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Pedro Severino flew high and then fell hard in a puzzling 2020 season

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For the first half of the year, Severino was a shining star at the plate. Then he was sucked into a black hole.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For baseball fans, a 60-game season felt way too short. For Pedro Severino, it was about 20 games too long.

The Orioles’ primary backstop, for much of the summer, appeared well on his way to a breakout year. And then it all came crashing down, turning a once-standout season into a middling campaign that clouded Severino’s future with the club.

But man...how about those first few weeks, am I right?

From the outset of the truncated season on July 24, Severino was blistering hot at the plate. He swatted two homers in his first five games and took off from there, quickly cementing himself as an anchor in the middle of the Orioles’ lineup. During one stellar nine-game stretch in early August, Severino drove in runs in eight of them — with 15 RBIs total — and tallied a trio of three-hit games, including one against his former team, the Nationals, on Aug. 7. His OPS hovered around (and sometimes over) the 1.000 mark for weeks at a time.

The national sports media took notice. Though there were no official All-Star teams this year, several publications created their own halfway through the season, and Severino was a popular choice in nearly all of them, from MLB.com to Sports Illustrated to The Athletic to CBS Sports. Severino was stinging the ball in a way that most catchers simply don’t. “Only two qualifying catchers have a wOBA over .400: J.T. Realmuto and Severino,” noted The Athletic’s Marc Carig and Andy McCullough on Aug. 25.

On Sept. 8, Severino went 2-for-3 with a double in an Orioles 11-2 blowout of the Mets, and both he and the team were riding high. The O’s were within half a game of the Yankees for an AL wild card spot, and Severino was batting .325 with a .921 OPS, seemingly a leading contender for Most Valuable Oriole honors.

And then, simultaneously, as if their limbs were bound together in a three-legged race, Severino and the Orioles both faceplanted.

Severino’s freefall didn’t necessarily affect the Orioles’, or vice versa, but the timing was hard to ignore. From Sept. 9 through the end of the season, a stretch of 19 games, the Orioles sputtered to a 5-14 record that knocked them hopelessly out of contention and into a tie for the fifth-worst record in baseball. Severino played 14 games during that span and collected a meager three hits in 48 plate appearances, striking out 16 times. He had no extra-base hits and drew just two walks, giving him a horrifying triple slash line of .065/.104/.169 in the season’s final two and a half weeks.

What the heck happened?

Combing through Statcast data may be a bit of a trivial exercise for such a small sample size, but one thing that stands out is that Severino’s hard-hit rate from Sept. 9 to the end of the season was just 23 percent, down from 34 percent beforehand. His expected batting average during the slump was .194 — not as bad as his actual .065 batting average, but certainly not good, either. So it’s not as if Severino was hitting into bad luck, stinging liners that happened to find fielder’s gloves. He simply wasn’t hitting the ball with authority.

Actually, you could stop that last sentence before the last two words — Severino could barely make contact at all. He struck out in exactly one-third of his plate appearances during the season-ending slump after posting a more reasonable 18 percent strikeout rate through Sept. 8. His walk rate also dropped from 11 percent to 4 percent.

“I see Sevy pressing,” said manager Brandon Hyde in the season’s final week. “Just trying to do too much at the plate. Really hoping he gets back to a middle-of-the-field approach and taking the quality at-bats that he did the first month of the season. Lately he’s just expanding (the zone) and just trying to do way too much.”

Spoiler alert: Severino did not, in fact, get back to taking quality at-bats after that Hyde interview. He went 1-for-14 on the Orioles’ season-ending road trip, whiffing five more times. He last hit a home run on Aug. 16; he last drove in a run on Aug. 30. His final stat line for the season was nothing to write home about: a .250 average, .710 OPS, five home runs, and 21 RBIs.

What’s worse, Severino’s defense — which was considered his calling card when the Orioles claimed him off waivers from the Nationals before the 2019 season — looked sloppy. His five passed balls were the most in the majors, and O’s pitchers threw 16 wild pitches with Severino behind the plate. He was also a poor pitch framer, ranking in the bottom 13 percent of catchers at stealing strikes, according to Statcast.

Late-season swoons have become a habit for Severino in his two seasons with the Birds. In 2019, he batted .197/.246/.295 in August and .195/.283/.366 in September after bringing an OPS over .800 into the final two months. At least in that case, Severino’s swoon could be attributed to his playing a full major league season for the first time and perhaps wearing down at the end. This year, in an abbreviated 60-game schedule, it’s harder to believe that he could have been out of gas.

At the same time, that abbreviated schedule makes it harder to assess Severino’s season. How would he have fared had the Birds played a full, 162-game slate? Would he have pulled himself out of his slump with so much extra time to right the ship, or would he have continued spiraling until he was unplayable? Would he even have slumped so severely in the first place? We’ll never know. In that sense, the Orioles still don’t have a full grasp of what they’ve got in the the 27-year-old.

Severino is arbitration eligible for the first time this winter, where he’ll receive a raise from his prorated $563,500 salary in 2020. Slump aside, the Orioles are likely to tender him a contract. After all, they need someone to man the position until Adley Rutschman arrives in late 2021 or early 2022, and they’ll still need a backup once Rutschman’s here. Severino’s offensive upside will keep him in the picture for a little while longer...assuming he can rediscover that early-season stroke.