TAMPA, Fla. — There was the usual talk after Luis Severino’s first start of spring training, talk about the changeup he abandoned early last season.
It turned the young righthander into a two-pitch pitcher (fastball, slider) who quickly lost his rotation spot and was sent to the minors, although he eventually salvaged his 2016 season with stellar late-season bullpen work.
Severino pitched two hitless innings Sunday in the Yankees’ 7-2 victory over the Blue Jays at Steinbrenner Field. Afterward, pitching coach Larry Rothschild said that when the 23-year-old headed home after last season, his “homework” assignment had far more to do with working on his fastball than his changeup.
“I said, ‘You have time to do both, but the priority is working on fastball command,’ ” Rothschild said.
“Obviously, the changeup will help, especially if it at times can be a second pitch, but again, you can’t replace anything with command of the fastball. And if you’re going to be a starting pitcher in the major leagues, you better command it. It’s good to develop the changeup and you should be able to do both, but to me, the primary objective is to make sure he can command the fastball.”
Severino struggled to do that last season, when he was demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after going 0-6 with a 7.46 ERA as a starter. He wound up 0-8 with an 8.50 ERA in 11 starts. In 2015, he went 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA in 11 starts after debuting in early August.
While calling Severino’s changeup “a big pitch for him,” Joe Girardi also highlighted fastball issues.
“His command wasn’t as good,” Girardi said in comparing last season to 2015.
The early returns this year have been good, starting with bullpen side sessions, followed by live batting practice sessions, simulated games and, finally, an actual game.
Severino, who struck out one and walked one, is among five pitchers competing for two rotation spots. Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren and Luis Cessa also debuted solidly, and Chad Green will get his first chance to make an impression Monday in Sarasota against Baltimore.
Severino was a terrific bullpen addition late last season — an 0.39 ERA in 11 appearances — but the Yankees view him as a starter and would prefer to see him put a stranglehold on one of the spots.
As does Severino.
“I want to be a starter,” he said, “but if they need me in the bullpen, I’ll do my job.”
Severino took Rothschild’s instructions to heart in the offseason, working on his fastball command and, yes, his changeup. Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, a fellow Dominican, worked with Severino on his mechanics.
Severino arrived in camp about 10 to 12 pounds lighter because he felt he was “too strong” with his changeup last year. In other words, there was not enough separation in velocity between his fastball, which routinely hits the mid-to-high 90s, and his changeup.
“[I have] a lot of confidence in my changeup,” Severino said Sunday. “I threw it a lot in the game and it worked really well.”
Severino was tabbed, along with Greg Bird and Aaron Judge, as “untouchable” by general manager Brian Cashman before the 2015 trade deadline because the Yankees saw him as a potential ace. He lived up to that in his brief time in the big leagues in 2015 before last year’s setback.
One opposing team’s talent evaluator hasn’t been dissuaded. He said Severino belongs only one place.
“He’s still a front-line starter for me,” the scout said Sunday. “Still just 23. Keep throwing him out there. I think he’s been told how good his stuff is, but he doesn’t realize it. The stuff’s good. It’s all there.”