Between now and opening day we are going to do a deep dive Statcast breakdown on the New York Yankees’ rotation options. First up: Jonathan Loaisiga
The man known as Jonny Lasagna was acquired by the Yankees before the 2016 season after being released by the Giants. He arrived in the big leagues in May 2018 with tantalizing stuff, but has always been held back by control problems, and more importantly injuries. Since being acquired in 2016, Loaisiga has been placed on the IL five times with various injuries including last season’s shoulder issues. This year, he was part of the fifth starter competition in Spring Training and is in the mix to play a large role in this shortened season. Part of the appeal of Loaisiga is that he can start or relieve. He has made nine starts for the Yankees and entered out of the bullpen 14 times.
Limited by injuries once again, Loaisiga appeared in 31.2 innings across 15 games, with 4 of them starts. He pitched to a 4.55 ERA, 4.95 FIP, and 4.34 SIERA. In that limited time, he struck out 26.6% of batters but walked 11.5%, which to quote a former Yankee manager, it’s not what you want. His best outing last year came on April 3 against Detroit when he pitched to the following line: 4 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 4 K. You can clearly see the upside but problem with Loasigia right there. He only allowed one hit, but walked three batters and needed 70 pitches to get through four innings. And that was his best start of the season according to Game Score. Game Score is a stat developed by Bill James where 50 is an average start, and this start by Loasigia was a 57.
Ready for some fun? Loasigia is a Statcast darling. Loasigia throws a four-seam fastball, curve, changeup, and sinker. He throws the four-seamer close to 50% of the time and the curve 30%. The changeup and sinker are each at about 10%, and primarily used against lefties. His velocity is great:
Both in terms of the top-end on his fastball as well as the variation between his pitches. His fastball averages right around 97 mph and his curve comes in closer to 85. Importantly, his spin rates are elite:
A fastball velocity in the 95th percentile combined with 83rd percentile spin and 89th percentile curveball spin is a winning combination. Loaisiga throws hard and effectively which explains his above-average swing and miss rate and strikeout rates. Here are GIFs of the nastiness:
However, he has limited success. Walks are definitely a part of that, but Loaisiga also gets hit hard. His exit velo allowed is 89.3 mph compared to a league average of 87.7 mph. That leads to a lot of hard-hit balls…
…but batters having a high expected wOBA against him. Guys with elite velocity and spin tend to get hit hard because of that, however, a high xwOBA means something else is going on.
Once again, the issue for Loaisiga appears to be his command. This visual shows his success based on pitch location:
The most important number to see there is the -9 runs for pitches in the shadow area of the plate. For a guy with Loaisiga’s stuff, he should have success in that area. You would expect batters to swing and miss at his fastballs up in the zone, for example. But instead, that’s where he’s getting hit harder compared to league average.
How can he improve?
The easiest way to see improvement from Loaisiga is better command. However, I think there’s another factor at play here. Loaisiga is very predictable both when he throws his pitches and where.
You can see his first pitch is almost always a fastball or a curveball. Better control of his changeup or sinker would allow him to get it over for strike one and get into a good pitcher’s count. And getting strike one is crucial for his success. Loaisiga is elite after 0-1 counts. He has a sOPS+ of 64 in those situations which means he is 36% better than league average after getting to 0-1. Conversely, his sOPS+ when he falls behind 1-0 is 221 meaning he is 121% worse than league average. Getting strike one is huge for him, and he could find much more success if he improves how often he gets ahead of hitters. Learning to simply get a changeup or sinker over for strike one will keep batters guessing and make a world of difference in each at-bat.
Another way to become less predictable is to vary where you throw your pitches. This visual shows where he tends to throw each of his pitches:
He only likes to throw his curveball to his glove side and his changeup arm side, which is to be expected. However, if he can learn to throw his curve outside to lefties for a strike, that would give them something else to think about. That would also increase his ability to get called strike one, which makes a huge difference.
Plan for this year
Loaisiga is in an interesting position for this year. With Masahiro Tanaka recovering from the line drive he took to the head, the Yankees need another starter and Loaisiga could certainly fit the bill. However, I think this year provides an excellent opportunity to use Loaisiga as a tandem starter or multi-inning reliever.
I mentioned above that he has been used in both roles, and it’s clear that Loaisiga excels in shorter bursts. In fact, he has never completed five innings as a starter, so pitching once every five days for four innings doesn’t make much sense. Instead, let Loaisiga air it out for three innings at a time. Jordan Montgomery is coming back from Tommy John surgery and whoever takes Tanaka’s first few turns (if need be) in the rotation whether it’s Clarke Schmidt or Michael King likely won’t pitch deep into the game. Use Loaisiga to follow one of them as a bridge to the late-inning relievers. The stats back this approach up as well. Loaisiga really struggles the second and third times through the order. Letting him air it out once through the order with his elite stuff could turn Loaisiga into the next Chad Green.