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The potential upside of Kyle Higashioka

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He’ll struggle at the plate, but behind it Higashioka has the tools to be a great defensive backstop.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There are questions surrounding just about every position in the Yankees lineup for 2020 - who will play where, what defensive alignment is optimal, the normal offseason questions. There’s also a question around who the backup catcher is going to be, as longtime BUC Austin Romine is a free agent, will probably look for a starting role somewhere, and the Yankees are committed to Gary Sanchez because he is very good at baseball.

This could open up a space for Kyle Higashioka to assume the backup role, and given Sanchez’s less-than-robust health history, it’s entirely possible Higgy would get a slate of time as the starter in 2020 if everything comes together. What would that look like?

On the one hand, Higashioka in limited MLB time has shown to be an elite, elite defender. We’re obviously dealing with small samples here, but...

Again, SAMPLE SIZE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, but if you pace Higashioka’s performance over 500 innings, which is about 55 games played, he’s legitimately one of the five or so best defensive catchers in the game. He’s better per inning than Romine, and much better than Sanchez, whose decline in framing ability really hurt his defensive value this year.

Obviously a lot has to go right for Higgy’s defensive performance to remain this elite over more innings, but it fits with the scouting reports that followed him throughout his development. The question was always whether he could even hit, just a little bit, to be worth a roster spot.

Again, we’re dealing with small sample sizes, but Higashioka displayed an improved stick in 2019. He didn’t walk, at all, which is a problem, but his average exit velocity was a mile and a half per hour faster than Austin Romine, three basis points higher in barrel%, and roughly equal in hard hit rate. All of that’s good!

His average launch angle, though, is a little high at 17.7 degrees. If we look at the EV/LA baseline for that data:

It’s not bad, but there’s not a ton of offensive upside at that launch angle. Higgy’s just not strong enough to get the ball in the air for extra bases, but he’s hitting the ball too high to generate the line drives that guys like DJ LeMahieu thrive off of. He’s still probably a better raw hitter than Romine - Higgy’s xwOBA on contact was .386 compared to .369 for Romine, but you’d like to see that LA come down a tick and see a few more “ropes” rather than flyouts.

The other thing Higgy needs to get better at if he wants to hit enough to justify a roster spot is his plate discipline. I said above that he didn’t walk at all in MLB in 2019, which is bad. His 45.6% strikeout rate was the highest in baseball of any non-pitcher with at least 50 plate appearances. Those numbers just don’t cut it, even for a backup catcher.

Higashioka might have his best chance to make an impact in MLB in 2020. If Romine walks, he becomes the backup to Sanchez without any competition. He’s a great defender, and could be one of the best defensive catchers in baseball if he can maintain his performance over a real innings count. He’s got a lot of work to do at the plate, but he’s on the right team to take strides as a hitter.