In 2019, Jonathan Loáisiga was an interesting prospect trying and failing to harness electric velo and a heavy sinker. A tale as old as time. Under pitching coach Matt Blake’s tutelage, he’s become perhaps the Yankees’ most trusted reliever.
As my fellow writers Alex and Esteban have outlined, Blake’s M.O. for the bullpen has been sequencing the sinker and sweeper to complement one another — especially for pitchers with exceptional velocity who throw heavy sinkers like Loáisiga.
In Loáisiga’s case, Blake’s deployment of the changeup to complement the sweeper/sinker combo has been subtle but integral to overall effectiveness. He fine-tuned his changeup to more closely mimic his sinker, giving him two pitches with deceptively identical movement. Loáisiga had a fluky, injury-plagued 2022, so I will be using his more substantive 2021 data in some places where the change is evident from 2019. He threw his changeup well in the second half of 2022 though, and the metrics on the pitch for 2021 and 2022 are almost identical.
Loáisiga made the sinker his primary pitch after 2019, and geared his changeup toward complementing it in 2021. He upped it from 12.9-percent usage in 2019 to 15 percent in 2021, the velo ticked up from 89.6 mph to 90 mph, and the horizontal movement increased from 13.4 inches to 15.9 inches. Vertically, the pitch decreased its break from 24.3 inches to 22.6 inches. These are small but extremely significant changes in Loáisiga’s repertoire. He cut down on vertical movement and added horizontal movement, and his changeup shifted to resemble his sinker, rather than a “Bugs Bunny” vertical change.
The result is a 99-mph sinker with the same movement pattern as a 90-mph changeup, indistinguishable from each other until the hitter has already committed to a swing. As Greg Maddux said, hitters are limited by the constraints of human vision when trying to hit a good changeup.
A solid third pitch is often what makes a reliever truly elite, and Loáisiga’s two secondary pitches complement his sinker in entirely different ways. Because of the changeup, hitters must worry about both change of speeds and multiple planes of movement, both vertically and horizontally.
Hitters have the unenviable job of deciphering whether Loáisiga is coming at them with 99 at the knees, 90 below the zone with the exact same shape, or a hard sweeper that makes a sharp left turn. In 2022, the changeup was similarly effective. Hitters put the ball in play against the change at an average of 82.8 mph and hit .086, a stark difference to the 2019 rates of 91.1 mph and a .375 average.
On September 20, 2022 at PNC Park, Loáisiga faced up-and-coming Pirates slugger Oneil Cruz in a tie game with runners on second and third. The changeup truly demonstrated its efficiency in this at-bat against a talented but aggressive hitter.
Cruz swung wildly at a 2-0 sinker and Loáisiga noticed.
After getting back in the count at 2-2, Loáisiga went for the kill with a nasty changeup and Cruz swung a sword for strike three.
At-bats like this are littered throughout 2021 and 2022, as Loáisiga’s changeup has developed into a legitimate out pitch. By mirroring his sinker, hitters are powerless to tell the difference. If Loáisiga can replicate this devastating combination throughout 2023, then opposing hitters will be in trouble and the Yankees’ bullpen will be all the more dangerous.