The name to know in the Yankees’ bullpen is the same one teammates used to joke was too difficult to say.
With every 99 mph fastball, every scoreless appearance and every win, Jonathan Loaisiga has moved further away from the cheesy “Johnny Lasagna” nickname that followed him up from the minors in 2018 and closer to the echelon of MLB’s dominant setup relievers.
“We’re seeing the evolution and maturity of a pitcher with a lot of ability,” manager Aaron Boone said. “I think now he is very comfortable in any situation. We’ve thrown him in the highest leverage of spots and the most difficult spots and he’s handled himself so well.”
Who has the second-lowest ERA (1.63) on the Yankees? How about second-most wins (seven) behind ace Gerrit Cole? Or the third-lowest WHIP (0.95)?
The answer to all is Loaisiga, who entered Tuesday’s game against the Royals with a team-high 38 ²/₃ relief innings. Monday marked one month since he last allowed a run, a stretch of 11 scoreless appearances, including retiring five of six batters faced to earn Sunday’s victory.
“Taking the bullpen role has been a very easy transition, I think, for him,” said Yankees starter Michael King, who came through the minors with Loaisiga. “He can let it eat and see that sinker get up to 100. His changeup is gross, and his slider has been really good lately. Being a three-pitch pitcher out of the pen throwing 100 [mph] is pretty elite, and it’s really fun to watch him.”
It wasn’t always this easy for the 26-year-old right-hander. The Yankees stuck with him through two nondescript and injury-plagued seasons as a spot-starter and long reliever until the flashes appeared last season.
When veterans Zack Britton, Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson landed on the shelf early this season, Loaisiga took over the eighth inning, and he might not give it back.
“Everybody is different in this game. They come along at different stages,” Boone said. “I remember the first spring I was here, in 2018, he was not even really on the radar that much, and he pushed himself into the conversation.”
As Boone recalled, former Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild was the first to get excited about Loaisiga’s potential. King, who was acquired via trade during the 2018 offseason, followed suit when they were in the same Single-A starting rotation at Tampa for four turns.
“When I came over here, I was like, ‘What organization am I in right now?’ ” King recalled. “Loaisiga was maybe our No. 2 [starter] and I see him throwing 100 and commanding both breaking ball and changeup. I was like, ‘This kid can’t be hit,’ so he’s always been really impressive to me.”
By Yankee flame-thrower standards, Loaisiga’s 7.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings is low, but opposing batters are hitting just .205 against his sinker, .206 against his changeup and .118 against his slider, according to Baseball Savant. Consistency — perhaps only Aaron Judge, Aroldis Chapman and Cole have been as dependable in their respective roles — has bred confidence and created a successful cycle.
“What we’ve seen over the years is a guy with tremendous stuff who has had different stretches of really good, some struggles and bumps along the way, some injuries that have slowed some of his progression and development,” Boone said.
“I think his continued development in incorporating his two-seam fastball as more of a feature pitch even more so than the four-seamer has been something that’s really served him well.”