Thus far, Kyle Higashioka’s major league career has consisted of him being the third options and playing in short stints when the Yankees have been dealing with injuries at the catcher’s spot. It appears that is going to change.
While there are other options that Yankees could still go with, with Austin Romine now on the Tigers, it appears that Higashioka will be the backup for Gary Sanchez in 2020. If he does ascend to the backup role, what could we expect from Higashioka this coming season?
2019 Stats: 57 PA, .214/.211/.464, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 65 wRC+, 45.6 K%, 0 BB%, 0.4 WAR
2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 141 PA, .225/.279/.428, 7 HR, 20 RBI, 82 wRC+, 25.3 K%, 6.3 BB%, 0.6 WAR
Higashioka famously took a while to get his first major league hit. In fact, it didn’t come until his 12th career game, which was a full calendar year after his major league debut. While he hasn’t continued to struggle to that degree, his overall major league numbers are nothing to write home about. Through 156 career plate appearances, his overall wRC+ is just 41, which isn’t great, even for a backup catcher.
Now there are some completely logical reasons for that. For one, 156 plate appearances, especially over the course of three seasons, isn’t a lot. Second, his time in the majors has been very stop-start. He was the third option only called up to be the second string in times of injury. Even with the injuries the Yankees have dealt with over the last two seasons, there still wasn’t that much of a chance for him to get a lot of major league playing time.
On the other hand, a place where he has been able to get regular playing time is the minor leagues, and on the whole, Higashioka has put up solid numbers there in recent years. Last year, he put up a 129 wRC+ with 20 home runs in 70 games.
Last year, Austin Romine recorded 240 at-bats. Part of that was because Gary Sanchez had some injury concerns which you would hope wouldn’t be the case again. However, if you use that as a cut off, in Higashioka’s last two minor league seasons where he recorded at least that many at bats, he’s had an OPS over .800. When he plays somewhat regularly, he puts up decent results.
One other reason to be hopeful is the increase in exit velocity since he has come into the majors.
Now that increase hasn’t necessarily led to year on year improvements in some of his peripheral numbers. However, between that and an increase in Barrel% since his rookie year, it appears that he has gotten some better swings in the more he’s gotten used to major league pitching. Low and behold, his projections also predict numbers that would be pretty decent for a backup catcher.
If Sanchez goes through some injury struggles again and Higashioka ends up becoming a starter, the predicted numbers wouldn’t be ideal. However, it seems the Yankees have a perfectly capable player as a backup catcher.