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How Yankees backstop Kyle Higashioka compares to other catchers

The 2020 season provided Kyle Higashioka with a chance to showcase his elite blocking and pitch framing skills.

American League Division Series Game 3: New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The 2020 season was Kyle Higashioka’s opportunity to prove himself. After serving as the Yankees’ third catcher behind Austin Romine for a number of years, Higgy finally got a chance to demonstrate his worth during this strange, shortened season.

He made the most of it, especially during his starts behind the plate in the postseason. Throughout the Division Series, Higgy appeared at ease behind the plate. His movements and micro adjustments to receive the ball looked fluid. What stood out most to me was how frequently I saw Higgy use his body, rather than his glove, to block balls. From a squatting position, he can make quick lateral movements that Gary Sanchez would probably struggle to pull off. As a result, Higgy has an easier time deadening the ball and keeping it in front of him.

Sure, it passes the eye test, but is Higgy’s defense as seamless as it looks? Or does his catching just appear superior relative to Sánchez’s miscues? To better understand Higgy’s player value relative to other catchers in MLB, I combed through his 2020 defensive statistics on Baseball Prospectus. Let’s take a closer look at how Higgy’s defensive skills compare to those of his peers.

Whether it’s Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter, Zack Britton’s turbo-sinker, or Aroldis Chapman’s 100 mph heat, the Yankees have one of the more challenging staff of pitchers to catch. Blocking and framing skills are important tools for New York’s catchers, who must handle pitches that exhibit unpredictable, abrupt movement.

To say that Higashioka excels at pitch framing is an understatement. He’s the best pitch framer in the majors this year, according to Baseball Prospectus’ called strikes above average (CSAA) metric.

Higgy also ranks among the top-third of MLB catchers in converting a batter’s non-swing pitches into called strikes, for pitches located in what Baseball Savant refers to as the “Shadow Zone” (area on the edges of the strike zone where an umpire can use more discretion, as the pitch could go either way).

That’s good in and of itself, but when it comes to framing pitches on the inside of the plate, Higashioka is the best in MLB, according to Statcast data. He converted 81.7 percent of non-swing pitches into called strikes in this borderline area, the parts of the Shadow Zone located on the inside of the plate for right-handed batters.

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Many fans and baseball writers praised Higgy’s blocking ability throughout the Division Series against the Rays. Indeed, his ability to soften his chest and smother balls look impressive. Do his blocking stats support the notion that Higgy’s blocking skills are top-notch?

When it comes to blocking runs, a stat that quantifies how many runs are gained or lost through a catcher’s management of errant pitches, Higashioka ranks 18th among 101 players who caught in 2020. FanGraphs data confirms that on the season, he allowed just a single passed ball and two wild pitches.

In his ALDS Game One start catching Gerrit Cole, Higgy’s quick reflexes amid a cross up with Cole prevented the Rays’ tying run on third from scoring. His defensive mastery was on full display in Game Four, too, and his ability to block four different pitches that Jordan Montgomery spiked in the dirt made it possible for the Yankees to maintain their narrow lead.

During postgame interviews, Montgomery even credited his ability to get out of trouble in the third to Higashioka’s blocking skills. Cole, likewise, praised his quick recovery after getting crossed up with runners on base. Getting crossed up in such a high-leverage situation would likely result in a passed ball for many MLB catchers.

I’m not saying that Higashioka is Hall-of-Fame bound, but I do think he has more potential than many people think. It’s easy to write off Higgy as a weak-hitting defensive catcher when the guy has barely made 200 plate appearances in the majors. In fact, his meandering path to the majors reminds me of another Yankees catcher who spent the better part of his 20s struggling for playing time.

Unlike fellow Core Four members Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, who showed early promise and were projected to be all-stars, Jorge Posada was a late bloomer. While Jeter, Rivera and Pettitte became key players on the Yankees’ World Series-winning teams in the late 90s, Posada played only 60 games for the Yankees in 1997, hitting .250/.359/.410 and throwing out just 20 percent of runners who attempted to steal on him. As the backup catcher to Joe Girardi, Posada didn’t have a breakout season until 2000, when he hit .287/.417/.527 at the ripe age of 28.

Like Posada, Higashioka’s career in the big leagues got off to a slow start due to the organization’s logjam behind the plate. Posada only became one of the best-hitting catchers in franchise history once he started getting consistent at-bats. He wasn’t a top prospect and, like Higgy, Posada spent nearly a decade in the minors.

As the offseason approaches, Higashioka’s development as a ballplayer will be an intriguing storyline to follow, especially now that Gary Sánchez’s fate with the organization is unknown. For many fans, it will be hard to forget the sense of security they felt with Higgy behind the plate.