Austin Romine has been the Yankees’ backup catcher for quite some time now, first appearing in the majors way back in 2011. He’s been a steady presence, but as his career 64 wRC+ and -2 DRS (at catcher) suggest, he hasn’t actually done anything performance-wise to justify his long tenure. Meanwhile, the Yankees have another candidate for the second-string catcher role in Kyle Higashioka, who looks somewhat more promising. In terms of ability, it’s past time for Higgy to have his chance at the job.
Maybe some would bristle at this negative appraisal of Romine’s abilities. A quick look at his career, however, should dispel any doubt. According to FanGraphs, last year was the first time that Romine had a positive WAR total (0.8), as his previous “high” was -0.1. Even with his breakout year, his career fWAR total still lies below zero.
Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR (WARP), which includes pitch framing runs unlike FanGraphs’, rates Romine somewhat more highly, awarding him 2.1 WARP for his career. The difference comes primarily from Romine’s defensive contributions, as his framing and blocking contributions amount to a career 11.6 fielding runs above average. However, Romine nearly negates all of that with his horrendous offense, compiling a whopping 24.8 offensive runs below average over his time in the majors. Even for a backup catcher, that’s pretty hard to justify rostering.
Of course, some may look at Austin Romine’s 91 wRC+ in 2018 as a sign of offensive development. The underlying metrics disagree. While Statcast reveals that Romine did improve his contact quality, as his average exit velocity increased from just under 86 MPH in 2017 to 88.0 MPH in 2018, his sub-optimal launch angle and terrible foot speed dragged his expected wOBA down to a .281 mark, well below his actual 2018 wOBA of .307 and perfectly in line with his career mark of .277. This is not the profile of an improved player.
We’ve seen that Romine’s overall production is lacking, even for a second-string backstop. But where’s the proof that Kyle Higashioka is the better bet to produce? Again, Statcast and Baseball Prospectus are our friends.
Offensively, it’s true that Higashioka has had a rough go of things so far in the majors. The past year saw him struggle to the tune of a .167/.241/.319 line over 79 plate appearances. What he did demonstrate, though, was contact quality much better than Romine’s. Though his 88.4 MPH average exit velocity was only marginally higher than Romine’s, his Barrel% was twice as high at 10/7%, leading to an expected wOBA of .304. Essentially, Higashioka’s underlying stats suggest that, with better luck, he could have equaled Romine’s 2018 offensively.
Higashioka also compares favorably to Romine defensively. Although Higgy’s time in the majors is limited, Baseball Prospectus nonetheless rates his framing and blocking skills as top-notch, awarding him 3.8 runs above average in less than a third of Romine’s playing time. His arm grades out as nothing special, but then again, so does Romine’s. At the very least, it’s impossible to claim that Romine is clearly better with the glove.
In terms of both offense and defense, Higashioka is likely the better choice for the backup catcher job. Now, as Higashioka has minor league options, while Romine does not, the Yankees will almost certainly go with Romine as their second catcher on Opening Day. Fans shouldn’t see this as a comment on Higgy’s abilities, nor should they be surprised if the team lets Romine walk after the season. Sure, as roster choices go, backup catcher isn’t going to move the needle much. But still, why not get Higgy with it?