Jonathan Loáisiga is at a crossroads with the Yankees. Now 26 years old and with parts of three Major League seasons under his belt, he’s no longer a prospect. However, he’s still not clearly a part of this team’s rotation or bullpen. Despite his occasionally-tantalizing stuff, Loáisiga just can't seem to put it all together for the Yankees.
In 2020, it was more of the same. It was his best year by some measures, but still not good enough in others. In the end, Loáisiga was an average middle-to-long reliever for the Yankees in 2020, who shined in low-leverage moments but cracked under pressure.
2020 Statistics: 12 games, 3 starts, 23 IP, 3.52 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 8.6 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 0.5 bWAR, 0.1 fWAR
2021 Contract Status: Entering last year of pre-arbitration
This was the first season that Loáisiga spent completely on the Major League roster. Aside from a brief trip to the COVID-19 list in early September, Loáisiga was healthy this year, and finally graduated from the Scranton Shuttle. This newfound trust resulted in a bigger role out of the bullpen, which again had its ups and downs.
Loáisiga faced the highest average leverage index of his career when entering games this year. Many times, Aaron Boone counted on Loáisiga to hold scores, and his track record in those situations was mixed. Loáisiga blew two saves, and let opponents hit for a .740 OPS on the season. Loáisiga pitched twice in the playoffs, and gave up runs in both games while letting six of the 11 batters he faced reach base. The Yankees’ bullpen was not very deep this year, but at this stage of his career, Loáisiga is not a trustworthy option in close playoff games.
However, that doesn’t mean that he’s useless. As mentioned earlier, Loáisiga had his best numbers in some categories this year. He cut down his walk rate from an untenable 4.5 BB/9 his first two years to a much-improved 2.7 figure in 2020. He was in the top five percent of the league in terms of exit velocity, too – his 84.6 mph average exit velocity against was easily the best of his career. He severely decreased hitters’ average launch angle, resulting in significantly more ground balls and a better home run rate, as well. These changes helped Loáisiga post his best ERA of his career, a respectable 3.52.
Loáisiga’s breaking balls were sharp in 2020. His extremely high-spin curveball was his primary out pitch versus righties, while his changeup gained some break and is his strikeout pitch against lefties.
But, there were also steps back. Loáisiga struck out the fewest batters of his career on a rate basis, and saw his whiff rate decline by 10 percent, despite those good breaking pitches. He relied on a sinker more than in past years, which helped with generating those grounders, but he also lost effectiveness on his four-seamer as a put-away pitch. Loáisiga wasn’t the same strikeout pitcher without his 97-mph-plus fastball at its best.
Most frustratingly, Loáisiga struggled with command again in 2020. He actually cut down on his average number of pitches per plate appearance and per inning, but they were still high (3.94 pitches per plate appearance, 17.1 pitches per inning). Too often, Loáisiga would nibble around the strike zone. He’s good at getting ahead of hitters (career 63.7 percent first-pitch-strike rate), but lives on the edges and doesn’t always have what it takes to put hitters away, resulting in second chances, deep counts and long innings.
The Yankees have experimented with Loáisiga over the years, trying him as a starter, long reliever, and short reliever. They seem to have settled on his place being in the bullpen, and the Yankees certainly need him around to provide depth and eat innings. However, until Loáisiga can get more economic with his pitch count and better at finishing hitters off, he won’t take that step from an average pitcher to a good one. Loáisiga will be a part of the Yankees’ roster in 2021, but his role and impact is still to be determined.