Entering the 2021 season, the Yankees offense was expected to carry an uncertain starting rotation and a bullpen whose two most leaned-upon members were another year into their thirties. Instead, the pitching staff schlepped a streaky and too often anemic offense into the Wild Card Game. And while some members of the rotation certainly exceeded expectations, it was the bullpen that carried the day, led by the breakout season of Jonathan Loáisiga.
2021 Statistics: 57 games, 70.2 IP, 2.17 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 3.15 xFIP, 8.8 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 2.4 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Entering first year of arbitration eligibility.
Loáisiga flashed his potential in spurts across 2018, 2019, and 2020, but battled injury or inconsistency at times in all three seasons. However, he came into his own in 2021, becoming not only the best reliever in the Yankees’ bullpen, but one of the top relievers in all of baseball.
He started the season on a torrid stretch, allowing only two earned runs across his first 14 appearances and 18.1 innings of work — good for a 0.98 ERA and 2.73. Between May 7th and July 25th, he stumbled a bit, giving up 13 earned runs in 29.2 innings including three blowup outings allowing four earned runs to the Nationals, Royals, and Red Sox.
However, every reliever is prone to outings of this type, and in between the stinkers, he allowed a run in only one out of the 21 other appearances, keeping the ERA at a reasonable 3.94 and FIP at a more attractive 2.53.
Loáisiga finished the regular season on an upswing, allowing only 2 runs in 19 appearances and 22.2 innings, carrying a 0.79 ERA and 2.51 FIP across that final stretch. Unfortunately, he had an off-day in the Wild Card Game, allowing two runs on three walks, which put a bit of a blemish on an otherwise spotless 2021 campaign.
Earlier, I mentioned that Loáisiga had developed into one of the best relievers in the game, and that is neither hyperbole nor Yankees homerism. He sat in the 93rd percentile or better in nearly every meaningful pitching metric.
So how is it that Loáisiga transformed into a relief ace seemingly overnight? It actually involves a very simple tweak to his pitch arsenal. Loáisiga threw mainly four-seamers from 2018 to 2020 and produced middling results. He switched to the sinker in 2021 and immediately started to dominate.
We’ve written at length on this site about how the Yankees’ embrace of the sinker has unlocked untapped potential in a handful of their pitchers, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the switch vaulted Loáisiga’s career into another stratosphere. Among all pitchers to throw at least 750 fastballs from 2018 and 2020 and 500 fastballs in 2021, Loáisiga experienced the largest drop in xwOBA against the fastball after switching from four-seamer to sinker.
Perhaps the most enticing aspect of Loáisiga’s surge is his contract status. He is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, meaning the Yankees have him for three more cost-controlled seasons. I am a firm believer that tying up a substantial percentage of one’s payroll in the back end of the bullpen is a fatal strategy, especially when also operating under a self-imposed spending limit. The breakouts of guys like Loáisiga and Clay Holmes give the Yankees an indispensable opportunity to get away from that mode of roster construction, potentially freeing up million of dollars for more urgent needs.
Ever since Mariano Rivera’s retirement, we have been waiting for the next homegrown closer to fill his absence. And while I am by no means placing Jonathan Loáisiga on the same pedestal as Mo just yet, the Yankees have quite the relief ace in their hand being able to go to Lo in the highest leverage situations. Loáisiga’s 2021 campaign has me excited to see how much better he can become in the coming seasons.