Relief Opening: Contemplating Jonathan Loaisiga’s 2020 Role

Each day, we creep closer to Opening Day. Each day we also seem to get some new, annoying injury news, but let’s focus on the positive for a change. Real baseball is around the corner and that corner is closer and closer with each workout, each Grapefruit League game. Even with the injuries, the roster is starting to take shape. And for the most part, the biggest questions left are the roles each player will have. One such player is pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga.

Simply speaking, there are two roles for him: starter or reliever. That’s sorta the deal with every pitcher, of course, but the latter role offers two paths for which I think Loaisiga would be best suited: opener or fireman.

The case for Loaisiga starting isn’t that hard to make. He’s been a starter for the bulk of his career and it’s what he’s used to. Additionally, he has a four-pitch arsenal that he actually mixes pretty well. Per BaseballSavant, he leads with his fastball (47.7%), followed by a curve (30.8), changeup (12.9), and a sinker (8.6). The sinker probably isn’t going to do much work, but it’s still approaching 10% usage and that he has it bodes well for starting. Despite that, he still has three reliable, usable pitches something necessary for a starter and perhaps wasted in a relief role. But while that case is easy to make, I’m not sure it’s all that easy to buy.

Though he’s been a starter for his most of his career, Loaisiga has had a well-documented injury history in the role. As such, the Yankees may determine that he won’t hold up over the course of the season. With James Paxton due to start the year on the DL and Luis Severino out for the entire year and then some, putting an injury risk in the rotation might not be the wisest move.

Before delving into the relief roles, I’ll acknowledge that I didn’t mention the third relief path he could take: traditional one-inning reliever. I think that would be a waste of Loaisga’s stuff and the fact that he’s got a starter’s innings build up. Could he be successful in that role? Definitely. But I think he’d be more valuable in a role that would offer either more innings–the opener–or higher-leverage spots–the fireman.

Most every pitcher would be more successful as a reliever than as a starter: no true need for a third pitch; no facing batters more than once in an order; being able to empty the tank; etc. The same is true for Loaisiga. But with that more certain success comes the risk of an unpredictable schedule, especially if you’re the fireman without a set inning. The Yankees are very good about not overworking pitchers, but a guy with an injury history like Loaisiga’s might not be the best for a up and down nature of a relief role or the ‘get up and go’ stress of being a fireman. Still, even when pitchers like Dellin Betances and Chad Green have occupied the de facto fireman role for the Yankees, they did have a set inning when the concept of a fireman wasn’t necessarily needed. Doing this with Loaisiga as the fireman could help mitigate the ‘okay go get out of this jam in the 6th but you may also need to pitch the 7th cause the top of the order is coming up then’ needs of the role.

Finally, we come to the opener. I’ve suggested previously that the Yankees could use Loaisiga as an opener for either JA Happ or Jordan Montgomery, but they could also do it in lieu of a traditional fifth starter. There’s evidence in his track record that this could be a good role for Loaisiga. For his career, as a starter, when facing batters for the first time, he held them to a .230/.300/.377 line (70 batters face). The walk rate was a little high–10%–but manageable when compared to his strikeout rate: 27.1%. Compare that to his line against batters when entering as a reliever, facing them for the first time: .280/.370/.495 with a 12% walk rate (though a strikeout rate of about 29%). That suggests he’s better preparing for a start–which he would as an opener–than he is having to enter the game essentially on the fly.

Loaisiga has starter’s stuff and letting him air that out one time through the order before handing it off to someone else would maximize that stuff while minimizing his exposure. His second time through the order has been ugly: .314/.404/.506 in 57 batters faced. The drawback is that this would likely leave him unavailable to pitch much–if at all–between opening stints. Would this be the best way to deploy him? Maybe not.

Starting offers the most upside here. Given his stuff, if he can last as a starter, Loaisiga has star potential. Fireman-ing offers the most bang for your buck, so to speak: presumably good performance in high-leverage innings. Opening blends reward, fireman-style pitching across two or three innings rather than one, and risk: not having him available as much as another role could afford him.

If it were up to me, I’d go with the opener role for him. It takes the most advantage of his stuff with more minimal injury risk thanks to a mostly set schedule. Additionally, if he’s really doing well at it and the Yankees need another starter, it’ll be easy to ramp him up from an opener’s innings load to a starters.

The results haven’t always been there with Loaisiga in his brief time in the majors–and neither has health–but there’s a lot of potential in his arm. Finding the right role for him moves him from “could be” a big piece to “will be” a big piece.

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1 Comment

  1. Mungo

    I think his future is in the pen, but he wouldn’t be a bad option as the #5 to start the season until one of Paxton or German returns.

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