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How the Yankees can unlock Jonathan Loaisiga’s potential

Loaisiga’s command of one pitch will determine if he’s a future starter or just another reliever.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Loaisiga’s prospect hype is at its absolute highest right now – he’s the Yankees’ second overall prospect and ranked in the top 65 prospects in MLB. The 24-year-old righty has a chance now to make some noise in a banged-up Yankees’ rotation, taking the place of James Paxton for the short term.

Loaisiga’s performance throughout his big league career has been inconsistent. He’s made seven major league starts, and only pitched more than five innings in one of them. His 2019 audition has been more of the same – last night, he threw over 80 pitches in just four innings of work, gave up four runs, only struck out two batters, and seemed to be struggling to find the corners of the strike zone.

Still, Loaisiga’s potential is alluring. His best traits are his high strikeout rate and filthy arsenal of pitches. Whether it’s his 96 mph fastball, knee-buckling curve, or his deceptive changeup, Loaisiga has the tools to get hitters out.

But today, almost every pitcher throws hard, and everyone has a breaking ball. The real key to Loaisiga’s success is going to be the mastery of his changeup.

Loaisiga’s changeup is pretty fast at 88-90 mph, but it has very sharp, almost splitter-style movement. Check out Loaisiga’s changeup generating a whiff here from Jose Altuve:

And here’s Alex Bregman swinging and missing:

Loaisiga’s changeup is special because it sure looks like a fastball when it exits his hand, and it has similar speed. However, that bowling ball break makes All-Stars like Altuve and Bregman look silly.

On the other hand, Loaisiga hasn’t quite mastered the changeup yet. Here’s a certified hanger to Ben Gamel from last year that Loaisiga’s lucky wasn’t a souvenir:

Still, every pitcher misses once in a while. The facts are that Loaisiga’s changeup is generally a pitch that fools hitters. Over his two years in the bigs, the whiff rate on his changeup is over 40 percent, the strikeout rate is almost 30 percent, and he’s allowed just two hits off of the pitch in his career.

The biggest downside with Loaisiga’s changeup doesn’t actually come when batters make contact. Loaisiga’s walk rate is the highest on his changeup this year, and his heat map on the changeup alone has been generally wild over the last two years:

2018 changeups
2019 changeups

However, there’s reason to believe that Loaisiga is getting more comfortable with his changeup this year. Last season, he threw it almost exclusively to lefties. This year though, he’s thrown it to both righties and lefties, including some of the top righties in the game in Altuve and Bregman.

Loaisiga may only use it 14 percent of the time so as to keep hitters guessing, but he’s definitely not scared to throw it anymore. Even if he walks a few too many on the pitch, it’s his primary swing-and-miss pitch. For a starter who’s throwing five innings’ worth of pitches, throwing that changeup is a risk worth taking.

Ultimately, Loaisiga’s command of the changeup could determine his MLB future. If he can figure it out and throw it consistently for swinging strikes, he’ll be a three-pitch pitcher and very likely a starter. However, if he can’t get the pitch over the plate enough and continues walking too many hitters and nibbling around the zone, Loaisiga might be better suited for the bullpen.

Loaisiga has a prime chance to stake his claim to a future starter’s spot with at least three more starts coming up before the rotation is fully healthy again. If he’s got that changeup working right, he might not leave the rotation.