The Next Dellin Betances
Jonathan Loaisiga Throwing a Change-Up – Photo Courtesy of Al Bello, Getty Images
Dellin Betances spent 8 long years toiling in the Yankee minor league system as a struggling starter prior to bursting on the scene in 2014 as a lockdown reliever. Betances became elite almost immediately following a shift to the bullpen, as it allowed him to use his overpowering pure stuff to beat hitters in short outings, rather than worrying about a change-up, repeating his delivery, and conserving his energy over 5+ innings of work. Even beyond becoming an elite reliever, Betances was generally a source of stability in one of the best bullpens in baseball during his time in pinstripes. While the Yankee bullpen was good last season, Betances’ absence was noticeable, and the Yankees are not projected to fill that hole in Free Agency now that Betances has signed a contract with the cross-town Mets.
I touched on the topic of finding bullpen help from within the organization a few weeks ago, but I think that one of the pitchers on the list I threw out deserves his own post: Jonathan Loaisiga.
Loaisiga is a divisive prospect. Loaisiga clearly has the quality 3-pitch mix that should eventually make him a capable starter. However, Loaisiga has also missed huge chunks of time to develop as a starter due to a variety of injuries to his elbow and shoulder. While Loaisiga has been healthier as a Yankee than he was pitching in the Giants’ minor league system, having never thrown more than the 80.2 innings he threw in the Yankee system in 2018. Since turning pro in 2013, Loaisiga has thrown just 245.1 innings, or approximately 2 years worth of standard development time for a minor league starting pitcher. When you add in the fact that these innings have been scattered in varied and inconsistent ways, Loaisiga has never been able to build up innings, thus more fully developing his repertoire.
In short, Loaisiga’s career is at a cross-road. Loaisiga’s stuff and feel for pitching leads many to project that he could be a very valuable starter, even if he is only able to pitch 140 innings per season. However, he has also proven over the last 7 seasons that his body is not capable of holding up under the strain of pitching even 4-6 innings every 5 days. At some point, it makes sense for the Yankees to cut bait with trying to make Loaisiga a starter, and get value out of him while they still can by making him a reliever.
In fact, the Yankees even gave Loaisiga a taste of this role when he returned from injuries late in the 2019 season. From August through October, Loaisiga pitched out of the bullpen. The results were mixed in 15 innings, as he only allowed a 3.00 ERA and struck out 20 batters, but he allowed a lot of loud contact and was worth -.322 Win Probability Added. By October, many Yankee fans cringed when they saw Loaisiga enter the game. However, all is not as it appears, and I think that there is room for significant improvement for Loaisiga. First, let’s take a look at his pitch location maps, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
2019 Jonathan Loaisiga Pitch Maps, Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Loaisiga has elite velocity and spin on his fastball and curve, but while the curve was an outstanding pitch for him 2019, his fastball was hit hard, as batters hit the pitch with an average exit velocity of 95.8 MPH with an XWOBA of .479. In short, batters were basically early 2000s Barry Bonds in terms of quality of contact against his fastball. Some of that could have been due to injuries, but we also see that Loaisiga hung a fair number of fastballs in the middle of the zone.
On the other hand, he located his curve beautifully, while his change-up was generally located well, save for a few that were punished when he hung them. Batters had an XWOBA of just .125 against Loaisiga’s curve, and averaged just a 82.9 Exit Velocity off of the pitch last season. Loaisiga would likely find much more success by throwing his curve more often, and more generally changing his pitch mix to suit a relief role. Check out Loaisiga’s rolling pitch percentages last season, courtesy of Baseball Savant:
Jonathan Loaisiga’s Rolling Pitch Percentages, Courtesy of Baseball Savant
As you can see, once Loaisiga moved to the bullpen, his pitch mix was all over the place as he tried to acclimate to the role. I think that with more time to hone his approach, it is highly likely that Loaisiga’s stuff will play up as he uses his devastating as a primary offering, while using a fastball that plays up a tick out of the bullpen to confound batters. Oh, and his stuff did play up out of the bullpen, even in a small sample size:
2019 Jonathan Loaisiga Average Pitch Velocity, Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Loaisiga saw an immediate velocity spike when he began pitching out of the bullpen. Were he to prepare in the off-season as a reliever, I think his gains may be even greater, which is scary considering the fact that Loaisiga touched 100 MPH out of the bullpen late this summer. Loaisiga’s stuff pretty clearly plays up in shorter outings already, even without real training as a reliever.
I think that the sky is the limit to Loaisiga’s potential if he pitches out of the bullpen. Loaisiga has already proven that he cannot stay healthy pitching out of the rotation, so it is time to unleash his stuff out of the bullpen. As Dellin Betances before him proved, even a reliever can be worth 3+ WAR by any measure with an elite season out of the bullpen. Loaisiga is primed to become the next failed starter to ascend to elite reliever status.