NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 08: Jonathan Loaisiga #43 of the New York Yankees pitches against the Seattle Mariners during their game at Yankee Stadium on May 08, 2019 in New York City.
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Jonathan Loaisiga is an exciting prospect as a starter, but numbers suggest he better suits the New York Yankees’ bullpen.

Josh Benjamin

Jonathan Loaisiga is an interesting option for the New York Yankees.

The 25-year-old righty from Nicaragua is knee-deep in the competition to be New York’s fifth starter and has turned some heads in spring training. In four games, two of which have been starts, “Johnny Lasagna” has posted a 2.57 ERA in seven innings of work.

Loaisiga’s control has also been pinpoint, with no walks issued compared to only two hits allowed. Combined with his calm demeanor on the mound, and he looks well poised to be a viable starter in 2020.

However, in his young career, Loaisiga has been largely up and down when starting a game. He looks strong when he has command, but history shows his command often leaves early.

Thus, rather than risk further injury to an already banged-up roster, the Yankees should play it safe. This means sticking Jonathan Loaisiga in the bullpen, where he can flourish later in his career.

Coming out of nowhere

First things first, Jonathan Loaisiga, for the most part, can be trusted to start a game. How quickly we forget his MLB debut in 2018, when he tossed five shutout innings against the Tampa Bay Rays while filling in for an injured Masahiro Tanaka.

Loaisiga would make three more starts for New York before being sent back to the minors, and then dealing with shoulder trouble. Loaisiga also made three starts across April and May last year before missing more time with another shoulder injury.

Just the same, Loaisiga made an impact. His fastball had life and his changeup wasn’t bad either. The heaviest praise came from Rays manager Kevin Cash, who compared the young righty to Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera.

The point is even though Jonathan Loaisiga might not grade out best as a starter, he still has tremendous value as a young pitcher.

Why the bullpen?

And why should Loaisiga, despite a strong spring, be relegated to the bullpen? Well, the short answer is the numbers don’t lie.

The go-to stats for pitchers don’t tell the whole story. He has a 4.50 career ERA as a starter compared to a mark of 5.13 in relief. Not only is the difference here less than a run, but Loaisiga has also thrown just 56.1 innings at the major league level. The sample size is way too small, and it’s also worth noting Loaisiga has been used as a mop-up guy more than a few times.

But small sample aside, it’s clear Loaisiga is a better pitcher later in the game. He owns a 3.71 ERA over the first three innings of a game, and it balloons up to 8.80 in the middle innings. In the latter three innings, Loaisiga owns a 2.51 ERA.

Moreover, Loaisiga has struggled with walks to the point where he has Aerosmith and Run-DMC on speed dial. Per Fangraphs, he owns a career BB/9 of 4.47, not exactly ideal for a starter. For context, new Yankees ace Gerrit Cole’s career BB/9 is just 2.37.

Loaisiga’s struggles with walks are such that he has gone over five innings in just two of eight career starts. The best starters are ones who can eat innings, and Jonathan Loaisiga hasn’t shown he can.

He’s clearly hitting a wall of some sort as a starter, so shifting him to a relief role is best.

Why the bullpen fits

It’s also worth noting that as a member of New York’s esteemed bullpen, Loaisiga gives the Yankees options. His K/9 as a reliever is 12 compared to 10.5 as a starter. He could be ideal in high leverage situations late in games.

Think about it. Imagine a close game where Yankees manager Aaron Boone needs to go to his bullpen earlier than he’d like. Ideally, he’d like to leave Adam Ottavino or Tommy Kahnle for later in the game.

Enter Jonathan Loaisiga, whose poise speaks for itself. The dynamic balance of his fastball, changeup, and ever-improving breaking pitch make him a potential force out of the bullpen. Be it as a mop-up guy, filling in for a setup man, or even as a bulk guy after an opener, the possibilities of Jonathan Loaisiga as a bullpen arm are endless.

Final thoughts

That all being said, even though he grades out better as a reliever, odds are Loaisiga will indeed be the Yankees’ fifth starter to open 2020. He’s been a consistent performer all spring training thus far. Barring a downturn, someone like Michael King or Clarke Schmidt is unlikely to replace him.

But if he does win out, Jonathan Loaisiga won’t be a starter forever. James Paxton is due back from back surgery in May at the earliest, and Loaisiga deserves better than a trip on the Scranton Shuttle.

Rather, better for general manager Brian Cashman to option the bullpen’s weakest link to the minors and replace him with Loaisiga. At best, he’s a Swiss Army knife for the Yankees and excels in multiple roles. At worst, he struggles and works on adjustments accordingly with pitching coach Matt Blake.

It’s tempting to look at Loaisiga’s numbers this spring and put him ahead in the fifth starter race. Some may want to pencil him in at that role immediately.

However, baseball is a numbers game and Loaisiga’s don’t lie. He’s best suited as a reliever and the Yankees should plan for that in the long-term.

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