Through the first couple of games of this ALDS against the Yankees, the focus on the Red Sox side of things has been almost entirely on the pitching staff. There was concern about Chris Sale, but he put that out of people’s minds with a strong performance in Game 1. However, the bullpen tried its hardest to blow that first game as well, getting the worry-meter higher than we’d like. Then, in Game 2, David Price had another rough postseason performance, and that was the narrative. The bullpen also had a bounce-back game there, for what it’s worth. All of that is to say that the biggest headlines for the Red Sox in this series have involved the men on the mound.
There’s very good reason that is true, but the offense has been a big part of this series too. They got off to a great start in the first game to catapult the team to a win, though they also struggled in the second half of that game to allow a comeback to nearly be complete by the Yankees. Then, Boston’s lineup failed to get much of anything going, which only magnified the pitching failures in that game. They have the talent to make the pitching less important than its been — at least, insofar as anything can be less important this time of year — and they’ve shown that off all year long. They have a chance to make that felt again in Yankee Stadium on Monday. It’s not going to be easy against Luis Severino, though.
Severino has fallen in and out of favor with New York this year, but ultimately he is the ace of the staff if they are to have one. He has the talent to be among the top pitchers in the game, and for the most part he showcased that talent this year. Overall, the righty threw 191 1⁄3 innings over 32 starts and pitched to a 3.39 ERA (129 ERA+) with a 2.98 FIP and a 2.79 DRA. So, the peripherals certainly indicate he was closer to the elite pitcher he was in 2017 than the ERA may suggest.
However, things were much more inconsistent than that and simply looking at his full-season numbers may not really tell the whole story. In the first half of the year, the young righty was certainly among the top pitchers in the game. Through the All-Star break, with 20 starts under his belt, Severino had pitched to a 2.31 ERA and was right in the thick of early Cy Young conversations. However, in the second half he crumbled to the tune of a 5.57 ERA, becoming much more hittable. His peripherals — or, at least his strikeout and walk numbers — actually got better in this run, but his opponents’ OPS rose from .580 to .821. Some of that was luck, but that’s too big of a jump to put it all on bad luck.
Fortunately for New York and unfortunately for, well, everyone else, Severino turned things back on towards the end of the year. Over his last three starts of the year he pitched to a 2.04 ERA over 17 2⁄3 innings while allowing a .571 OPS. That includes a seven-inning start against the Red Sox in which he allowed just one run. He also got the start against Oakland in the Wildcard Game and he delivered four scoreless innings with seven strikeouts, though he did also walk four. So, with Severino seemingly back on track, the Red Sox need to figure out how to get him back into his July/August form.
Looking at some numbers from different points of the Yankee righty’s season, the answer comes down to one thing: Jump on the fastball when you can. This is much easier said than done against the hardest-throwing starter in all of baseball, but that really does appear to be the key to beating him. According to Brooks Baseball, in July and August when Severino was significantly worse in terms of OPS-allowed, the biggest difference in his game was that teams were swinging more at their fastball than they were at any other point in the year. Teams weren’t necessarily swinging less at his secondary pitches — some games they did, some games they didn’t — but they were jumping on the fastball. They also weren’t whiffing nearly as much as they had in other points of the season, likely because they were avoiding deep counts. This was also true of the Red Sox this year, as they jumped on the fastball in their successful starts against Severino as well.
This comes back to the entire narrative around this Red Sox offense this year: Being ready to swing at all times. This has been the mantra of Alex Cora and Tim Hyers, and other than the addition of J.D. Martinez this is where most point when covering the changes for the offense this year. When they do well, they are aggressive. When Severino is bad, teams are aggressive. So: Be aggressive! It makes sense in this case too, because for how good his fastball is — and it averages 98 mph — his slider and changeup can be lethal too. If you fall behind in the count and he can start relying on those secondaries and keep you off-balance, it’s over. Severino will certainly pitch backwards and try to keep hitters off-balance at all times, but if the Red Sox can stay disciplined and wait for him to come with the heat, they can succeed.
Like I said, this is going to be easier said than done. There’s a reason he was a Cy Young favorite for the first half of the year and he looks like he’ll be one of the best arms in the American League for the next few years, at least. Severino is wildly talented and tough to beat when he’s on. That said, the Red Sox offense is wildly talented too. They need to be aggressive against that fastball and prevent him from settling into a groove. This Boston offense has been great late in games all year, so failing to get to him early won’t be a death sentence. That said, on the road in a hostile environment, they’ll be well-served if they can set the tone early and take the crowd out of it from the get-go.