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Kyle Higashioka has the tools to step up for the Yankees

Higashioka could shine in the majors soon.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Over the past few seasons, Kyle Higashioka has solidified himself as the third-string catcher on the Yankees depth chart. Fans haven’t been able to see Higashioka much in the Bronx because of Austin Romine, but that could soon change. Yesterday I mentioned that Romine will enter the free agent market for the first time in his career, possibly taking his services somewhere else. What could Higashioka offer if he took over the role of backup catcher?

Pitch framing is becoming one of the most important metrics for catchers as technology allows that information to be easily accessible on Statcast. Not only can you see where each player ranks in regards to pitch framing nowadays, but you can find out what areas of the plate are more likely to get called a strike. Higashioka, who has caught about 290 innings over the last two seasons, has shown a great amount of potential behind the plate.

Not only has Higashioka been above average at framing pitches, but he projects to be one of the top in the league. On average, catchers have been able to produce a strike rate of 47.3% and 48.5% respectively during 2018 and 2019. Meaning pitches that are thrown within the shadow zones identified by Statcast as zones 11 through 19, or slightly outside the perimeter of the strike zone, have been called strikes 48.5% of the time this season.

Last season Jeff Mathis led the majors with a 55.0% strike rate, while the current leaders in 2019 are hovering around 54.0%. This has become the expected rate for league leaders and if Higashioka was accumulating innings in the majors he might be giving them some competition.

Higashioka’s framing compared to the league leaders

Catcher Shadow Zone Pitches Strike Rate
Catcher Shadow Zone Pitches Strike Rate
Kyle Higashioka 315 54.30%
Kevin Plawecki 1206 54.20%
Austin Hedges 2470 54.10%
As of September 12th, 2019 Statcast

Unfortunately, plenty of statistics that are readily made available for major league players are not accessible for the minor leagues. Plate discipline, batted ball, and defensive statistics are just some. We are left to assume what a Triple-A player is doing by looking at raw numbers like walk rate, isolated power, and BABIP, never knowing the missing numbers but being able to make some sense of what the player will profile to be.

In the case of Higashioka who has made small appearances on the Yankees, he’s been able to show that his framing skill can be one of the best and we assume that he’s producing this value in Scranton as well. Statcast doesn’t have Triple-A statistics for the public, however, considering Higashioka has been able to not only create top framing numbers in 2019 but also in 2018, we could assume this is a trend he can continue.

In addition to framing, Higashioka also has an impressive pop time behind the plate. He might not have the best arm in the league averaging 82.4 mph on Statcast, but Higashioka currently ranks seventh in pop time overall, while Sanchez who on average throws 5 mph harder than Higashioka on stolen base attempts ranks tenth. Holding runners on is obviously one of the main jobs of a catcher and even though players might not think Higashioka has the best arm they do have to respect how quickly he gets the ball to second base.

With the introduction of the new baseball in MLB, home run records are being shattered and unexpected players are becoming sluggers. Those balls are also being used in Triple-A, and Higashioka must be a fan. Between both Triple-A and MLB, Higashioka has hit 23 home runs this season, while his previous high was 21 back in 2016. Currently only six catchers have been able to reach 20 home runs this season. Higashioka hit for an impressive .303 isolated power mark in Triple-A. Some offensive regression is expected, but if he were to produce just a .200 isolated power mark, that would make Higashioka one of the top 20 hardest hitting catchers.

Every player is always waiting for their chance and Kyle Higashioka might get his soon, whether the Yankees re-sign Romine or add another veteran catcher through free agency. His pitch framing ability, pop time, and power are good skills to have at a position where few catchers do all three well. We don’t know what the Yankees’ catching depth will look like in February, but Higashioka could make it an interesting spring training battle at the position.