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Re-thinking Jonathan Loáisiga’s ceiling with the Yankees

What’s the actual upside for the young righty?

Atlanta Braves v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Jonathan Loáisiga has been on my mind a lot lately. With publications of all stripes ranking their preseason prospect lists, he’s been pretty consistently considered the best pitcher in the Yankees’ system. He’ll almost certainly be the first call-up should injury or catastrophe strike the 2019 rotation. One way or another, we’ll see some of Loáisiga on a major-league mound this season.

Much of the conversation around Loáisiga centers around his floor and ceiling. What is the most likely version of Loáisiga, and what is the best possible version? He’s a back-half of the Top-100 guy, a 45-50 future value player, which tends to mean about average, or a bit better. To me, that signals a future as a #3-4 in a decent rotation - a fine pitcher, and the kind you need on a playoff team, but nothing earthshaking.

Still, it’s important to challenge your own beliefs and ensure they stand up to scrutiny, and if not you need to be able to change your beliefs to reflect new or more correct information. To that end, we turn to Statcast and try to figure out what the real upside for Jonathan Loáisiga is.

We only have Statcast data for the 499 pitches Loáisiga threw in the majors in 2018, but let’s see if there’s anything particularly interesting in there:

Loáisiga is a fastball-first guy, throwing it about 56% of the time. As you can see in the above plot, he tends to throw it all over the zone, unlike someone like JA Happ, who tends to focus on the upper part of the strike zone. This kind of unpredictability probably helps Loáisiga, as he doesn’t throw a sinker or two-seamer, where movement would play against the higher velocity of the four-seamer.

The velocity is strong, above the MLB average, and while the spin rate isn’t spectacular, it is just higher than the MLB average, which hovers right around 2300. You can see here how increases in spin rate, while also maintaining velocity, increases the likelihood of swinging strikes, courtesy of this terrific Bless You Boys primer:

For someone like Loáisiga, you can see how bumping that spin rate to 2400 rpm should boost his ability to miss bats, and give him the wider margin for error that really helps boost a player’s ceiling. The Yankees should certainly have the tools to optimize grip and delivery, the key components of spin rate, and this may be something we see Loáisiga tweak as he gets more time with the big league club.

The other major plus for Loáisiga is his slider, especially it’s vertical movement:

Lasagna’s slider drops 4” more than league average, which in a lot of ways makes it behave more like a hard curveball - think Dellin Betances. You can really see the vertical drop in two starts back in June, first against Tampa:

And against Philadelphia:

What’s more impressive is that Loáisiga can locate the slider in the zone. He puts the slider in the strike zone about 43% of the time, above league average. Again, think of how players like Dellin Betances and Adam Ottavino do that - it gives you a much more diverse set of options earlier in the count. If you can throw breaking balls in the strike zone, it means you can work them in when the count is 1-0 or 1-1, rather than waiting until you get to two strikes. The more diversity in your pitch and count offerings, the less comfortable the batters will be.

So his two main pitches look really promising, and maybe undercut my belief that Loáisiga is a #3 at heart. However, his two biggest drawbacks are the lack of reliable third and fourth pitches, and his health.

Neither of Loáisiga’s other pitches - a changeup and a curve - are above MLB average in spin rate, velocity or movement. This severely hampers his future as a starter, as the Yankees might decide it’s easier to leave him as a fastball-slider guy in the bullpen. Even if he continues to record starts, it’s hard to imagine a pitcher being worth more than about three wins - a true high-ceiling starter - when he doesn’t feature at least three average or better pitches. Loáisiga’s changeup could certainly improve over time, but that’s not something we can assume will come to fruition. Believing that a pitcher will miraculously improve flaws at the major league level isn’t a solid strategy for projecting the future.

The other obstacle for Loáisiga is his health. In a lot of ways, he seems similar to the latest Yankee starter acquired, James Paxton. Both have real talent, and tools that demand your attention, but both have had injury trouble that have kept them from showcasing their full potential. Loáisiga missed 2014 and 2015 with injuries, then went down with Tommy John surgery in 2016. He stayed mostly healthy through all of 2018, and there’s some optimism that he has put his regular injured stints behind him.

I try not to hold health against a player, because it’s not really something you can control. Still, Loáisiga’s inability to stay on the field consistently does concern me, as does his lack of a reliable-to-plus third pitch. If I were prognosticating, I’d say he’s still probably profiling as a mid-rotation starter at his peak. He has two really good pitches and some upside, but there are a couple things holding him back from being a starter at all, much less a high-end starter. Still, there is more potential there than I initially thought, and 2019 could be a year of big improvement.