The New York Yankees have had a plethora of pitching prospects rise to prominence in the last two years. Names like Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, and even Domingo Germán have led the way. The best pitcher amongst them is Jonathan Loáisiga. Loáisiga, a 26-year-old from Nicaragua, came onto the scene in 2018 after an unexpected call-up and since then has played a variety of roles for the Bronx Bombers. But despite 36 appearances across three years, he’s still being underutilized. He has all the signs of becoming a great pitcher. With the right treatment, the Yankees could have a breakout on their hands.
Signs of Greatness
Loáisiga’s early years don’t look fantastic on paper. He’s never started more than four games in a season, and his ERA and home run rates have been all over the place.
Loáisiga swam in punchouts in his first two seasons when he struck out hitters at an above-average rate before dropping below the average rate this past season.
|Year||Loáisiga K%||MLB Average K%|
2020 could be a fluke year for a couple of reasons. First, he threw more pitches inside of the strike zone, while also giving up more contact both in and out of the strike zone, and he had a career-high in meatball rate.
|Year||Zone %||Zone Contact %||Chase Contact %||Meatball %|
All easy fixes for Loáisiga. Those are large jumps in contact percentage that could be small sample size noise. It’s also unlikely that a pitcher who has missed bats in the past would all of a sudden stop missing bats without a decrease in velocity or movement. Loáisiga has gotten strikeouts in the past and can do so again. Even if he is giving up contact, it tends to be softer and on the ground.
That is another indicator of success: limiting hard contact while keeping the ball on the ground. Loáisiga did this well in 2020. He was in the top 5% of the league in both hard-hit rate and average exit velocity. His average launch angle was also close to zero, and his ground-ball rate was over 50%. Striking guys out and having them put the ball in play on the ground are the types of results you want as a starting pitcher.
Previously, a pitfall for Loáisiga has been the Yankees infield defense. Giovanny Urshela and the potentially departing DJ LeMahieu proved to be solid defenders but Gleyber Torres struggled at shortstop and Luke Voit is no Matt Olson. Still, after struggling with limiting hard contact in 2019, he rebounded well to show dramatic improvements there and was able to keep the ball on the ground, reflected in his 3.96 SIERA in 2020.
The final sign of success is limiting walks. Loáisiga dropped his walk rate to a career-low 7%. This stems from the fact that he was giving up more contact but it is still a welcome sign. It also could be a case of small sample size. In addition to throwing more pitches in the strike zone, he was getting ahead of more hitters with an improved first-pitch strike percentage.
Getting ahead and staying ahead is a big key for pitchers. Hitters who were down a strike after the first pitch had a well below-average wRC+, whereas hitters who were ahead after the first pitch had a well-above-average wRC+. If Loáisiga’s increased contact rate sticks in the years ahead, he needs to maintain control of the count to ensure that higher strikeout rate sticks as well.
Thankfully, Loáisiga has a strikeout and groundball friendly repertoire to work with, and a lot of that has to do with his active spin rates.
Active spin is the amount of spin on your pitch that is dedicated to the movement of that pitch. A high spin fastball with perfect active spin, like one from Loáisiga’s teammate Gerrit Cole, will create the “rise effect”.
The rise effect is the appearance of the fastball rising to the hitter’s eye and thus works well up in the zone. The ball isn’t rising; it’s just not dropping as much as other pitches. Fastballs will tend to have the highest active spin on a rate basis compared to any other pitch.
Loáisiga’s fastball is his go-to, thrown more than 45% of the time over his full career and 42.6% in 2020. Loáisiga has improved his command with it and can touch 99 mph. Hitters only had a .277 wOBA against it in 2020 but a .332 xwOBA.
Both of those are improvements over 2019 however. The spin on it in 2019 was 2400 rpm, well on its way to being elite. Still, there is still work to do with it, as the active spin percentile is still sitting in the low 80s percentile. Elite fastballs will have over 2500 rpm and at least 95% active spin rate. Look how Loáisiga’s active spin profile compares to Cole’s.
Loáisiga can improve this in a few different ways. The main way is to change the release angle of the hand on the baseball. Loáisiga doesn’t get perfectly behind the baseball on the release of his fastball. This creates some cut in his ball and reduces the active spin on his fastball.
His arm angle could contribute to it as well but look for Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake to make a tweak with him to try and get behind the ball more to create less drop and allow Loáisiga to work up in the zone with his fastball more effectively. This isn’t a necessity, as he can work around this by just keeping his fastball lower in the zone. However, if his fastball improved its active spin, it could be a pitch that rivals the other flame throwers in the Bronx.
Sustaining the 2020 improvement to his spin in both his changeup and curveball will allow them to produce more swings and misses. Loáisiga registered a whiff rate of at least 40% on both pitches for three straight years. Both pitches were well above average in horizontal movement. Each year he has improved his efficiency, his horizontal movement has improved.
Getting behind the ball more would also improve his changeup’s active spin, allowing the force of gravity to have less impact on the spin of the ball. Even at its current rate, Loáisiga’s changeup is a great pitch that he should throw more often than its current 15% usage rate. Look at this swinging strikeout from Lewis Brinson.
Loáisiga had Brinson completely fooled. The effects of pairing it with his fastball could be lethal. His changeup also gets weak contact and induces a negative launch angle. There are no changes needed for his changeup, he just needs to throw it more.
His curveball didn’t get hit often in 2020 but when it did, hitters hit it hard. In 2019, Loáisiga’s curveball got weak contact and a lot of swings and misses. It pairs very well with his fastball and changeup due to its slower velocity.
Likewise, its bend in towards lefties and away from righties contrasts a rising fastball and a changeup that does the opposite. His curveball has reached above 2800 rpm in the past, and with his 2020 active spin improvements, it could get there again. Plus, it generates swings and misses like this.
The ugly duckling of Loáisiga’s arsenal is his sinker. He threw the pitch almost 25% of the time in 2020, a career-high for him. As far as sinkers go, his isn’t terrible. It creates a negative launch angle and weak contact and it generated nearly as many whiffs as his regular four-seamer.
The problem with the pitch is its lack of movement. The sinker was below average in both horizontal and vertical movement. It was also very similar to his four-seam fastball. It’s tough for the pitch to play off the four-seamer when it doesn’t have much that separates it.
Not much of a noticeable difference to the eye right? Hitters slugged almost .520 against the pitch in 2020. It did generate a lower xwOBA than wOBA, the opposite of his fastball, but he got the same number of batted balls on the sinker that he did on his fastball despite throwing his sinker significantly less.
His sinker is likely a cause of his increased ground-ball rate, meaning maybe he shouldn’t eliminate the pitch entirely, but he should throw it less. His changeup induced a lower launch angle and a lower exit velocity in 2020. His sinker is a slightly below-average pitch, while his changeup and curveball are plus pitches.
A pitch mix that leans on the stronger pitches gives Loáisiga the best chance at racking up strikeouts, limiting hard contact, and keeping that contact on the ground. He’s improved on his active spin on all his pitches, if he keeps that trend up, he’ll see more success.
An Uncertain Role
The other thing holding Loáisiga back is the Yankees organization itself. Since his call up in 2018, they have been unwilling to commit to him as a starting pitcher but seem reluctant to slot him a Chad Green-type reliever. Part of this may come from Loáisiga’s stamina that plagued him when he came up in 2018.
It was clear he had great stuff, and still does, but he couldn’t work deep into games. That ability has to be learned with experience over time though to date, he has not shown any improved ability to do so.
There’s also a certain lack of grabbing the brass ring. In both 2019 and 2020, Loáisiga went into camp competing for the fifth starter role on the team. In 2019, he struggled in spring training and was clearly in need of more time in the minor leagues.
In 2020, he struck out 15 hitters in 13 innings while only walking one. He was great, and it looked like he was ready to make the jump. Due to COVID-19, however, his time was cut short. He didn’t earn a reliever spot going into the shortened season, but he didn’t earn a starting spot either.
The success of names like García, Germán, Schmidt, Jordan Montgomery, and even J.A. Happ have probably hindered his chances of making starts. It’s hard to build up the stamina to work deep into games if you’re not allowed to do so. In the minors the past few seasons, he’s mainly made rehab appearances from injuries where he won’t get the chance to work up to normal situations, so staying healthy is going to be another key for him.
If Loáisiga isn’t going to be a starter, he could work as a reliever. The problem with that is the same as being a starter: he hasn’t been given time to adjust to that role. This inconsistency in his role makes it hard for him to train towards being a reliever or a starter. In both his career and 2020, his reliever ERA, FIP, and xFIP are all higher than his starter numbers. He’s only faced 15 more hitters as a reliever than he has as a starter in his career.
Facing Cleveland in the Wild Card round this year, Loáisiga came into the seventh inning of Game 2 needing one out to get out of a jam and gave up the game-tying double instead. It was a situation he had never been in before, and the moment and lack of experience appeared too much for him.
Thrusting a young pitcher into a situation they have never handled before in the playoffs is a difficult ask from a manager. Loáisiga didn’t come through and that’s on him, but he needs experience in whatever role the Yankees want to give him. The Yankees seem like they want to keep him, as they should, as he could potentially be a great young pitcher. The team just needs to decide what role he will play for the team.
However, Loaisiga also has to deal with one last thing: a ticking clock. The Yankees have a wealth of young pitching talent close to the big leagues and more coming in the form of Luis Gil and Luis Medina. If Loáisiga doesn’t get a real shot soon, he may not ever. He’s made improvements in his active spin which should lead to more strikeouts, more groundballs, and more success. He’s got the stuff; the young pitcher is just waiting for the right opportunity.
Photo by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)