Will the Yankees get the 2021 version of Jonathan Loáisiga back?

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In the first month-plus of the season, the most common praise we heard about the Yankees was reliever dominance. All of a sudden, the Yankees bullpen isn’t as bulletproof as it was two weeks ago. With Chad Green out for the year needing surgery from Tommy John and Aroldis Chapman unplayable in high leverage situations as he deals with Achilles tendonitis, reliever depth is starting to look thin. But the most worrisome aspect of the bullpen has been Jonathan Loáisiga’s complete and utter regression from the team’s top reliever last year to a barrel-seeking explosion that is expected to occur this year.

Last Monday, Esteban wrote a remarkable article about Jonathan Loáisiga’s early season struggles. He analyzed every part of the reliever’s pitcher profile in an effort to diagnose problems and possibly prescribe a remedy. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend it as required reading for everyone in the PSA community, but the main findings revolved around a slight alteration in Loáisiga’s release point on the lead, causing the entering the field into the zone at a different horizontal approach angles (HAA) and finding barrels at a much higher rate compared to last year.

The sinker is Loáisiga’s bread-and-butter pitch – he throws it almost 60% of the time, both right-handed and left-handed, and in all cases. As Esteban discovered, there’s very little to separate his 2021 lead from the 2022 version. Speeds are under a mile per hour, motion profiles are the same, his pitch mastery – for the most part – mirrors that of 2021, the average output speeds are almost identical. The only difference in the field is an increase in average launch angle from -5 to +5 degrees – also reflected in a decrease in ground ball rate and an increase in line drive rate. For a lead player who throws hard and throws on contact, you can see how devastating having about 20% of his base pitches from a year ago converted to line drives could be.

Esteban concluded that the change in release point caused Loáisiga’s command to weaken and wasted too many throws on the arm side, down the middle. Indeed, that’s where the majority of hits have come against his lead so far in 2022.

However, I find this explanation in itself unsatisfactory. Loáisiga lands essentially the same percentage of shots – 20.6% in 2021, 22% in 2022 – in the mid arm side area, so I think we need to look further. Esteban also postulated that HAA’s slight deviation from an entry angle of -0.2 degrees to an entry angle of +0.3 degrees caused the pitch to break at the wrong time and end up bumping into too much of barrels. I think he might be onto something here, so I dug through the video archives of sinkers from last year versus this year to see if it was indeed happening.

Here is a medium-medium sinker thrown against Michael Brantley in 2021:

And here is a sinker in exactly the same place, this time thrown against Yoán Moncada two weeks ago:

Both pitches are thrown with roughly similar speed and overall motion, but with very different results. Brantley rams the lead into the ground for an easy exit as Moncada crushes his lead 417 feet left. To echo what Esteban said in his post, we’re talking about tiny differences on the magnitude of the millimeters, but I think you can start to see what he was talking about with the effect of the modified HAA.

Against Brantley, the lead reaches its maximum break rate as soon as it enters the zone. This makes it incredibly difficult for even one of the game’s most revered hitters to match their barrel to ball flight. In contrast, against Moncada, it’s almost as if the sinker has completed most of its break before it hits the plate, so it’s flat as it enters the strike zone. This makes it easier for Moncada to follow terrain and land its cannon there.

Here is another example, this time a weighted sinker, midfielder to Anthony Rendon in 2021:

And here is a sinker thrown from the exact same spot against Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in April:

Again, I think we can begin to understand why Loáisiga’s lead has been much easier to shoot this year. Admittedly, the ground thrown at Rendon is 3.5 mph slower, so these analogues are by no means perfect. However, it looks like we’re seeing a repeat of what happened in previous examples. The lead to Rendon takes a sharp right as he is about to make contact and he gets stuck. Contrast that with Vladito’s lead, which almost seems to straighten the closer he gets to the plate, allowing the Toronto slugger to get his barrel there much easier.

Is this all just a case of confirmation bias? Do I choose to interpret what my eyes see in a way that supports our hypothesis? This could very well be the case. Anyway, I would like to end with two final thoughts.

First, Loáisiga is a perfect example of reliever volatility. Pitching to such small samples lends itself to biased results that aren’t always indicative of the true level of talent. Really, his dismal start to the season can be boiled down to half a dozen sinkers being punished this year but not punished last year. Either way, I think his case should serve as a reminder to promotion departments everywhere that success outside the bullpen is fleeting and there should be a constant effort to develop the next wave of weapons as the existing ones lose their effectiveness.

Second, I think this investigation and the one Esteban conducted illustrates how important it is to consider all of the evidence presented to us. A greater number of Loáisiga parameters – rotational speed, speed, movement, command, etc. — suggest he’s the same pitcher as last year than there are suggesting anything has changed. Obviously, we know that is not the case. Each stat and metric is a small piece of the puzzle, and you can’t see the full picture without each piece in its place.

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