This ace was set to take the Yankee fanbase and the rest of the league by storm, firing 98-mph heaters and wicked changeups all over the place. He was going to take the ball every fifth day, setting the Yankees up with a very good chance to win every time that day occurred.
Some of that luster and shine has since worn off.
When I think of Luis Severino now, however, I still have visions of an ace — a relief ace. And believe me, I’m usually one of the last to give up on someone as a starter. Starters impact the game in a way that relievers can’t. As dominant as Clayton Kershaw would be as a short reliever, 240 innings of Kershaw will almost always be more valuable than 65 innings of Kershaw.
Top prospects rarely, if ever, pitch out of the bullpen. Top prospects that end up as relievers at the major-league level are often considered disappointments. Severino was a top prospect. So to box him in as a reliever this early in his career is to theoretically ascertain that he’s been a disappointment. (Remember, relievers rarely convert back into starters.)
And I do truly believe that Severino has it in him to become a quality major-league starter. He has a legitimate three-pitch mix to combat both righties and lefties, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this season, he’s potentially a tweak in secondary offerings away from having everything click. However, it’s prudent to deal in expected outcomes rather than best-case scenarios, and allow me to present you with some information that might convince you on Luis Severino, reliever.
He’s better as a reliever.
Duh. This is obvious, even if you didn’t look at the numbers.
1) Almost every pitcher gets better as a reliever.
2) If Severino was an exception to 1), then I wouldn’t be writing this article.
But even in a limited sample size, Severino’s splits are extreme. Take a gander at his 2016 starter/reliever splits:
|As SP||As RP|
The walk rate is actually better as a starter. And obviously, the BABIPs and HR/9 are going to regress somewhat closer together. However, those discrepancies almost definitely also indicate a corresponding discrepancy in quality of contact, and every other component (minus the walk rate) is significantly better as a reliever. It’s hard to argue that Severino isn’t much, much more effective as a reliever, even relative to other potential starter-to-reliever converts.
To drill home the point even further that Severino may not cut it as a starter, take a look at the results through turns of the opposing batting order (in starts):
|1st Time||2nd Time||3rd Time|
Looking at these numbers, it’s clear that Severino breaks down as he faces hitters multiple times in a game. The only reason that the decrease in all of the categories isn’t linear is because, in Severino’s worst starts, he often gets knocked out during the second time through the order and never gets to face the hitters for the third time when he’s at his worst.
The one interesting takeaway, though, is that walk rate, which is something we also saw in comparing his starting/relieving splits. Oddly enough, we seem to have found a pitcher that is more effective when he walks more batters, or at least in this limited sample size. Of course, keep in mind that walk rate represents control, not command. When Severino struggles, it’s when he’s susceptible to the home run ball, and that probably has to do with him leaving too many pitches in hittable spots, thus justifying his lower walk rate.
Relievers are more valuable than at any time in recent history.
Long gone, until this past postseason, are the days of multi-inning relief aces. Teams are starting to deploy their best relievers in the most leverage-efficient ways, as can be seen with the Indians and Andrew Miller. Teams are also starting to recognize that they weren’t valuing elite relievers as much as they should, as can be seen with the hauls at the most recent deadline, hauls of which the Yankees often happened to be on the receiving end. We will likely see this correction in valuation again this offseason, as I wouldn’t be shocked to see Kenley Jansen more than double the previous record for a reliever contract (Jonathan Papelbon, $50 million).
Obviously, it would be a huge benefit to the Yankees’ current roster if Severino could step in and be a five-win starter. But it would also be a benefit should Severino be able to step in as an elite fireman, giving the Bombers another shutdown option to pair with Dellin Betances. And the likelihood of the latter outcome is so much greater than the likelihood of the former that a conversion probably makes sense at this point, despite how early it is in Severino’s career.
Severino is perfectly equipped to be a multi-inning type of reliever.
One of the issues with the Yankees’ development of Severino is that they limited his starts in the minor leagues, so Severino never got used to stretching out and pitching in the seventh inning and beyond in the minors. But because of this limited usage, it also greatly helped his minor league numbers, which are objectively excellent.
However, as a starter-turned-reliever, like a Dellin Betances, Severino has the built-up endurance to go multiple innings in a relief appearance, as he did multiple times this season.
The other thing that benefits Severino in this role is that he carries reverse platoon splits, and relatively mild ones at that. Over his career, righties hit .255/.314/.486 against him while lefties hit .254/.331/.396. Oftentimes, starters with huge platoon splits are converted into relievers because it allows managers to maximize their usage in dominant situations, like against same-handed hitters, while minimizing their usage versus types of batters that hit them better. However, the flip side to that is that ROOGYs and LOOGYs usually throw fewer than one inning at a time. Severino, as someone who utilizes both a slider and changeup to neutralize both sides when he’s going well, can stay in games as a reliever for longer because his manager doesn’t have to worry about manipulating his matchups as much.
Like I said before, a reliever wasn’t the role that I envisioned for Severino as an up-and-comer. He has been a starter for his entire career; he probably wanted to be a big-league starter, as did the Yankees. But at this point in time, it looks like there’s at least a decent chance that he never will. And in reality, he doesn’t have to be, especially with the restocked and revamped Yankees farm system that now ranks as one of the best among all 30 teams. The next wave of James Kaprielian, Justus Sheffield, Domingo Acevedo, and others is quickly approaching. Severino doesn’t have to compete with them to be part of the next great Yankees team.
Photo: Noah K. Murray / USA Today Sports