The Yankees have a huge bounce-back candidate in the bullpen for 2023

Jonathan Loaisiga, yankees

Everyone remembers Jonathan Loaisiga’s incredible 2021, where he broke out and became the best weapon in the bullpen for the Yankees. While he didn’t take the closer job from Aroldis Chapman coming into 2022, it was clear that in the biggest spots of a game, Aaron Boone was going to Loaisiga before anyone else.

The Yankees didn’t get the start there were looking for from Loaisiga, but we saw him make a massive adjustment that allowed him to come back and finish the season strong. He finished the season with a subpar 4.13 ERA, but there are plenty of reasons to believe he’ll return to being a top-20 reliever in 2023.

Re-Establishing His Sinker Command

Jonathan Loaisiga’s sinker struggled mightily at the beginning of the season, which is what led to his first 17.2 innings having nauseating results. He was getting tattooed and walking too many batters, and it looked like his season was lost.

  • 8.31 ERA
  • 5.02 FIP
  • 4.02 SIERA
  • 1.56 HR/9
  • .354 BABIP

These numbers are just not acceptable for a reliever on a World Series contender, and there were serious talks about the Yankees shutting him down and sending him to Triple-A to work on his stuff. Instead, the Yankees placed their faith in the fireballer, and it paid off big time for their bullpen.

Loaisiga realized he wasn’t finding comfort with his breaking ball, which had great results on paper but was costing him runs. His curveball had a 4 Run-Value, which takes into account the ball-strike count, runners on base, and the number of outs. A positive Run-Value on a pitch is bad, and with the excellent infield defense the Yankees had, Loaisiga knew his sinker command would be imperative to his success.

His splits on the sinker reflected the splits in his production, and suddenly the “unreliable” Jonathan Loaisiga was one of the best relievers in baseball.

  • First 17.2 IP
    • .364 BA
    • .500 SLG
    • .424 wOBA
    • 5.0 Run Value
  • Final 30.2 IP
    • .247 BA
    • .260 SLG
    • .267 wOBA
    • -7.8 Run Value

His sinker went from one of the worst in the sport to one of the best, and it led to two key metrics dramatically improving. First is his BABIP, going from .354 to .240 in those splits. BABIP is seen purely as a luck metric, but there’s an aspect of skill involved in throwing pitches that have shapes that induce lower BABIPs. Loaisiga’s sinker is one of those pitches, and he leaned on it heavily down a critical stretch for the Yankees as summer drew to a close. With a 109.8 Stuff+, it’s a nasty fastball that has the ideal properties to induce weak contact on the ground, which it excels at.

At a blistering 98 MPH with 16.1″ of horizontal movement, it’s not a pitch you can get out in front of as a righty to pull for loud contact, and as a lefty, it’s hard to not roll it over or miss the sweet spot of your bat on as it tails away at near-100 MPH speeds.

Alex Bregman named Jonathan Loaisiga as the most difficult pitcher to hit, citing the late movement on his sinker that causes it to be so hard to barrel up. With his command of the sinker back, he had his go-to pitch to generate harmless contact on the ground that he could lean on over 60% of the time. The next pitch that emerged was a changeup that came back to life throughout the season and made him a high-leverage arm for the Yankees again.

It’s As Simple As Throwing Harder

Jonathan Loaisiga saw an uptick in changeup velocity in the final months of the season, and he would begin featuring that changeup way more. It had a sub-100 Stuff+ in the middle of August, but by the time the end of the season rolled around, it had increased by 7.5 points to 104.9. He averaged nearly 91 MPH on his changeup over his final 17 IP, using it 21.5% of the time, a nearly 10% increase from his previous 31 IP. His 73.1% GB% in those final 17 IP to go alongside a 1.59 ERA and 2.72 SIERA, meant he wasn’t just preventing runs, he was doing so in a sustainable manner.

More velocity tends to lead to better results in general, and Loaisiga’s changeup was spectacular. Batters hit just .086 against the pitch with a .114 SLG and just a .103 wOBA, whiffing 40.3% of the time. Squaring up his changeup was just an impossible task, and with the sharp run it has at 16.9″ of horizontal break, it’s easy to see how batters weren’t squaring it up. It looked like his sinker until the very end of its path to the plate, where it would drop off of a table, and a batter would swing over it for a whiff or weak contact.

His changeup was another huge factor for the previously mentioned BABIP suppression, and it’s a pitch that allowed him to generate ideal contact for a pitcher (groundballs). His postseason run was a reflection of his added changeup, with 9.1 IP of just 1 run ball and a 76.7% GB%, being arguably the most important reliever in their bullpen during the postseason for the Yankees. With two remarkable groundball inducers, Loaisiga was able to manage an ERA of 1.76 in his final 30.2 IP of the regular season, but there’s still one thing he struggled with over that timespan.

Underperforming Strikeout Numbers

When you take a look at Jonathan Loaisiga’s whiff and chase metrics, they would suggest that he had a solid amount of strikeouts in 2022. He was in the 53rd Percentile in Whiff% and 98th Percentile in Chase%, and yet he was in the 20th Percentile in K%, what gives? Such a discrepancy can happen for a variety of reasons, but we can boil that discrepancy down to poor luck with two strikes.

The average MLB hitter struck out 42.0% of the time in two-strike counts, while hitters only struck out 35.6% of the time in two-strike counts against Loaisiga. He should be overperforming that mark based on how often he gets hitters to expand the strike zone and swing-and-miss, and the Yankees should anticipate an increase in K% for him in 2023.

jonathan loaisiga, yankees
Oct 18, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Jonathan Loaisiga (43) reacts after striking out Cleveland Guardians first baseman Gabriel Arias (not pictured) to end the sixth inning in game five of the ALDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees could see Loaisiga lean on his curveball more in 2023, a pitch that’s excellent at getting whiffs (41.4% Whiff%) and has a remarkable pitch shape. Pitching+ and Stuff+ both adore his curveball, with a 134.7 Stuff+ and 117.4 Pitching+ due to its near 10″ of horizontal sweep at nearly 87 MPH. It’s a unique breaking ball that could honestly be classified more as a slider, but whatever you call it, it’s for sure nasty. As he upped his changeup usage, his curveball usage saw a massive downtick in usage, but perhaps a usage split of 50-25-25 between the sinker-changeup-curveball could allow him to generate more strikeouts.

Steamer projects Loaisiga to have a 22.9% K% next year, which is league-average but would greatly benefit him if he’s able to maintain his groundball rates from 2022. His strikeout stuff is still there, he just needs to regain the comfort he previously had with his breaking ball, so he can lean on his secondary pitches more instead of his fastball in two-strike counts where batters will expand more, and you can hunt the strikeout when need be.

Finding Jonathan Loaisiga’s Role

The Yankees don’t currently have a set closer, though it would be expected that Clay Holmes would be the primary closer. This isn’t to say that Loaisiga isn’t capable of closing, but the Yankees should avoid set roles in their bullpen as a whole. If the Yankees have runners on 1st and 2nd and no one out with a 2-1 lead, Loaisiga should come in, regardless of the inning. They have options to close out games, and you can’t enter the 9th inning with a lead if you blow it in the 6th. Loaisiga showed that he can handle all types of pressure because when the Yankees needed him most, he stepped right up.

Call on Jonathan Loaisiga when you need your biggest outs, not just based on the inning. Aaron Boone showed that this is the role the Yankees prefer him in based on his postseason usage, where they managed their elite trio of Loaisiga, Holmes, and Peralta beautifully. They aren’t going to need Loaisiga to carry a massive load during the regular season on his own. There’s a variety of lanes and options for Aaron Boone to take in-game, and this should prevent the shoulder issues we saw Loaisiga first have in 2021 that resurfaced in 2022.

The stuff is elite, the pitch mix has diverse and distinct movement profiles, and there isn’t a situation he can’t handle. Jonathan Loaisiga can put together an elite season in 2023 and firmly establish himself as one of the best relievers in baseball once again, putting the slow start in 2022 behind him for good.