Amid Yankees’ Funk, Kyle Higashioka Catches and Surpasses Gary Sánchez

It would be inaccurate to say that the Yankees suddenly have a catching controversy, but only because the situation has been building for years, and already came to something of a head last fall. While Gary Sánchez burst onto the scene a few years ago as one of the game’s top backstops, he has struggled mightily in three years out of the past four, to the point that he started just two of the team’s seven postseason games last October and was nearly non-tendered last December. Amid his latest slump and the team’s ongoing funk, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said on Tuesday that going forward, Sánchez and longtime understudy Kyle Higashioka will share the starting job.

“Kind of we’ll just go day by day,” Boone told reporters. “They’re obviously both going to play a lot. But it will be a day by day thing that I’ll try to communicate as best I can.”

“[Higashioka has] just earned more playing time. Simple as that… His improvements the last couple of years on both sides of the ball have been strong. I think the way he’s played here on the onset of the season has earned him some more opportunities.”

The move has as much to do with ascendance of the 31-year-old Higashioka — a seventh-round 2008 pick who’s spent parts of five seasons at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes/Barre plus the past season-and-change as the top backup — as it does the ongoing descent of the 28-year-old Sánchez, a two-time All-Star. After a miserable 2020 campaign in which he hit an unfathomable .147/.253/.365 (68 wRC+) with 10 homers and -0.1 WAR, Sánchez showed signs of a bounce back during spring training, and homered in each of the Yankees’ first two games of the regular season against the Blue Jays. He hasn’t homered since, however, and has gone just 6-for-48 with a lone double and seven walks since en route to a .182/.308/.309 (85 wRC+) line, that while his defense has again regressed. He’s hardly the only reason that the Yankees have stumbled to an 11-13 start — they were 9-13 before rolling into Camden Yards for their usual pillaging and plundering — but with Higashioka outplaying him on both sides of the ball as so many of their other hitters have slumped, the time is right for the Yankees to try this.

A five-time Baseball America Top 100 prospect whom the Yankees signed for a $3 million bonus on July 2, 2009, Sánchez was the first of the so-called Baby Bombers to break through when he hit 20 homers in just 53 games over the final two months of the 2016 regular season, the last one in which the team missed the playoffs. He followed that up with a 33-homer, 4.3-WAR 2017 season, demonstrating not only outstanding power but solid defense behind the plate, and earning All-Star honors for the first time. A recurrent groin strain limited him to just 89 games and a 90 wRC+ in 2018, but he rebounded with a career-high 34 homers and 2.3 WAR in just 106 games in ’19, making another All-Star team but again missing substantial time due to groin and calf strains.

Since then, Sánchez’s bat has hit little but rock bottom, and his defensive woes have come under greater scrutiny. Despite missing so much playing time, he’s led the AL in passed balls three years out of the past four; his total of 46 from 2017-21 is six more than any other catcher, while he ranks 13th in innings caught during that span. As I noted just over a year ago, when new catching coordinator Tanner Swanson worked to help Sánchez adapt to a new stance, with his right knee on the ground, the passed ball/wild pitch distinction can be a blurry one, and like any official scorer’s decision, a player’s reputation can be a factor in those judgment calls. Even so, if we combined Sánchez’s passed ball total with his batterymates’ wild pitch total and prorate the total for the purposes of comparison, his 59.2 missed pitches per 800 innings is the second-highest rate from among the 63 catchers with at least 800 innings caught over the 2017-21 span, 46% above the major league average.

From among that same group, Sánchez’s -7.7 framing runs (FanGraphs’ version) ranks 41st, though his 35.1 stolen bases allowed per 800 innings is a respectable eighth. His total defensive valuation of 23.8 runs over that span by our measures (including the positional adjustment) ranks 23rd, but on a per-800 basis, he’s 31st, right in the middle of the pack.

Middle-of-the-pack defense won’t cut it when you’ve hit for just a 73 wRC+ (.156/.267/.351) in 243 PA over the past two seasons while your team goes 44-40 — particularly when there’s an apparent alternative. That goes doubly when your team is scoring a piddling 3.71 runs per game (13th in the AL) and slugging .375 (tied for 11th, up from dead last at .362 when they pulled into Baltimore) while said alternative is slugging .759.

Indeed, Higashioka is hitting .276/.364/.759 (210 wRC+) with four homers, the team’s third-highest total, from a player who’s 12th in plate appearances with just 33; he greeted Boone’s decision with a single and a solo shot on Tuesday night. It’s a surprising breakout from a player who spent years situated third on the team’s depth charts behind Sánchez and Austin Romine, which generally meant holding down the fort at Scranton unless Sánchez was injured, though he rose to second-string status when the Yankees let Romine depart after 2019. In his limited opportunities in the majors from 2017-20, Higashioka hit just .186/.221/.381 (58 wRC+) in 204 PA, far from the modest standard set by Romine over his final two seasons in New York (.262/.302/.428, 94 wRC+).

Higashioka’s approach was hacktastic, all-or-nothing; in 105 PA in 2019-20, he didn’t draw a single walk while striking out 37 times and homering seven times. Yet seemingly every time he’d run into a fastball — the source of five of his seven homers in that span, and 12 of 14 for his career — calls for him to take over the starting job would emerge, just as they had when Romine heated up amid Sánchez’s previous struggles. Those calls invariably grew louder every time Sánchez yielded a particularly costly passed ball or was perceived as not hustling. Things got particularly ugly following a July 23, 2018 game in which he aggravated a groin injury during a first-inning passed ball but remained in the game, then didn’t run hard out of the box on a bases-loaded grounder with two outs in the ninth inning; he was barbecued by the tabloid-centric local media, called lazy and worse despite immediately landing on the Injured List for what proved to be a 37-game absence.

Sánchez’s solid 2019 performance kept the critics at bay but last year’s slide increased their volume, and the calls for change reached a crescendo when Higashioka homered three times in one game against the Blue Jays last September 16. Sánchez responded by homering in each of his next two games, but after going just 2-for-20 during the rest of the regular season en route to the majors’ lowest batting average of any player with at least 150 PA, it was Higashioka who got the call in the playoffs, and not just for the starts of Gerrit Cole, whose personal catcher he’d become in September.

The tipping point came after Higashioka homered off the Rays’ Blake Snell in the Division Series opener. Sánchez went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Tyler Glasnow and friends the next night as the Yankees lost, and it was all Higashioka the rest of the way, save for a cameo by Sánchez in the eighth inning of Game 5, just in time to call for the poorly-located fastball that Mike Brosseau hit off Aroldis Chapman for a series-deciding homer. For whatever Boone and general manager Brian Cashman have said since, in their frank discussions with Sánchez and with the media — including the praise for Sánchez’s work this spring — it has felt like he’s been on borrowed time since, even after being signed to a $6.35 million contract at a time when the Yankees have been particularly conscious of staying under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold.

In his bits and pieces of playing time here and there, Higaishioka has consistently demonstrated his defensive worth when it comes to framing. In 556 career innings through Tuesday, he was 8.0 runs above average. His blocking is at least better than Sánchez’s (43.0 missed pitches per 800 innings, 6% higher than average), though his stolen base prevention is much worse (56.1 steals per 800 innings).

By Baseball Prospectus’ catcher metrics, which used a mixed model that controls for pitcher, pitch types, umpires and more, the defensive gap between Sánchez and Higashioka is increasingly clear:

Gary Sánchez Catcher Defense
Year Innings Framing Blocking Throwing Total
2016 316.0 0.5 -1.4 0.4 -0.5
2017 881.0 3.4 -3.1 -1.1 -0.8
2018 653.0 5.8 -4.3 -0.3 1.2
2019 742.7 -5.6 -0.8 0.6 -5.8
2020 321.7 0.1 -0.4 -0.5 -0.7
2021 133.0 -0.5 0.0 -0.5 -1.0
2018-21 Tot 1850.3 -0.2 -5.5 -0.7 -6.4
2018-21 Pro 800.0 -0.1 -2.4 -0.3 -2.8
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Kyle Higashioka Catcher Defense
Year Innings Framing Blocking Throwing Total
2017 48.0 0.8 -0.1 0.0 0.7
2018 192.0 2.9 0.8 0.0 3.7
2019 137.0 2.3 0.1 0.2 2.6
2020 107.0 1.6 0.1 0.0 1.7
2021 72.0 1.3 0.0 0.0 1.3
2018-21 Tot 508.0 8.0 1.0 0.2 9.3
2018-21 Pro 800.0 12.6 1.6 0.3 14.6
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

On a per-800 inning basis over the past three seasons and change (which, given the various injuries and the pandemic aren’t huge samples, hence my aggregation of multiple seasons), Higashioka has been a honking 17.4 runs better than Sánchez, a gap that could justify the understudy getting more playing time even if he weren’t slugging .759. Higashioka obviously won’t continue to do that, but he has renewed his focus on the offensive side of his game, and the results have been positive. Via The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler:

Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames began to challenge Higashioka’s mindset on his hitting versus his catching a couple of years ago. He noticed that Higashioka looked “loose” and had “tremendous body language” when he took at-bats in Triple A, but would tense up in the box at the major-league level.

“I just told him to also make sure he does his homework like he does when he’s catcher,” Thames said last week. “You get a chance to study the hitters that you got to face, why not study the pitchers? I think that he’s putting on his homework, and he’s confident. He’s having fun.”

…Higashioka has been known to have some power in his swing, and he said recently that he subscribes to Ted Williams’ belief that a swing that follows a slight uppercut angle is more conducive to success than a flat bat path. In his book “The Science of Hitting,” Williams wrote that as most pitches come into the zone at a downward angle, “a slight upswing puts the bat flush in line with the path of the ball for a longer period.”

“In high school, I read his book like 10 times, probably. That was kind of my hitting Bible,” Higashioka said Tuesday. “Early in my career, I kind of got away from it. What I was being taught earlier in my career was kind of going against that philosophy. As a young kid, you don’t want to tell professional coaches they’re wrong. I’m not saying that it’s anybody’s fault for me hitting badly, but I think just it just makes so much sense from almost a science standpoint that to give yourself the greatest margin for error would be to match the plane of the pitch coming in.”

Thirty-three plate appearances is a ridiculously small sample from which to draw conclusions, but we can get a better picture of his progress by including last year’s regular and postseason work, bringing his total PA to an even 100. Higashioka has hit .263/.300/.579 in that span, and in 72 batted ball events, he’s produced an impressive 15.4% barrel rate, a .254 xBA, and a .583 xSLG — all of which is to say that he’s making a lot of quality contact. Sánchez, on the other hand, has a 14.4% barrel rate in that span, but just a .203 xBA and a .416 xSLG, and he’s underperforming significantly relative to that.

I’m not convinced that the true gap between the two offensively is even as wide as the x-stats suggest, particularly given the likelihood that pitchers start throwing Higashioka more breaking and offspeed stuff, which even amid this tear he has yet to prove he can hit consistently:

Kyle Higashioka 2020-21 Performance by Pitch Type
Pitch Type % AB BBE BA xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
Fastball 52% 42 38 .381 .338 .952 .953 .563 .508
Breaking 36% 22 14 .091 .181 .091 .091 .107 .227
Offspeed 12% 9 5 .222 .174 .556 .556 .318 .239
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

That said, I don’t see where a sub-.500 ballclub that was supposed to be the league’s best has much choice but to give the defensively superior catcher with the hot hand at the plate more playing time. Maybe Sánchez, whose body has taken such a beating over the past half-decade, can be more productive with less playing time, particularly given the importance of his lower half to his breathtaking power. But maybe it’s simply time for the Yankees to turn the page.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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LightenUpFG
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When was the last time a player dominated on the scene in his first couple of years and then just completely diminished in value to a near zero? I thought Sanchez was certainly here to stay but it really isn’t look good at this point.

Jon
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Jon

They didn’t have quite the track record of Sanchez but Kevin Maas and Aristides Aquino are the ones that immediately come to mind.

Anyway, I’m a Yankee fan and have been a Sanchez apologist forever, and it’s time. You have to at least see what Higgy can do at the plate over a prolonged stretch.

LightenUpFG
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Member

Ah yes, Kevin Maas! Aquino was a blip for a short stretch, so I wasn’t entirely surprised about him. Usually when someone strings a few solid young season together, however, they don’t totally disappear. Sanchez might be about to do just that.

Jon
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Jon

Yeah, Aquino was too short. I’m trying to think of guys that meet the following criteria as best as possible:
– made an impact very early on (ideally upon callup)
– played at a high level for some substantial amount of time (say, at least 1.5 seasons)
– fell off a cliff after that

So Scooter Gennet wouldn’t really qualify (mediocre for too long before his good 2 seasons). Maybe Junior Spivey? I don’t know if there’s a good way to query for this, but it’s fun to try to think of them.

Scoreboard
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Scoreboard

Shane Spencer?

RobM
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RobM

He was kind of like a one month wonder, IIRC. He stuck around for a few years, but he was never expected to be great.

fordhamflash
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fordhamflash

We knew Aquino was a flash in the pan though, given that he wasn’t much of a prospect. Sanchez had the pedigree and at the time there was every reason to think he had the ability to sustain star-level performance

steveo
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steveo

From injury? Lots. Greg Bird was one of them, Nick Johnson as well. From no reason in particular? I can’t think of any off the top off my head.

Anon
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Anon

Tim Lincecum debuted in 2007 and was one of the 5 best pitchers in baseball from 2008-2011, including back to back CY awards. Literally overnight he declined and was league average for 2 years from 2012-2013 and then basically unrosterable after that. He’s a little less than a year younger than Zack Greinke but hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2016.

joe_schlabotnik
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joe_schlabotnik

that’s a not a blip, thats two cy youngs and dominance over 4 years. he had an awesome career.

Anon
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Anon

” dominated on the scene in his first couple of years and then just completely diminished in value to a near zero”

Maybe it’s a little longer than the initial parameters but how does Lincecum not fit within those parameters?

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Yasiel Puig didn’t quite diminish to a near-zero but he went from awesome to 4th outfielder in a hurry. And to be fair, Gary Sanchez didn’t become a zero until 2020.

steveo
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steveo

This is a good one. I thought he was going to be the Next Big Thing.

MikeD
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MikeD

And also to be fair, he played in 49 games in 2020 and 17 this year. We’re looking at 66 games. He’s been atrocious, but he’s streaky. Few would be shocked if he goes off on a hitting binge. My guess, though, is he’s a change-of-scenery candidate. Scrutiny is very high on the Yankees, particularly for him, and he often seems to be pressing. I’d give Higaishioka the chance, but I still think we’ll see a Sanchez resurgence to some degree during 2021.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I said this below, but Sanchez needs to be playing regularly to work through this. If the Yankees can’t wait for him any longer, he could really use a change of scenery. I think he can bounce back, but not like this.

Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone is really excited to trade for a guy who is struggling on defense and is also hitting way below his career norms; he’s got negative value if he continues to hit like this and he’s a clear non-tender if he doesn’t turn it around. And it’s not really like them to pay another team to take a player at the nadir of his value off their hands. It’s too bad, I’d like to see the Tigers or another team take him on, maybe if the Yankees package him with a guy on the 40-man bubble (Oswaldo Cabrera? Everson Pereira?) in exchange for a guy like Wilson Ramos.

MikeD
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MikeD

Sanchez in Colorado would be fun. 🙂

You’re correct that they generally don’t trade players when they’re at their low point. I’m also not sure they’d change catchers during the season. My guess is they’ll see what Higashioka can do with more playing time (I’m dubious) and maybe see if Sanchez can find himself with reduced playing time.

PC1970
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PC1970

Rougned Odor? Josh Hamilton had more good years, but, he went from 43 HR in 2012 to done in 2015. Chris Davis is another, but, he also had a slow start to his career.

Tough to find guys that fit, esp if we limit it to non-pitchers &/or don’t include guys where injuries killed their career like Nomar.

RobM
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RobM

Odor’s not a bad one. There were some flags early on, but a 2B’man hitting 30 HRs and having an OPS+ above 100 at such a young age figured to improve. He tanked. Even when he hit 30 HRs in 2017, he had an OPS+ of 63. I still can’t compute those two numbers being from the same player in the same year.

jyunbug
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jyunbug

Maybe not so recent, but I’d say Hank Blalock. He was a highly rated prospect and his first 2 full seasons were really good, and then nothing after that.

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

Obviously a much smaller scale but Jesus Montero deserves a mention. Top 10 prospect who destroyed the ball as a 21 year old. Sure it was only 69 PAs but he had all the markings of greatness. And then absolutely nothing. Wonder what would have happened if the Yankees didn’t trade him away.

MikeD
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MikeD

He was a failed prospect. Much different than the Sanchez class, who was still productive through 2019.

beaster
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beaster

Brett Lawrie

LenFuego
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LenFuego

There are a couple of more candidates right now with Keston Hiura and Gleyber Torres. There’s still plenty of time for them to get back on track, but their stock is definitely down from some terrific early returns.

dfodavid24
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dfodavid24

Barry Zito