Jonathan Loaisiga belongs in the bullpen. This is something I’ve believed for quite some time and seems to be a pretty common thought among the fandom at this point. Loaisiga has a nasty repertoire of pitches – which now includes a sinker in the arsenal – with consistently high spin rates and flamethrowing velocity. He seems poised to be the next 2017 Chad Green: This Time With a Curveball.
While Loaisiga has been fairly useful so far, there are two elements limiting his effectiveness: long appearances and poor fastball utilization. Correcting those two interrelated issues may help unlock Loaisiga’s potential and provide the Yankees with another high-leverage relief option. Let’s get into it.
At the beginning of the year, I wanted to see what Loaisiga could do in short relief appearances. Unfortunately, that is not how the Yankees have utilized him so far. Loaisiga has started 50% of his appearances and appeared for a third inning of work in every outing. The data show that this is a far cry from the best deployment of his skills.
To be fair, his usage has certainly been hampered by a few external factors worth considering:
- A lack of off-days in the short-season sprint makes managing the bullpen more precarious;
- The lack of length from the team’s starters, plus Masahiro Tanaka’s recovery from injury, has taxed the bullpen;
- Tanaka’s early absence, plus the team’s willingness to skip J.A. Happ’s starts, required the use of an opener; and,
- Tommy Kahnle’s season-ending injury coupled with Aroldis Chapman’s absence has further taxed the bullpen.
This has prevented Loaisiga’s ability to come into games in short bursts and let his nasty stuff fly. There is already some evidence he will succeed in the bullpen. Batters hammered Loaisiga as a reliever in 2018 (11 runs in 6.2 innings), but he shined in that role in 2019: a .707 OPS against in relief compared to a .983 OPS against as a starter.
This observation tracks with the obvious fact that the longer Loaisiga is in the game, the more he struggles. As a starter, batters have hit just .234/.307/.364 against Loaisaga the first time they face him. The second time, by contrast, batters hit .308/.403/.596 against him for a .999 OPS – meaning batters turn into 2019 Anthony Rendon the second time through. The sample is small, but the split is stark. It sure feels representative of his skills, and the eye test bears this out.
Not to mention, we’ve seen this play out in literally every single 2020 Loaisiga appearance. In all four of his appearances, Loaisiga has lasted into a third inning of work. Check out how he’s done in that final inning:
- July 26 (@ WAS): surrendered a solo shot to Trea Turner (who was also the first batter faced twice in this game)
- July 30 (@ BAL): hit Anthony Santander with a pitch and surrendered a 2-run homer to Pedro Severino (he previously had not allowed a hit in this outing)
- August 5 (vs PHI): hit Bryce Harper with a pitch
- August 12 (vs ATL): allowed two hits to lead off the inning (he was then pulled for Chad Green)
The third inning of work is clearly Loaisiga’s foil. In fact, just 1 of the 4 runs against Loaisiga has scored before that third inning of work. He hasn’t allowed a home run, nor hit a batter, before that inning. And batters have nearly as many hits (4) in that inning than they do in every other (5). It’s stark and it tracks with his career splits to date.
All of this is to say that Loaisiga has been better than his line so far this season but his usage has been suboptimal. A correction here will better harness that potential.
More High Fastballs, Please
Relatedly, shorter appearances may also encourage Loaisiga to let it really fly with his fastball. This is a big flaw in his approach to date. Look at his 2020 four-seam location plot and heatmap:
He is pumping his fastball low in the zone. This is honestly a waste of an elite fastball: the pitch has both elite velocity (94th percentile) and spin (83rd percentile). It’s cliche at this point, but pitchers should throw a fastball like that high in the zone. It is enticing to the batter, generates a ton of whiffs, and maximizes the pitch’s potential. That he hasn’t done so thus far could be why the pitch hasn’t yet live up to its potential (.406 wOBA against) in 2020.
Being more aggressive with the pitch would result in more of this:
Instead, it feels like Loaisiga tries to get too cute with his stuff and tries to play it off his curve/changeup lower in the zone. It’s possible this is because he feels like he needs to conserve energy or emphasize deception, knowing he will be used for multiple innings in a given appearance. This could just also be a function of general command and control issues that have always plagued him, too.
In any case, I think tweaking this approach goes hand-in-hand with shortening his appearances. Encouraging Loaisiga to air it out for one inning may make him more likely to be aggressive. After all, when you’ve got just one inning to work, you might as well give it all you’ve got, right?
I really want to see the Yankees use Loaisiga in this role. It is pretty clear that this is how he is most effective and I think it will encourage him to be more aggressive. It just makes sense and it seems like a clear win-win opportunity.
Besides, the Yankee bullpen is now missing Tommy Kahnle’s elite arm. In other words, there is no better time than right now to see if his replacement is already sitting right there, just waiting to be unlocked.