Pitchers are fickle. Relievers especially so. Good relievers often so. Sometimes, the things that separate a replacement-level mop-up arm from a reliever having an All-Star season are subtle. It’s particularly true with an organization like the Yankees, that has made a habit in recent years of molding lockdown relievers out of pitchers most of us haven’t heard of before March.
That’s not really the case with Jonathan Loáisiga. His skillset is loud. You can throw around last year’s 4.13 ERA all you want, but you’d have a hard time building a contingent of analysts that thinks that number represents his outlook going forward. This week, I’ll be locking in on a tense (yet simultaneously routine) eighth-inning faceoff between Loáisiga and consummate professional hitter Carlos Santana that can help show us why we should be confident in the right-hander’s abilities moving forward.
Santana finished the 2022 season with a perfectly league average 100 OPS+, and though he preceded that with a mark a full 15 percent below average in 2020-21, he is (or was, this past summer) a hitter that a pitcher has to plot carefully against. Even in the less productive, advanced stages of his career, he is, at the very least, someone a pitcher doesn’t want to be lax with.
This particular showdown occurred with zero outs in the eighth inning with the Yankees ahead 6-2. The pressure wasn’t exactly at a boiling point. But i’s still enough of a ballgame for a pitcher like Loáisiga to take a hitter like Santana seriously.
Loáisiga started the at-bat with a curveball, something he’s done only 20 percent of the time since the start of 2021. Loáisiga’s sinker is really good, but Santana’s swing is perfectly geared for mistake sinkers at the knees, and Loáisiga’s curveball is tough enough that it’s worth ripping off for a free strike — if it’s well-executed.
It wasn’t very well-executed, and Santana’s bat moved as much as it would have if that ball at gone to the backstop. Hitter’s count. These are the situations where Santana thrives. That means it’s time for Loáisiga to attack with his devastating high-nineties sinker, right?
Wrong. There aren’t very many relief pitchers who can pair a good change with a good fastball. Most of them wouldn’t be relievers if they could. Loáisiga is the exception. When he’s behind 1-0 to Professional Hitter Santana, who by all rights should be eagerly awaiting a sinker at the knees to crush, he can switch things up yet again and instead try to pull the string with a tough changeup.
Unfortunately, Loáisiga once again failed to execute, coming oh so close to ripping off a nasty change at Santana’s shoestrings and instead yanking it into the dirt, too low for a hitter with Santana’s discipline to consider lifting the bat off his shoulder.
A 1-0 count is one thing; a 2-0 count is an entirely different beast. Now it’s time to throw a strike. Santana might be auto-taking, but it doesn’t matter. Perhaps Loáisiga is having some difficulty adjusting to the mound, because he proceeds to spike his first sinker of the night — triple digits on the TV gun, naturally — in the same manner as the previous changeup.
3-0 count. Over the course of his career, Santana has swung roughly 10 percent of the time on a 3-0 count. Trailing by a grand slam, Loáisiga and Jose Trevino probably felt safe assuming that this wouldn’t fall into that 10 percent, because he called and set up for a pretty standard 3-0 get-me-over.
Debate the existence of “late movement” all you want, but Jeff Nelson called that one like it crossed the plate 10 feet before it did. Not that it fazes Santana, who seems to know it wasn’t actually a strike. It’s hard to know what his approach might have been to the next sinker, because Loáisiga once again yanked it far enough inside that Santana thought it worth his while to attempt to sell it as being clearly too far inside to be a strike. Unfortunately for him, Nelson disagreed.
Now we’re into the nitty-gritty. Full count. Santana trying to spark a rally, Loáisiga pitching for the second day in a row in just his third week back from a lengthy stay on the injured list. Now it becomes strength vs. strength. Santana knows the fastball is coming, and Loáisiga’s high-nineties demon sinker is good enough that he doesn’t care and throws it anyway. Again. And again. And again.
Then, there’s the last pitch in the sequence. At first, one might think that Loáisiga made a bad pitch, leaving a changeup as high up in the zone as he did. Watch twice, though. Jose Trevino isn’t asking his pitcher to bury this changeup, he’s asking him to float it into the strike zone with just enough finesse to send Santana’s timing haywire. Did he succeed?
It’s to Santana’s credit that he doesn’t fully succeed; There are a lot of hitters who probably wouldn’t have even made contact. If you were just looking at the pure numbers — 102.5 mph exit velocity and nine degree launch angle — you’d think Loáisiga got quite lucky. He did get lucky, but no more lucky than Santana was in having that swing find a barrel despite clearly (to my eyes) being in anticipation of a fourth straight sinker. Either way, rather than having a rally-starter on base, Loáisiga was able to approach the heart of Seattle’s order with just two more outs and no baserunners to handle.
I’ll say it again: There aren’t too many relievers with a great feel for a changeup, because many of them would be starters if they had it. Loáisiga is one of those few relievers who has a feel for spinning a breaking ball to the glove side and pronating for an effective changeup to the arm side. There doesn’t have to be anything special about that arm-side changeup other than being thrown to a decent spot — the simple fact is that if you throw four or five sinkers to Carlos Santana in a three-ball count, you’re virtually certain to either walk him or give him a pitch that he can crush. Loáisiga managed to do neither.
The changeup’s bare existence makes it effective. If he can’t throw the curveball for a strike, you still can’t sit on the fastball. Not even close. There aren’t too many relievers who can offer that kind of approach. Loáisiga is one of them. No matter what his 2022 ERA says.