Baseball front office personnel often come to a crossroads with a player. They will contemplate, "What role is this player best suited?" In simplistic terms, there is a 50/50 shot - a proverbial coin flip - they'll head in the right direction.
That fork in the road came up rather quickly for the Yankees concerning right-hander Luis Severino. At 23 years old, Severino entered the 2017 season with a slew of questions that originated from a disappointing 2016 season, in which he flopped as a starting pitcher in the big leagues, but dominated as a reliever.
The disparity was so large that the debate during the offseason leading up to 2017 centered on Severino's spot on the pitching staff. Was he a starter or a reliever?
The Yankees entered Severino in the rotation competition during spring training, wisely refusing to bail on the young, high-upside pitcher. He was not dominant in exhibitions, however, he demonstrated he put in the required work over the offseason to keep him a starting pitcher. Severino also displayed an energy that suggested he was going to leave nothing to chance.
Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez can be thanked for destroying the narrative that Severino was destined to be a reliever. Through Martinez's assistance, Severino rediscovered his changeup, which had failed him in 2016. The changeup usage and its continued improvement as the season progressed was integral to his ability to take a major step in 2017.
In 193 1/3 innings, Severino went 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA (152 ERA+), 1.04 WHIP, and 230 strikeouts. He walked batters at a 2.4 BB/9 clip and allowed 21 home runs (1.0 HR/9). Severino not only regained confidence in the changeup, he proved he could utilize it in the right situations, and locate it appropriately. Combined with his high-octane fastball and nasty slider, the changeup played very well.
Severino was quite consistent, something that may not be expected of a player pitching at 23 years old. He vaulted to the top of the Yankees rotation, and it was not simply because of Masahiro Tanaka's falloff. Severino ended up third in Cy Young Award voting, putting him into the conversation of the top rising pitchers in baseball.
The Dominican Republic product overcame his lack of confidence in 2017, and once he became completely comfortable with his three-pitch repertoire, he took off. For Severino, the momentum was real, and it seemed with each start he grew more as a strategic pitcher that happened to have electric stuff.
In 2018, the question for Severino is no longer whether he should be a starter, but rather if he can improve upon his stellar 2017 campaign, and what his ceiling might be. Signs point to a pitcher that now thrives on the expectations, rather buckling under them. The mental aspect of handling the game seemingly caught up to Severino's talent level. As such, his success in 2017, should translate well in 2018.
There is one caveat.
In my view, Severino's potential to succeed in 2018 has to do with his ability to stay physically strong. This is easier said than done for any pitcher that pushed through a 58-inning increase to reach a career-high in innings pitched.
The Yankees should resist allowing Severino to overdo it early on, but rather have him set for "hands off mode" once the temperatures warm in June, and into the summer. The Yankees have the luxury of a deep bullpen, and might maintain the ability to go six pitchers deep in the rotation when they desire -- whether by adding another starter before spring training begins, or through minor league depth.
Leaning on both team qualities would aid Severino's strength as the regular season winds down, making him as viable as possible for a potential postseason run.
The few projections I've seen on Severino seem to suggest a slight regression. In part, the lack of history may be affecting estimations, and the analytics are still providing some weight to Severino's 2016 performance.
Personally, I believe Severino can continue positive growth in 2018. I'm typically more conservative when suggesting performance, however, secondary analytics points to a pitcher primed to contend for the Cy Young Award once again rather than fall back.
I'll peg Severino for 190 regular season innings with a 2.80 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 235 strikeouts (11.1 K/9) with the qualification that he needs to maintain or improve his walk and home run rates from 2017. Severino resembles the type of pitcher that is able to take what he learns from one season to the next to boost his production.
Severino will face higher expectations from the outset of the season, especially when pitted against other elite pitchers in the game. He fared quite well in spotlight starts in 2017 regular season, in fact, he seemed to flourish in those moments. Though Severino spectacularly faltered in the American League Wild Card game, he showed he could flip the script when put back on the big stage of the postseason.
Severino is ready to lead the Yankees rotation, which is a great thing for a team committed to a youth movement. As he enters the prime seasons of his career, Severino is poised to become an elite arm in the game, one which is fully capable of carrying his club now and for years to come.