The ninth inning has unexpectedly been dicey for the Yankees at certain points this season. After putting together arguably the best stretch of his career, Aroldis Chapman — and his broken fingernail — seemed to forget how to pitch for a few weeks leading into the All-Star break. Then, after the break, Chapman was locked-in once again... until he went to the injured list with elbow discomfort.
In Chapman’s absence, the Yankees tried a few different options in the closer role. Zack Britton, the logical choice given his career history, has been spectacularly bad (he even admitted so himself after the Field of Dreams fiasco). Chad Green, one of the bullpen anchors for the Yankees over the last few years, has struggled with command at times this season and has had a few shocking implosions. Others have included Lucas Luetge, Albert Abreu, and the subject of this piece, Jonathan Loaisiga. So far, nothing has stuck.
After a series against the White Sox that featured two blown saves (with a near-third on Sunday), fans have been clamoring for some sort of temporary ninth-inning solution until Chapman returns. The answer, according to the masses? Jonathan Loaisiga, of course. After all, he’s been the Yankees best reliver this year. But I’m here to be the bearer of bad news: Loaisiga should not be the Yankees’ closer, though my reasoning might not be what you assume it to be.
Let’s get the inning-by-inning splits out of the way first. In a very limited sample size, Loaisiga, despite having a blown save to his name, has worked five innings without giving up an earned run and has closed out four games. That’s really good, and I recognize that it’s really good! But here are two other sets of splits that show why I don’t think he should be the closer:
In medium-leverage situations, Loaisiga has been nothing short of excellent. In just one less inning than Chad Green, Loaisiga has faced more batters while posting a 2.47 FIP and stranding an equally impressive 83.3 percent of baserunners. Even amongst these solid numbers, though, the two that really stand out to me are his mindbogglingly good groundball percentage and his absurdly low hard hit percentage. I guess that’s to be expected when you throw a 100-mph sinker...
It’s more of the same in high-leverage situations. Thanks in part to Chapman’s injury, Loaisiga actually leads the team in high leverage usage (albeit by the slimmest of margins) and has continued to post excellent numbers. In 17.2 innings of high leverage ball, Loaisiga has posted the team’s best FIP and - stop me if you’ve heard this one before - has an absurdly high groundball rate and low hard hit percentage. Sure, Loaisiga doesn’t rack up a ton of strikeouts, but his ability to induce soft contact and keep it on the ground has led to his incredible season.
At this point, you probably still don’t see why I think he shouldn’t be the closer. Here’s why: I don’t want to see Jonathan Loaisiga’s role reduced to one-inning appearances in games where the Yankees have the lead. Instead, the Yankees should use Loaisiga as the relief ace - or “fireman,” as it has traditionally been known - that he is. Long story short (too late), Loaisiga is too good and too effective to be limited to a closer’s role.
Despite the sense that the Yankees bow at the altar of analytics, the team has actually remained quite staunch in their dedication to using a traditional structure when it comes to the bullpen (shoutout to our own Joshua Diemert for pointing that out to me recently). While it has worked fairly well, we all know about the effects of limiting your best reliever to one inning appearances in games with the lead or throwaway appearances to get some work in. Just ask Baltimore Orioles fans how they felt about Zack Britton sitting in the bullpen when Edwin Encarnación launched a ball into orbit off of Ubaldo Jiménez to send the Jays to the 2016 ALDS.
Still not convinced? Let’s think this through with a little thought experiment. Which of these scenarios is a higher leverage situation for a reliever: entering with a one-run lead in the bottom of the seventh with the bases loaded and one out, or entering a clean inning in the bottom of the ninth with a three-run lead? If you chose the first option, congratulations, you’re correct. If you chose the second, you’ve been watching the Yankees too much lately and probably need a break for your own mental well-being.
And a follow-up question: which situation do you want your best reliever pitching in? If you like winning, your answer should be the seventh inning, bases loaded scenario. As the Tampa Bay Rays have shown, the idea of a dedicated closer is more of a novelty than most teams seem willing to admit. If you are lucky enough to have a relief ace, which the Yankees do, you should use him in the highest leverage spots instead of confining him to a limiting role.
In terms of qualified relievers, Jonathan Loaisiga leads the bullpen in ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, groundball percentage, hard hit percentage, HR/9, barrels, and fWAR, and is second to Chapman in left-on-base percentage. Aside from a few bizarrely rough outings against the Red Sox and, of all teams, the Royals, Loaisiga has been nearly perfect for the Yankees this season. Hs brilliance (and ridiculous sinker) should be spread out across more innings, not fewer.
So, while the statistics have made it abundantly clear that Loaisiga has been excellent this season, the calls for him to be this team’s closer are a little misguided due to the simple fact that a role like that would be limiting just how good and effective he has been for the team. Yes, it has been a particularly rough stretch for the Yankees in terms of closing out games, but don’t let the present small sample size cloud your judgment: Loaisiga is a relief ace and needs to be used as such. Whether it means entering the game to put out a fire in the seventh inning of a winnable ball game or cleaning up a mess in the ninth, he needs to be used in the highest leverage situations. Remember: We should all want more Loaisiga, not less.