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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Jonathan Loáisiga

The young righty should have a chance to make a real impact in the Yankees’ bullpen this year.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Three years into his big league career, Jonathan Loáisiga feels like a known quantity to Yankees fans. He’s developed a deserved reputation for flashing excellent stuff and delivering middilng results. Followers of the team know to feel a bit nervous if/when Loáisiga comes into the latter stages of a close game because of his consistent inconsistency.

It’s surprising, then, to glance at Loáisiga’s career figures and see he’s only pitched 79.2 innings in the majors. At 26-years-old and having debuted in 2018, it seems as if we go way back with Loáisiga, but in truth, we really only know so much about this fledgling pitcher. Loáisiga will have to stay healthy if he wants to give us a clearer picture of what he can be, but with a still-nascent track record and evident arm talent, there’s hope yet that he can do more than he’s shown.

2020 Stats: 12 G, 23.0 IP, 3.52 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 8.6 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.217 WHIP, 0.5 bWAR, 0.1 fWAR

2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 58 G, 58 IP, 3.94 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 10.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.21 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR

Dwelling on Loáisiga’s inconsistency may seem a bit harsh, given he’s technically coming off his strongest season so far. Loáisiga did show very well for the Yankees across the short sprint of 2020. He maintained a 123 ERA+ while flitting between a variety of roles, performing as an opener, a late-inning reliever, and as a multi-inning long man.

There were warts as well, even in Loáisiga’s best campaign. His strikeout rate dipped beneath one per inning, he generated fewer swings and misses, and for what it’s worth, he faltered when called upon in the playoffs: yielding a homer, two walks, and two runs in two innings.

Ultimately, a dozen regular season appearances with a good ERA don’t really change the evaluation on Loáisiga. He’s still a tantalizing pitcher who gets hurt a lot, struggles with consistency and makes you nervous in big spots. What can he do in 2021 to progress beyond that?

For one, he can stay healthy. While Loáisiga’s low 2020 innings count had more to do with the pandemic than injuries, he did hit the IL once in September. He missed about half the 2019 season with a shoulder strain, dealt with shoulder inflammation through the 2018 campaign, and underwent Tommy John surgery in 2016, the year the Yankees originally signed him. He had previously been released by the Giants because, well, he was always hurt. He pitched just 68 innings in three years in the Giants organization, and has pitched just 177 minor league innings across five seasons. That means that Loáisiga has about as many combined professional innings since 2013 as Gerrit Cole throws in one season.

Putting together six healthy months would do wonders to improve Loáisiga’s standing with the club. Just hitting his depth charts projection, for 58 appearances with an ERA around four, would hit the nail on the head. No, that’s not elite performance, but on a good day, Loáisiga comes in between 13th and 15th on the Yankees’ pitching depth chart. For all the hand-wringing about the team’s depth, if Loáisiga even puts together the kind of season the projections expect from him, he’d profile as one of the most overqualified 14th men in the league.

Part of that stems from the fact that his stuff is all there. Even through dealing with various injuries, Loáisiga’s velocity has remained intact, averaging about 97 mph on his four-seamer last year, a full tick above where it was when he debuted in 2018. His spin rates still sit above average per Statcast.

To beat expectations, Loáisiga would probably have to use that still excellent stuff to recapture his sky-high strikeout rates from previous years, and combine it with last year’s depressed walk rate. Indeed, Loáisiga was in the strike zone more often in 2020, and he nearly halved his BB/9 figure. There’s nothing fancy here, but if Loáisiga can stay healthy, pound the zone with 97 mph heat, and strike out double-digit batters per nine while walking under three, that’d simply look like a very fine relief pitcher.

How desperately the Yankees need Loáisiga to go above expectation likely depends on whether their bullpen’s health continues to deteriorate. The team is down one man, with Zack Britton out a few months after elbow surgery. With only Britton hurt, Loáisiga would still land toward the bottom of the depth chart, and whether he can iron things out wouldn’t make or break this Yankee season. A couple more injuries to higher-level relievers, though, and Loáisiga will have to make more late inning appearances, and the Yankees will need him to perform as well or better than he did in 2020.

This isn’t a do-or-die year for Loáisiga as he’s only in his mid-20s, and the Yankees aren’t likely to cut bait anytime soon, not when they have team control over him through the next four seasons. If Loáisiga continues to tantalize and frustrate, intermittently excelling and getting injured, the Yankees may just keep on doing this dance. It costs them little to keep penciling in Loáisiga’s dynamic arm at the bottom of their bullpen, just to see if this is the season he figures it out. Will 2021 be that year?