Fifty-six. That’s how many major league games Kyle Higashioka had under his belt before entering this season as the backup catcher for the New York Yankees. After being behind Austin Romine on the depth chart for the last few years, it was finally Higgy’s time to shine. He made the most of his opportunity by posting a .771 OPS and 102 wRC+, both of which are above-average marks.
Not only was he solid at the plate, but he excelled behind the plate, as well. So much so that by the end of the year, Higashioka was Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher, and even took over in the starting lineup during the postseason.
2020 Statistics: 16 games, 48 plate appearances, .250/.250/.521, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 106 OPS+, 0.5 fWAR
2021 Contract Status: Pre-arbitration eligible
Gary Sánchez was slated to be the everyday catcher in the Bronx without issue coming into the 2020 season. However, Sánchez produced his worst offensive season to date, which effectively provided Higashioka with more at-bats. As if things couldn’t get any worse for The Kraken, the Yankees decided the team would be best suited to start Kyle Higashioka over Sánchez in four of the five American League Division Series games against the Tampa Bay Rays. He fared well in the limited sample, notching an .898 OPS with a homer off Blake Snell mixed in, too. Although the Yankees fell short, it was a nice cap to end a minor breakout year for Higashioka.
Back in the regular season, the 30-year-old registered a .319 wOBA in 16 games, along with a 13.5% barrel percentage and 37 batted balls. I understand that none of those numbers are particularly eye-popping, but they are stats that show he was trending in a positive direction.
He was especially potent against fastballs in 2020 compared to 2019. He saw the heater 52.8% of the time this past season, squaring them up for a .333 batting average and .704 slugging percentage. In 2019, he hit a mere .207 against fastballs. It’s good to see improvement from the backstop there, specifically against such an important pitch to jump on as a hitter.
Higashioka didn’t see lefties all that much, but when he did, he struggled. Although, he did mash right-handers. Working on hitting against southpaws is something he can focus on this offseason.
We’ve covered his performance at the plate, now let’s take a took at his craft behind the dish. Around mid-way through the season, Gerrit Cole adopted Higashioka to be his “personal catcher.” If you are wondering why, here’s one word: framing.
A catcher who can frame pitches properly is a pitcher’s best friend. Higgy ranked in the top 70th percentile among all major league catchers last season. Gary Sánchez, along with his dreadful bat, was subpar defensively as he ranked in the 37th percentile in terms of his framing ability.
For example, look at how J.A. Happ clearly misses off the outside corner with his fastball, but Higashioka is able to smoothly reel it back in for a called strike.
Going into spring training in 2021, Higashioka will be inserted as the backup with a slight chance to win the starting job if Sánchez doesn’t return to his true form. We will also have to wait and see if the Yankees will make any moves in free agency as rumors have swirled that they have some interest in Yadier Molina and possibly J.T. Realmuto. Whatever the Bombers decide to do, Higashioka has proven he can be a steady piece in the lineup and be Cole’s personal catcher.