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Jonathan Loáisiga is entering his make-or-break season

Can the hard-throwing hurler be more than just a depth piece?

Miami Marlins v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Entering his age-26 season, Jonathan Loáisiga is still an enigma for the Yankees. On one hand, he posted the best numbers of his career in 2020. On the other, there was general trepidation when he entered the game in big spots, and plenty of it was justified – he let 6 of 11 batters reach base in an ineffective postseason run.

However, Loáisiga’s metrics paint a picture of a pitcher ready to make a leap. Now in his fourth year in the bigs, it’s crucial that the Yankees find out what they have in Loáisiga – is he just more organizational depth, a long reliever and spot starter, or can he be a part of the Yankees’ bullpen of the future?

Loáisiga’s stuff has never been the question. He has fastball velocity up in the top-ten percent of the league, generates above-average spin on his heater and his breaking ball, and has a changeup that is his great equalizer against lefties. But, Loáisiga finally started getting encouraging batted-ball results last season, which could point to a breakthrough.

He generated mostly soft contact last year, and plenty of it came on the ground. After posting average exit velocities worse than MLB average his first two years, Loáisiga was in the top five percent in terms of exit velocity in 2020. Statcast classified most of the balls put in play as “weak” or “topped,” which explains the career-best 53 percent groundball rate. When batters made contact vs. Loáisiga last year, they mostly nubbed it into the ground.

His improved sinker may have something to do with that. He threw it more than ever before, and hitters only averaged an 81 mph exit velocity against it and a -3 degree launch angle. That’s a recipe for plenty of weak ground balls, which are a reliever’s best friend. He didn’t get many whiffs on the pitch, but that’s not why he throws it. When paired with his four-seamer and curveball, the sinker gives Loáisiga a way to get hitters out without having to strike them out.

The biggest issue with Loáisiga in his first two years was his propensity to nibble around the strike zone, brought on by his inability to finish hitters. It seems that Loáisiga may have found a way to finish off hitters by having them fall into his trap rather than being forced to a get a strikeout.

Naturally, there is a fly in the ointment. While Loáisiga saw his strikeouts dip in 2020, they dropped almost a little too low. His whiff rate decreased 10 percent from 2019, and his strikeout percentage fell below league-average. While this is to be expected given the increase in ground balls, it’d be nice to see Loáisiga gain a few more strikeouts reminiscent of his first two seasons. The good news is that Loáisiga’s walk rate was the best it’s ever been, so his sometimes-elusive control is not to blame.

The future of the Yankees’ bullpen is up in the air. Things look good this year with a trio of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Chad Green in the late game, plus Darren O’Day as a quality middle relief option. But, three of those four pitchers could be off the roster in two years, when Loáisiga is slated to be in his expected prime at age 28. If Loáisiga can take a step forward this season, he may be on the path toward cementing himself as a key piece of the Yankees’ bullpen for years to come.