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On Gerrit Cole, Kyle Higashioka, and personal catchers

The Yankees ace is the latest in a long tradition of top starters who work best with the backup catcher.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Ever since Kyle Higashioka started behind the plate for Gerrit Cole on September 5, he has de facto become the ace’s personal catcher, having been in the starting lineup over starting catcher Gary Sánchez in Cole’s last four starts.

Personal catchers have had a long and storied history in Major League Baseball over the last 50 years. The Baseball-Reference Bullpen suggests that the idea has existed since the 1930s, but the first example that they cite is the Steve Carlton/Tim McCarver battery, where the latter caught 128 of Carlton’s 140 starts for the Phillies between 1976 and 1979.

Greg Maddux famously preferred throwing to Eddie Perez and Charlie O’Brien in Atlanta, while knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey forced their teams to trade for their personal catchers Doug Mirabelli and Josh Thole, respectively (in the case of Wakefield, they even had to trade for Mirabelli after trading him the previous winter). In more recent years, Jon Lester (David Ross) and Clayton Kershaw (A.J. Ellis, Austin Barnes) have had personal catchers, and this past winter, the Yankees reportedly even looked into signing Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher in Houston, Martin Maldonado.

It’s not something new to the Yankees, either. On the broadcast Tuesday night, David Cone noted that Joe Girardi had served as his personal catcher during the 1998 season, while John Flaherty recalled his rocky-yet-successful relationship with Randy Johnson during the 2005 season. A.J. Burnett’s rapport with Jose Molina during the 2009 postseason has remained infamous, and Sonny Gray’s lack thereof with Sánchez has been beaten to death so much the horse has turned into glue.

Cole, in fact, has often had a personal catcher throughout his career, as mentioned above. In both 2014 and 2015, Cole performed better with Pittsburgh Pirates backup catcher Chris Stewart (3.41 ERA in 2014, 2.21 ERA in 2015) than either of the two starters (Russell Martin, 3.53 ERA in 2014, Francisco Cervelli, 3.36 ERA in 2015), during which time Stewart operated as a personal catcher. In 2016, he performed better with Stewart, albeit in a limited sample size (3.53 ERA and 2.69 K/BB with Cervelli in 16 starts, 3.38 ERA and 4 K/BB with Stewart in 3). Although he performed best in 2017 and 2018 with starters Cervelli and Max Stassi, respectively, he returned to this trend in 2019; while his performance with starter Robinson Chirinos was not bad (2.46 ERA, .189 BAA), his performance reached another level with Maldonado (1.57 ERA, .150 BAA) during the stretch run.

That trend has continued this year. In eight starts with Sánchez behind the plate, Cole has posted a 3.91 ERA in 46 innings, with a 5 K/BB ratio and .224/.282/.494 opponent slash line, averaging 5.75 innings per start. Through four starts paired with Higashioka, his ERA dropped to 1.00 in 27 innings, with a 6.80 K/BB and .147/.190/.242 opponent slash line, averaging 6.75 innings per start. It’s a small sample size, and pitcher/catcher stats are wonky, but there’s at least an obvious split here.

Of course, this begs the question, what makes a battery click so well that it behooves a team to pair the backup catcher with a particular starter (usually the ace)? On the broadcast, Cone and Flaherty discussed how not only is it all about being on the same page, they noted that, although guys with similar personalities tended to mesh together, there is truly no rhyme or reason why a battery works well together. So, it’s basically impossible to say for certain. That said, an article on NJ.com by Randy Miller may provide a little bit of insight:

This year, Higashioka did a lot of prep work for catching the Yankees ace by talking to Cole during games he wasn’t pitching.

“I try to talk to the guys when I’m on the bench to get a good idea how they like to throw and what works best for them so that hopefully when I’m out there things will run smoothly,”

As we know, Cole is a very detail-oriented pitcher, who obsesses over the art and science of pitching. It’s easy to see how he’d have plenty of time to talk things over with the backup catcher during the game, and in the process end up more on the same page. While I can’t say for certain that this is what’s going on, it sounds like a reasonable conclusion to draw. In either case, whatever is behind this connection, it’s something they may need to keep up, because it sure is working.