All summer long, as they repeatedly defied injury misfortune en route to their best season in a decade, the New York Yankees watched their starting pitchers flounder.
Masahiro Tanaka, unable to manipulate the new baseball with its lower seams, owns a 4.60 ERA in 2019 with the lowest strikeout rate of his career. J.A. Happ struggled to keep the ball in the yard, allowing 33 homers in 151 innings as he compiled a 5.07 ERA. The same problem has befallen CC Sabathia in the future Hall of Famer's final tour of duty.
James Paxton, the hard-throwing left-hander acquired this past winter, is the only Yankees starter with numbers that don't elicit a collar tug. As October looms, New York's rotation collectively owns worse fielding-independent pitching statistics than the starting corps of the rebuilding Detroit Tigers.
Aaron Boone, the Yankees' second-year skipper, is aware of this deficiency. Earlier this week, with a division title in sight, he indicated that he'd defy convention with his bullpen management in the postseason, piggybacking starters and relying heavily on his elite relievers to optimize matchups and prevent his starters from being overexposed.
"We're going to be a little untraditional," Boone told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci. "The only one we might use as a traditional starter is Paxton."
It's a sound strategy. As Verducci observes, teams are increasingly loath to let their starters pitch deep into postseason games, even the good ones. No matter what Boone is cooking up for his likely ALDS matchup against either Oakland, Tampa Bay, Cleveland or Minnesota, everything is easier with an ace on the staff, and the Yankees, it seems, have theirs back. Severino's timely return to the roster is a massive boon to his club's World Series aspirations, whether they plan to use him as a traditional starter or piggyback him.
Severino, who spent nearly six months on the injured list with a lat strain, made his long-awaited season debut Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, tossing four shutout innings against the Angels and looking every bit the monster who earned downballot Cy Young votes the previous two seasons. (The fact that he didn't face any particularly gifted Angels hitters is immaterial.) He allowed two singles and walked two more. He threw 47 of his 67 pitches for strikes. He struck out four. He induced 13 swinging strikes - 11 with his four-seamer and another two with his slider.
That four-seamer averaged 96.6 miles per hour, according to Baseball Savant, and maxed out at 99. His final fastball of the evening, in the top of the fourth inning, was clocked at 98 mph. In short, he looked both healthy and nasty, sustaining his velocity until the end of his outing and summarily overpowering the Angels.
"I'm very encouraged," catcher Austin Romine told MLB.com's Bryan Hoch. "That's Sevy out there. We need Sevy where we're going. He's pitched some big games for us and we look forward to having him pitch some more big games for us."
The question now, at the risk of being premature, is how Severino will be used this postseason. Barring any setbacks in his final two regular-season starts, Severino's pitch count could be pushed as high as 100. If he handles that without issue, there's no reason he couldn't be used as a traditional starter in October.
Last year, Severino didn't throw more than 87 pitches in either of his playoff starts, and given the litany of quality arms at Boone's disposal - the extraneous nominal starters and a star-studded bullpen - a "traditional starter" wouldn't be expected to throw more than 100 pitches anyway. With that kind of leash, Severino could easily go five innings before turning the ball over. (It should be noted that Boone wanted to pull Severino after three innings Tuesday night, but the 25-year-old successfully lobbied to stay in the game.)
Alternatively, the Yankees could piggyback Severino with another starter to minimize the risk of pushing him too far while also optimizing matchups. In this scenario, one starter would presumably throw three innings, with the other starter throwing two or three before yielding to the parade of Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman.
Tanaka, for example, tends to dominate his first time through a lineup, holding opposing hitters to .644 OPS in their first plate appearances against him in a game in 2019. The next time around, however, that number jumps to .736, with slugging percentage constituting the bulk of that improvement. (In other words: Hitters tee off when they see Tanaka for a second time.) Hypothetically, if the Yankees were to piggyback Tanaka with Severino, Tanaka could be spared a second trip through the lineup without putting additional strain on the bullpen.
Other possibilities exist, too. The Yankees could use Severino as a "bulk guy," throwing him out for three or four innings in relief of an opener. (Chad Green has performed well in that role this year.) This way, Boone wouldn't have to burn through two starters in a game. As unlikely as it seems, Severino could also be used in a more traditional relief role, pitching a middle inning or two out of the bullpen.
No matter how he's deployed, the Yankees are much better equipped for a deep October run now than they were last week. They didn't need Severino to assert their dominance over the American League East, but they probably will need him to win a World Series.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.