The Yankees activated Jonathan Loaisiga from the IL Tuesday morning as he returns from a right shoulder strain that’s kept him away from the big league team since early May. The 24-year-old right-hander has flashed great stuff at times over the past two seasons, but he has been unable to stay healthy and string together quality outings. The Yankees are adding Loaisiga to an injury riddled bullpen, and now is his chance to finally prove he possesses the durability and consistency to factor into the Yankees’ immediate and distant future.
It might seem a bit cutthroat to call an August return from the IL a make or break scenario for a 24-year-old player, but Loaisiga has had a laundry list of injuries in his young career. The Yankees have a number of right-handed prospects that could surpass Loaisiga on the depth chart if he doesn’t establish himself in what will now be his fourth stint in the major leagues. Loaisiga’s slight frame and history with elbow and shoulder injuries suggests that he could find more success as a relief pitcher, and it looks like that’s how the Yankees will use him for the rest of the 2019 season.
Whether you believe in Loaisiga’s staying power in New York or not, his return is coming at the right time for the Yankees. Middle-relievers Stephen Tarpley and Jonathan Holder both hit the IL last week, leaving the Yankees with a lack of reliable arms to use in a situation where they’re playing from behind and want to avoid using the elite arms at the back end of the bullpen. Loaisiga will likely be given the opportunity to fill the role Chad Green seized during the 2017 season, when he pitched to a 1.83 ERA and a 13.43 K/9 in a multi-inning role that landed him a key spot on the playoff roster.
The question for the Yankees remains, can Loaisiga become an effective pitcher out of the bullpen, and if not now, when? In six major league appearances out of the ‘pen, the Nicaraguan right-hander owns a 7.45 ERA in 9.2 innings of work. However, his 12.10 K/9 in those outings is encouraging, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he can punch out batters at a high level. According to Statcast, Loaisiga’s fastball velocity ranks in the 90th percentile of MLB pitchers and his fastball spin ranks in the 89th percentile. His curveball spin also ranks in the 89th percentile. That combination, in addition to an effective changeup, should make Loaisiga a weapon for the Yankees, but he’ll need to show he can pitch with the same command that resulted in a very solid 1.7 BB/9 over five minor league seasons.
Although he has shown great command as a minor leaguer, Loaisiga’s BB/9 has ballooned to 4.7 BB/9 in 38.2 innings with the Yankees, perhaps a sign that he’s still learning to become comfortable on a big league mound. Keep an eye on Loaisiga’s pitch mix as well. The Yankees have been known to tinker with pitch mix to accentuate their pitcher’s greatest strength, and his fastball hasn’t played nearly as well as his curveball in a relatively small MLB sample. Against Loaisiga’s curveball, opponents posted xSLG of .271 and .168 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In 2019, opponents own a .770 xSLG against 141 4-seam fastballs. If Loaisiga can cut that 4.7 BB/9 in half, stay healthy, and find a pitch mix that keeps hitters off balance, he could become one of the unsung heroes for the Yankees as they gear up for what they hope is a deep playoff run.