Yankees Magazine: Back to basics

Luis Severino had to take a few steps back to prove to himself -- and everyone else -- that the rotation was where he belonged

Yankees Magazine: Back to basics

It seems almost impossible when you think about it, that it all happened in just one year.

On July 2, 2016, Luis Severino was sitting in a dugout in Buffalo, N.Y., as a member of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. He had started the season on the Yankees' major league roster with a heap of lofty expectations on his shoulders following a successful 11-game big league debut in 2015. But seven straight rough starts left the Yankees and Severino wondering how things had gone so wrong.

Many of the other guys on the RailRiders' roster hadn't had a taste of big league life. The 264-mile bus trip to Buffalo didn't leave as bitter a taste in their mouths because they hadn't yet savored the first-class plane rides awaiting them in The Show. They didn't know what it felt like to have a packed Yankee Stadium cheering them on.

But Severino did, and he was craving another taste. It wasn't just because the perks are better and life is easier as a big leaguer. Severino needed to get back to the Bronx to prove who he truly was. To show where he truly belonged.

"It was hard, and it was frustrating," Severino recalls. "They gave me the opportunity to be a starter for the Yankees, and I lost it. I knew I had the stuff to be a major league starting pitcher, and I didn't know what was going on."

Through those first seven starts in 2016, opponents were batting .327 against Severino, who was sent down with an 0-6 record and a 7.46 ERA. Hitters were feasting on his four-seam fastball, batting .356 with five home runs against the pitch. Back in Triple-A, Severino settled down. He went 7-1 and held opponents to a .223 batting average while he waited to be called back up to where he believed he belonged.

Eventually, the young pitcher did return to New York's rotation, but the struggles inexplicably re-emerged. In two August starts, Severino pitched eight total innings and gave up 12 earned runs. The Yankees sent Severino back down, and when they recalled him in September, they moved the right-hander into the bullpen. And lo and behold, his stuff played well there. Severino went 3-0 with a minuscule 0.39 ERA in 11 games out of the bullpen -- numbers that had fans and analysts wondering if maybe he was meant to be a reliever.

Severino knew in his heart that he was a starter. He really believed it.

Severino's dominant start

What if he was wrong?

"The bullpen helped me realize I just wanted to be in the big leagues," he says. "If they want me as a starter or as a reliever, I just want to be here."

That attitude was impressive. But even beyond the commendable willingness to do what was best for the team, pitching coach Larry Rothschild saw something else from Severino.

"You saw his stuff," Rothschild says, "and at times it was pretty dominating. You like to have that kind of stuff on the mound for as long as you can. Coming out of the bullpen was probably a good experience for him, but we felt like what would be best for him, and for us in the long run, would be for him to be a starter."

To reach that end, Rothschild and Severino had to pinpoint the problem the pitcher was having … then find a solution.

***

Back home in the Dominican Republic during the offseason, Severino gave himself one goal: He would earn back his spot in the Yankees' rotation. That meant he had to return to the basics.

To be a successful major league starter, commanding an arsenal of pitches is the major key, and it was the biggest thing Severino was missing in 2016. He was determined to find his target again.

"I didn't have my fastball command or my slider," he says. "My change-up wasn't there. I had a lot of things I needed to fix, and not little things that I could just fix quickly."

Basically, nothing worked. And he had an idea why: "Maybe I didn't work hard enough in the offseason."

He looked at everything he did on the mound in 2016, and a few problems jumped out. First of all, he couldn't control his fastball because his mechanics, it seemed, were too complicated.

Complicated is a relative term. To novice eyes, Severino appeared pretty streamlined. But Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez noticed a way to simplify Severino's delivery, and the two spent some time together working out the kinks.

When you watch video of Severino from last season, when he begins his motion, his arms sit belt-high, then he pushes both arms away from his body before moving his right arm back to begin his wind-up.

This season, Severino is still starting with his hands belt-high, but that forward movement is more limited. Instead, he moves his hands only slightly forward before pulling his right arm back. It's small, barely visible. But that, he says, was the fix.

"Pedro told me that doing that would help me make my pitches better and make it easier to command my fastball," Severino says.

Problem No. 2 was his change-up. It was a pitch that he was throwing too fast (91 mph compared to his 96-mph fastball, which wasn't nearly close enough to the 10-mph difference most pitchers aim for), and without any confidence.

"Last year, every time I threw it, I thought it was going to be a ball or they were going to hit it, so getting over that was the hardest part," Severino says. "I had to learn to be comfortable in my ability to throw it for a strike."

Thankfully, though, Severino wasn't starting from zero. No one doubted his stuff. "The very first time I saw him throw, I thought his change-up was good; he just didn't trust it," says CC Sabathia. "Some guys, it takes them a while; other guys can just feel it and do it. Like for me, it just takes me one good time throwing it in the bullpen, and then I'm taking it to the game. But a guy like Andy Pettitte would work on pitches for weeks. Sevy needed to work on his to build trust in it."

For this there was another simple, if counterintuitive, fix: quantity over quality.

"I did bullpens a couple of times a week working on my command and the change-up," Severino says. "With the change, I just needed to start throwing it, so I would keep throwing it more and more."

How much?

"A lot," he says, laughing. "I worked on it every day. I don't even know exactly how many times, but it was a lot."

After months of work, Severino felt like he was ready to be a starter again. At spring training this past February, the Yankees had two spots open in their rotation, and Severino was among a group of youngsters vying for the gig. He went 3-0 with a 3.38 ERA in the spring, and while he was still mastering his command, he was named the fourth starter -- his second straight year breaking camp on the major league roster.

"I knew he was going to be in the big leagues -- his stuff is too good," says catcher Austin Romine. "But it's his work ethic that separates him. I think the struggles help. Everybody fails in this game. This game is mainly about failure and how you respond to it. I think he was able to stay on top of it and rebound off of it really well. He could have reacted a completely different way, but instead he decided to bear down and work hard and get back to being the starting pitcher he is now."

***

Severino sputtered a bit out of the gate, allowing four runs in five innings in his first start of 2017. But the rest of the month was a revelation. In his next three starts, the right-hander went 2-1, struck out 27 batters and held opposing batters to a .145 clip. His confidence was showing more and more with each outing.

"Every time they give me the ball, I'm feeling good," he says. "I know my fastball is there, my slider is there, my change-up is there. Every time they give me the ball, I feel like I'm going to throw a good game.

"Sometimes, when you're in the bullpen before the game warming up, you can see what you have and you'll say, 'I can throw eight shutout innings.' Last year I wasn't feeling that. My fastball command wasn't there; I didn't want to throw my change-up. I was doubting myself. Now, I feel good on every pitch."

With his sophomore struggles behind him, Severino has re-emerged as a confident and effective starting pitcher. The 23-year-old is comfortable throwing any pitch in his arsenal -- a blazing fastball, nasty slider or baffling change-up -- at any time.New York Yankees

As the season has continued, so has Sevy's improvement. There have been some blips, but those have been minor compared to the high points.

On May 24, against Kansas City, the 23-year-old held the Royals to four hits and no runs over eight strong innings in a tight game. Then, a month later, he out-pitched Jose Quintana and struck out a career-high 12 batters. And those punchouts are part of a larger trend for Severino, who in early August ranked fourth in the American League in strikeouts (162) and fifth in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (10.46).

"When you strike out that many guys, you know the stuff is good," Romine says. "He's got one of the better sliders I've ever seen, and he throws 100 miles an hour. And he never slows down. He throws 99 from the first pitch to the last pitch. It's unbelievable to be able to do that and not get tired and do it all year. That's impressive all on its own. When you have professional hitters taking awkward swings on pitches, that shows you how good the pitches are."

The Yankees made it into June without needing a sixth starter, but then the injury bug hit the team. Hard. Through it all, Severino served as an anchor. He says he wants to pitch 200 innings this season and go deep into games. That's what good pitchers do, he says. And he believes that he belongs in that category.

"Confidence will take you a long way," pitcher Adam Warren says. "His stuff has always been powerful and nasty, but to see the confidence come back this year, I think that's why he's done so well."

***

On July 2, 2017, Severino was on a big league mound starting a ballgame. He struggled against the first-place Astros, suffering the loss, but afterward, before boarding a chartered flight back to New York with the rest of the Yankees, news came through that Severino had been named to the All-Star Game along with four of his pinstriped teammates.

Yankees on All-Star selections

"It means a lot," he says, both humbled by and proud of being selected as one of the best pitchers in the American League. "I'm very happy. I'm proud of my teammates, too. I had such a tough 2016, and now I'm going to the All-Star Game. I feel good about myself; I feel good about the work that I do."

"I'm happy for him; it's a big honor," Rothschild says. "He's worked at it and he's gotten to the point where it's warranted, so I'm happy for him. It's his accomplishment, and that's what it's all about."

A year ago, doubt and failure had brought Severino to a low point in his still-young career. But over the ensuing 12 months, the pitcher was willing to change how he worked and the way he pitched in order to get back to the top. It helped, of course, that he always knew who he was. He was -- and is -- a starting pitcher.

Is it a little ironic then, that if he found himself on the mound at the All-Star Game, he would once again have been coming out of the bullpen? "Yeah," he laughs. "But I've been in the bullpen a few times now, and I've got to be comfortable with everything."

Ultimately, Severino did not pitch in the American League's 2-1, 10-inning victory in Miami -- had the game gone into the 11th inning, the right-hander would have gotten the call -- but the experience of being there, and the validation that came with it, was enough. He's comfortable with the way things played out, calling the journey "fantastic." But when the fireworks were over and the players returned to their more familiar haunts, Severino knew he would be getting the ball to start for the Yankees. He'd be right back where he belonged -- with stuff he finally felt confident in.

"I feel good in every pitch," he says. "Now I'm comfortable throwing any pitch with two balls, no strikes, one strike. I feel comfortable throwing anything at any time."

Comfortable with everything -- that's Severino's motto these days. And there's no place Severino feels more comfortable than on a pitcher's mound.

"I love everything about it," he says. "When you're pitching, you're the star. If you don't throw the ball, nothing can happen. So I love that. I love striking out people, getting big outs. I love when I have two strikes and the fans start cheering. I love that."

Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.