Amid Yankees’ Funk, Kyle Higashioka Catches and Surpasses Gary Sánchez by Jay Jaffe April 29, 2021 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.