Ready or not, Jonathan Loaisiga may be getting his moment in the sun.
Before this week, the team could have gotten by in October with its six top relievers (Chapman, Britton, Ottavino, Kahnle, Green and Betances) while using its back-end starters as long men. Perhaps Luis Cessa could have been a 13th pitcher and designated mop up reliever.
Dellin Betances’ Achilles injury changes the calculus. Whether the team goes with 12 or 13 pitchers, it’s almost certain that one of Cessa or Loaisiga will be on the roster, if not both. The simple act of putting someone on the postseason roster for even a round conveys a sense of trust, a level of certainty in one’s ability. A postseason pitcher is someone you have to trust with your literal season on the line.
Loaisiga’s abilities are clear. He has top-notch velocity on his four-seamer and a high-spin curveball, as well as an OK changeup. Whether in the starting rotation or the bullpen, he has swing-and-miss caliber stuff.
There’s a reason the Yankees protected him from the Rule 5 in 2018 and have used him as a starter in the first half of both 2018 and ’19.
Fastball Velocity: 96.5 mph (94th percentile)
Fastball Spin Rate: 2,421 rpm (83rd percentile)
Curveball Spin Rate: 2,809 rpm (88th percentile)
*Data courtesy of Baseball Savant
The issue with the 24-year-old pitcher is command. While Loaisiga’s stuff is electric, he doesn’t always have a firm grasp of where his pitches go. His walk rate, 11.1 percent last year, is up to 12.6 percent in 2019. His walk rate-plus is 148, meaning he issues 48 percent more walks than average.
Walks aren’t a harbinger of guaranteed failure as a reliever. Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton each have worse walk rates, yet they both have ERAs under 2.00 and have looked good doing it. Loaisiga can’t keep his poor walk rate up and hope to remain a viable starter, but he could be an effective reliever.
Still, his command doesn’t just manifest itself in walks. He puts himself behind in counts and gives hitters balls to drive. Here’s where he ranks on Baseball Prospectus’ control and command stats among pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched.
Called Strike Probability: .4272 (461th out of 522)
CSAA: -1.40% (507th out of 522)
Those stats indicate that Loaisiga not only misses the strike zone more often than most, he also is unable to precisely hit the corners of the zone (Here’s a primer on Called Strike Probability and CSAA for the unfamiliar). He’s not missing out on a ton of strikes from framing.
Since Loaisiga was recalled in late August, he’s allowed just two runs in 8 1/3 innings, but he’s scattered 12 baserunners (six hits, 5 BB, 1 HBP) and struck out 10. Only two of his six appearances have been in high leverage spots.
His last two games — coming in blowouts against the Jays and Halos — were superb as he threw two scoreless innings in each and struck out five batters to just one walk. With the division all but in hand, the Yankees can experiment with Loaisiga, seeing if he can handle longer outings or more important situations.
Even if he doesn’t have a spot on the postseason roster, Loaisiga has shown enough to stick around the Bronx, assuming he isn’t traded this offseason. He still had an option and could ride the shuttle while providing quality multi-inning relief as he settles into the bullpen.
CC Sabathia’s retirement and J.A. Happ’s struggles could create an opening in the rotation, but Loaisiga’s control and injury issues should send him to the bullpen on a full-time basis. He’s missed time in back-to-back seasons with shoulder injuries, already had Tommy John surgery and hasn’t eclipsed 80 2/3 innings in any season. In seven MLB starts, he’s lasted through five innings just twice.
There’s plenty of evidence that the Yankees should cement him as a reliever for the future. In the short term, he is a reliever and could use that role to make the postseason roster. Cessa appears to be the safer option as a long reliever and more experience in high leverage, but Loaisiga’s talents could translate to the biggest stage. Whether he can find the strike zone if he gets there is a great question.