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The Wednesday Takeaway

Here’s a hot take for you: baseball is complicated. No, seriously, I promise. Every pitch, from the release of the ball to the swing to whatever the hell may follow, depends on a host of conditions and turns out differently every time. Recording the countless pitches that go into every inning, game, and season, and trying to summarize and harmonize them into some meaningful numbers is a mammoth undertaking, but one that baseball fans attempt daily.

Given all that goes into every player’s ERA, strikeout rate, FIP, and DRA, determining what may be the sources of change from year-to-year is awfully complicated. So when we reach players with extreme fluctuations in performance, such as Luis Severino’s excellent 2.89 ERA in 2015 and horrendous 8.50 mark last season, the list of possible problems generally extends ad infinitum. Severino’s case is different, though—extensive research into his atrocious sophomore season reveals a short list of troubles, not a scroll of possible issues that make us throw our arms in the air and just hope for the best.

For such a complicated game, the 23-year-old hurler’s problems were simple: Severino’s fastball command took a step back (particularly on pitches up in the zone) and his changeup toed the line between “clear third pitch” and “unthrowable.” The former top prospect’s velocity remained in the upper echelon of big leaguers and his slider still a premium weapon, but the fastball was served on a platter to hitters who could beat velocity and the slider was weakened by a lack of other pitches to worry about.

Although Severino didn’t have any easy solutions to his problems, he was lucky enough to have clear problems. The biggest fear of a pitcher is to suddenly regress without an obvious reason for why—the root of struggles can easily be lost in the complicated whirlwind of a baseball game—but Severino was given two goals and found ways to accomplish both this offseason. Still, it’s not supposed to be easy to learn how to spot a high-90s fastball and/or fix a nearly nonexistent third pitch in a few months. Just don’t tell Severino that.

Let’s use Severino’s start on Wednesday night as a case study for his massive steps forward this season. The Yankees’ starter has managed to right the ship and is now looking like one of the better young arms in baseball, continuing his dominance last night by throwing eight innings of shutout ball (allowing four hits and a walk, with seven strikeouts). Now with an ERA at just 3.11, best among his New York rotation-mates, Severino put on a show against the Royals by highlighting his improvements.

Severino was burned by high and inside fastballs last season, so in this outing he almost completely avoided throwing heaters in that area. Save for perhaps four or five pitches, Sevy stayed either low or outside with his four-seamer, a recipe for success. Interestingly, Severino only threw 44 fastballs in the start, mostly relying on a dominant slider, which was thrown 55 times and scarcely barreled up.

Playing to his strength with the plus slider, the righty also managed to keep hitters off balance with a changeup that he threw 13 percent of the time. Severino has changed the way he’s thrown his change this season, and early results have been outstanding: batters are slugging just .182 on the pitch in 2017.

The gigantic leaps forward Severino made shouldn’t be minimized by the simplicity of the problems he faced, though that certainly helps us to understand just how he catalyzed this massive turn-around. Going forward, there’s no reason not to expect Sevy to continue riding his high-octane fastball, wipeout slider, and burgeoning changeup to success.

Unfortunately, the Yankees' 3-0 victory over the Royals wasn’t all good news, as Jacoby Ellsbury left the game after colliding with the outfield wall on the first pitch of the game. While initially staying in the game, Ellsbury later departed a concussion and sprained neck, which will land him on the seven-day concussion disabled list.

It’s a tough blow for the center fielder who was having a bounce-back season after a rough 2015 and 2016, though the Yankees won’t miss a beat as they still have three excellent outfielders in Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Brett Gardner.

Quick Hits

Believe it or not, Severino wasn’t the only former young stud who added another excellent start to what could be a major bounce-back season. Sonny Gray was nearly untouchable against the Marlins, throwing seven innings of one-run ball, giving up just three hits and a walk while striking out 11 batters, one shy of a career-high.

Gray’s improvements follow a different storyline from Severino’s, though. Sevy looks like a new pitcher on the mound, while the best thing Gray could likely do was keep on pitching like himself. Hampered last season by two trips to the disabled list for arm injuries, plus some rough luck with a .319 BABIP and 63.9 percent strand rate, Gray didn’t need to reinvent his approach as a pitcher to succeed—his main path to success was health and improved luck. While the 27-year-old began the season on the DL and is just five starts into his season, he’s looked much better out there in 2017 and, assuming his arm remains intact, should keep on increasing his stock.

Although Gray guided the Athletics to victory, the offense also had some bright spots in Jed Lowrie and Khris Davis. Lowrie raised his batting average on the season from .283 to .300 with a 4-for-4 day that included a pair of doubles, while Davis continued his case to become the better-known power-hitting K/Chris Davis with a big two-run home run, bringing his season total to 14 (tied for third-most in baseball).

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If I wanted to keep the "bounce-back" trend going, I could stretch things a bit and claim that Mike Leake is having a career bounce-back with an excellent start to 2017, now holding a 1.91 ERA after going eight innings and allowing just one run on four hits.

Leake is supposed to be one of the more unspectacular and boring hurlers in baseball—repeatedly turning in sub-4.00 ERA seasons with minimal strikeouts and back-end starter value—but baseball doesn’t make sense, so naturally he’s been untouchable this season. Unlike the previous two names I mentioned, though, it’s hard to imagine Leake’s stretch of success continuing; the strikeouts are still lacking and Leake is benefiting from a .244 BABIP and 86.5 percent strand rate.

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When we talk about (negative) regression for pitchers, it’s personified as a slow-moving but omnipresent force that will inevitably drag down a bright season start-by-start, tearing apart the optimism quietly at first and then causing a cascading disaster by the end. Sometimes, though, we’re given the privilege of watching all the predicted regression hit at once.

That was the case with poor Matt Garza on Wednesday, when he witnessed his great season unfurl right in front of him in painfully live action. Carrying a 2.43 ERA into last night’s start, Garza had been a bright spot for the Brewers in this young season. I’m not saying his season is over now, but the dark FIP clouds which have been hanging over his outings are now emptying, beginning with a rough six runs allowed in 5.1 innings of work.

The start brought Garza’s ERA on the season all the way up to 3.60, an increase of more than a full run. At 33 years old, there is hope Garza bounces back from the rough start, but odds are 2017 will be downhill from here for the hurler. Responsible for Garza’s struggles were four home runs from the Blue Jays, courtesy of Kevin Pillar, Jose Bautista, Devon Travis, and Ryan Goins. Pillar kicked scoring off with a big solo shot in the fourth inning …

… and Bautista kept things going with an even bigger dinger two batters later.

Next up was Travis with yet another solo home run in the sixth, and Goins delivered the final blow with a grand slam later in the inning.

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It’s not often that a mediocre start is highlighted alone in a recap, but Jose Berrios deserves recognition for the electric stuff he showed in a win against the Orioles. While allowing three runs over 6 1/3 innings by way of three home runs, Berrios struck out seven batters with a seemingly unhittable array of pitches.

While Berrios obviously left a few too many pitches up late in this outing, he looks to be a force to be reckon with once more consistency is achieved. The 22-year-old’s four-seam fastball and changeup were both solid, but the real stars of the show were Berrios’s two-seamer and curveball. Going into Wednesday, Berrios had thrown 54 curveballs and not a single one landed for a hit. I’s not hard to see why.

Only three starters have more horizontal movement than Berrios on their curveballs this season, as the break on the pitch is terrifying. Berrios also grasps solid command on the pitch, making for one of the better breakers in baseball already. Berrios’ two-seamer has been nearly as unhittable, with just two hits on 61 pitches thus far, and, once again, a GIF tells the whole story.

Berrios may not have been dominant, but he showed all the makings of a potential ace for the Twins and was certainly solid enough in this one. The Twins notched four runs over the first two innings, sealing the win and a series sweep to raise their record to 25-18. After a league-worst 59-103 finish last season, Minnesota is now first in the AL Central thanks to key performances from young studs like Berrios, Miguel Sano, and Max Kepler (as well as some ace-like work from veteran Ervin Santana).

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Although the Cubs have had a disappointing start to the season, owning a mediocre 24-21 record, they notched their sixth win in eight games on Wednesday night with a tight 5-4 victory over the Giants. Kyle Hendricks provided some much-needed quality pitching for Chicago, going seven strong and allowing just two runs on five hits and zero walks (with five punchouts).

On offense, Anthony Rizzo went deep for his 10th home run in the second inning …

… and then did the same thing two innings later for his second home run of the game.

With Wade Davis and his shiny 0.00 ERA manning the ninth inning, the Cubs probably didn’t expect those two home runs from Rizzo to be so crucial given their 5-2 lead. But all good things must come to an end, and Davis’ 17 1/3-inning scoreless streak did exactly that against the Giants when Mac Williamson hit a two-run home run to bring the Cubs’ lead to one run.

Davis was able to stop the bleeding, but his ERA took a hit and now sits at an unacceptable 0.98 mark. For no reason other than to highlight the absurd, it’s worth mentioning that his current ERA is somehow higher than the 0.91 ERA he averaged from 2014-2015. Yeah, Wade Davis is pretty good.

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In honor of Billy Hamilton’s speed, here’s a really quick … quick hit. Billy’s fast. He’s fast enough to go first to home on a single. He did exactly that in the ninth inning of the Reds game, and scored the go-ahead run.

Defensive Play of the Day

Over his career, Chris Taylor has played 82 big-league games at shortstop, 31 at second base, and 17 at third base, so getting the start in center field on Wednesday shouldn’t have gone well. Then again, Taylor is hitting .326/.437/.570 this season despite a career 69 wRC+, so this may not be the Chris Taylor of old. It’s worth a shot, right? Right? Apparently so:

What to Watch on Thursday

I’ll be honest, Thursday isn’t exactly the greatest day of baseball if you want to watch aces duel. Still, Bartolo Colon is pitching, so it should be a good day for baseball. Facing Colon and the Braves at 12:10 pm ET will be the Pirates’ Ivan Nova, who has been outstanding this season with a 2.63 ERA

A little less than an hour later, Masahiro Tanaka will take the hill with the hopes of bouncing back after allowing 14 runs over his past two starts. Now with a 6.56 ERA on the season, he could really use a quality outing. Justin Verlander is another struggling ace throwing on Thursday, as he and his 4.39 ERA will pitch against the Astros at 8:10 pm ET.

A better bet to pitch well is Jacob deGrom, who will take the hill against the Padres at 7:10 pm ET, and it’s also worth watching the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha and the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda face off at 10:10 pm ET in LA.