With the departure of Austin Romine, who recently signed with the Tigers, the Yankees will likely turn to Kyle Higashioka as the team’s backup catcher. Martin Maldonado was reportedly a potential option given his history with new ace Gerrit Cole, but after he rejoined the Astros on a two-year deal earlier this week, it seems there’s a very good chance that when Gary Sanchez isn’t behind the plate for the Yanks in 2020, Higashioka will be.
So, what will the Yankees have in their new backup catcher? Should he be considered an upgrade or a downgrade on Romine, who was a serviceable backup for the Yanks over the past four seasons? The sample size for Higashioka is small, but let’s take a look.
Higashioka, 29, logged just 57 plate appearances at the major-league level in 2019, and posted a wRC+ of just 65. Romine was much closer to league average with a wRC+ of 95, but it’s also important to remember that Romine struggled badly in a similar sample size to begin the season. Through his first 95 plate appearances while serving only in a backup role as Gary Sanchez rode a massive hot streak to begin the year, Romine posted an OPS of .463, and in 38 plate appearances during the month of May, he finished with a wRC+ of -3 (!).
Once he gained more playing time as Sanchez battled injuries in the second half of the season, Romine saw significant improvements. Could we see the same with Higashioka in a more regular role? He did post a 129 wRC+ in Triple-A last year, where he saw much more consistent action, but the talent of opposing pitchers obviously increases mightily from Triple-A to the bigs, so we’ll have to see.
Higashioka struggled to put the ball in play in the majors last season, striking out at a rate of 45.6 percent. He saw more time in 2018 and his strikeout rate was less than half that mark (20.3 percent, five percent less than Romine that year), so we can assume this outlier will drop as he gets more at-bats. But when he did put the ball in play, he was able to show some quality contact. Higashioka’s hard-hit rate was 45.2 percent last year, helping his BABIP climb to .321. Romine’s was 36.7 percent, again in a larger sample size, but Higashioka’s 2018 mark was still higher than that, so perhaps Higashioka has more power potential than Romine showed during his Yankee tenure.
Looking at the defensive numbers, Higashioka rated two runs above average per DRS last year and one run above in 2018, while Romine’s rated one run above average last season. It’s a small sample, but the fact that Higashioka ranked above average in so few innings puts him ahead of Romine on a rate basis. His pop time last year of 1.94 was also better than Romine’s (2.06), and his strike rate on pitch framing was seven percent higher than Romine’s last year as well.
Higashioka certainly has the potential to be an upgrade over Romine as the Yankees’ backup catcher, but whether he makes good on that potential will depend on how he holds up in a more regular role at the major league level. Considering he has no minor league options left, it’s safe to say that health permitting, we will get to see how Higashioka handles a full season as the team’s backup in 2020.