After Sunday’s win over the Detroit Tigers, the New York Yankees are back at .500 for the first time since Monday, April 12, when they were 5-5. In sweeping Detroit at home and going 9-4 in their last 13 games, New York is playing its best baseball of the season right now. Despite the team struggling on the whole in 2021, there have been a few bright spots, particularly on the pitching side. The bullpen, led by Aroldis Chapman, is the best in the sport right now. With a ‘pen that has been so good, it is easy for one or two arms to go overlooked. By far one of the biggest revelations out of the Yankees bullpen is 26-year old right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga.
The Nicaraguan native was signed as an amateur free agent by the San Francisco Giant in 2012, then released in 2015, and signed by the Yankees in 2016. Loaisiga made his major league debut in 2018, leaping from Double-A to the majors. As a minor leaguer, Loaisiga was a full-time starter. He frequently struggled with injuries in the minors, never pitching more than 68 2/3 innings.
Despite this, he put up great numbers whenever he was able to take the mound. Loaisiga’s calling card as a prospect was his control. In 2017, he put up 0.8 BB/9 and a strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) rate of 11.00. In 2018, the BB/9 was 1.3 with a K/BB rate of 8.38. Being a starting pitcher with a simple and effective three-pitch mix, this was very promising. Even in his healthy Triple-A stints in 2019, Loaisiga out up a 4.40 K/BB which is still almost double the rate he put up during the regular season, which was 2.31.
2018 and 2019
While it was a risky move calling Loaisiga up from Double-A in 2018, he came out of the gates really well. He pitched five shutout innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in his debut on June 15. He struck out six but walked four batters, perhaps portending what he would go through in the majors. In his start against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 25, Loaisiga pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings, allowing one hit, walking two, and striking out eight.
After being sent back down to the minors on July 3rd, Loaisiga got hurt and was not seen again until he pitched out of the bullpen for the Yankees in September. In all, he finished 2018 making four starts, pitching 24 2/3 innings, walking 12 batters, striking out 33, and posting a 5.11 ERA. In fact, his figure of 12.0 K/9 is still the highest he has posted in the majors.
2019 was a tough year for Jonathan Loaisiga. He came into the year rated as the 64th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus. Again, however, it was a year in which he struggled to stay healthy. He made 15 appearances that year, starting four games. While the Yankees were 8-7 in games he pitched that year, they were 0-4 in his four starts. With the injuries, he was up and down between the majors and minors in 2019. However, when he finally got healthy and consistent time on the mound in New York, he pitched well. In his final 10 appearances in 2019, Loaisiga pitched 15 innings to the tune of a 3.00 ERA, striking out 20 batters. While he still walked eight, the overall results were better in the second half. In all, he pitched 31 2/3 innings with a 4.55 ERA, 4.5 BB/9, and 10.5 K.9.
Coming into the 2020 season, it was known that Loaisiga had a high ceiling. However, that is all we knew. The debate was about whether he should be a starter or reliever. He had the tools to be effective in both roles, so it seemed like the Yankees wanted him to pitch in a swingman role. He only made three starts in 2020, serving as a multi-inning opener on those occasions. While Loaisiga still served an IL stint in 2020, he pitched the second-most innings of all relievers on the team. On his 12 appearances on the season, nine of them came out of the bullpen. In fact, two of Loaisiga’s starts came on days of doubleheaders. What this signal is that perhaps the Yankees figured out Loaisiga is best coming out of the bullpen.
With a four-seam fastball and sinker that average around 97 mph, as well as a really good changeup and curveball, it was known Loaisiga could be a weapon no matter what role he pitched in. He pitched multiple innings on several occasions out of the bullpen in 2020. Whether it is in a role similar to Chad Green or Luis Cessa, this is what the Yankees seem to want from Loaisiga. In all, his 2020 was successful as he pitched 23 innings to the tune of a 3.52 ERA and lowering his walk rate to 2.7 BB/9.
Calling Jonathan Loaisiga the Yankees most improved player of 2021 is a bold statement. However, it not only his improvement from 2020, but also from 2018 and ’19. He has legitimately pitched like an all-star this season. In 12 appearances and 16 1/3 innings, Loaisiga has walked a grand total of three batters. His 4.8% walk rate much closely mirrors the type of control he possessed in the minors. Six of his 12 outings have been multi-inning outings, entering with runners on base in four of them. He has posted a 1.10 ERA, 2.85 FIP, and his 1.73 xERA is in the 96th percentile in baseball. In fact, his average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBA, xBA, xERA, xSLG, barrel rate, BB%, and chase rate all rate in the 86th percentile or better in the league. “Johnny Lasagna,” as many like to call him, has been simply phenomenal.
What is striking is how Loaisiga is achieving this success. He posted 8.6 K/9 in 2020 and is putting up 8.8 in 2021. Despite throwing so hard, fewer strikeouts have led to more success for Loaisiga. In 2020, he started throwing his sinker more, up to 24.6%, yet the four-seamer was still his most used pitch at 42.6%. However, in 2021, the four-seam fastball has become his third pitch, down to 14%. He is throwing his sinker 46.6% and changeup 25.8% of the time this season. According, he gets ground balls at a higher rate than ever, 58.5%. Batters are hitting .160 against his sinker and .118 against his changeup. His changeup has always become his best strikeout pitch, too, as it has a 40.5% whiff rate and 30.8% put-away rate.
Final Thoughts on Jonathan Loaisiga
It is fascinating to learn about Loaisiga’s transition from his time in the minors to the pitcher he is now. Jonathan Loaisiga is a name that Yankees fans have known, but that baseball fans should now get to know. His improvement in 2021 is a result of two key things. One, he now has a solidified role with the Yankees in the bullpen. Perhaps being able to settle in as a full-time reliever has allowed Loaisiga to settle in and be himself on the mound. Second, he has learned that the sinker is his best pitch.
His fastball does not have elite spin despite elite velocity. The pitch always got hit hard. Thus, adding in the sinker more prevents harder contact and has led to greater success. This transition in pitch usage started in 2020 but is fully evident now that the sinker is his most-used pitch. Jonathan Loaisiga is on an all-star trajectory and has become one of the most trusted relievers for the Yankees here in 2021.
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