As Kyle Higashioka was working his way through the Yankees’ minor league system, he was routinely overlooked due to the presence of much high profile prospects. Jesus Montero, Austin Romine, and Gary Sanchez were peers of Higashioka at one time that seemed destined to become the Yankees’ everyday catcher. Higashioka persevered through nearly a decade in the minor leagues and has carved out a regular role at the major league level.
After becoming the preferred catcher for Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in 2020, Higashioka played in five of the Yankees’ seven playoff games in 2020, posting a .896 OPS in the process. With Gary Sanchez’s struggles at and behind the plate opening the door for him, 2021 was an opportunity for Higashioka to give the Yankees the biggest sample size yet of what he can do at the major league level.
2021 Statistics (MLB): 67 games, 211 PA, .181/.246/.389, 10 HR, 29 RBI, 4 SB, 8.1 BB%, 28.0 K%, 71 OPS+, 71 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR, 0.4 bWAR
2022 Contract Status: First year arbitration eligible, no minor league options.
Higashioka started out the season with a bang, smacking two home runs in his fourth game of the season to help the Yankees defeat Toronto 3-1 that day. Unfortunately, the offensive production did not continue throughout the season. After a two-hit game against Baltimore on April 27th brought his batting average to .320, Higashioka saw his average steadily drop and fall below the Mendoza line by May 14th — where it would remain for the rest of the season with the exception of two games where he briefly pulled above .200. Batting average is not everything when it comes to offensive performance, but Higashioka has never been an on-base monster at the major league level and he finished with just a .246 OBP on the season.
He continued to show some power when he did make contact by hitting 10 home runs in just 211 plate appearances. He also posted a 90.5 average exit velocity, which would have ranked him in the top-50 of all of baseball if he could have produced that in a large enough sample size to qualify on the leaderboard.
By then end of the season, there was no way to manipulate Higgy’s offensive performance as a positive. His numbers on the season were very much in line with the sample size that he had produced in limited action from 2018-2020 as a player who was constantly moving up and down from the minor leagues. In 2021 he produced a 71 OPS+ in 67 games, while in 2018-2020 he produced a combined 73 OPS+ in 63 games.
Where Higashioka proved his value was on the defensive side of the ball, as he graded out among the best catchers in the game in terms of pitch framing. Higashioka ranked in the 84th percentile of major league catchers in the stat, helping his pitchers steal strikes and not get robbed on the corner.
You just can’t move a 98 MPH “comeback fastball” any smoother than the Yankee’s Kyle Higashioka does here. pic.twitter.com/qAlrZMYCbV— Jerry Weinstein (@JWonCATCHING) August 25, 2021
While he only threw out five of 33 runners who attempted to steal on him this season, he ranked among the league leaders in pop time. Higashioka ranked eighth in the major leagues with an average 1.95 pop time.
Higashioka is heading towards his first year of arbitration, and MLB Trade Rumors pegs him to earn $1.2 million through the process. Higashioka has now shown the Yankees what he is over the course of several years in the major leagues. He is a backup who plays good enough defense to stay in the role, but he was not able to capitalize and show that he was ready for a larger role.
Kyle Higashioka grinded his way through the minor leagues and then experienced several years of shuttling up and down to the majors before locking in full time with the Yankees. He has his strengths and the Yankees seem to like his performance behind the plate. His offense has never warranted a larger role on the team and he is likely to continue as the Yankees backup for at least another season.