Gary Sánchez and Gerrit Cole didn’t get off on the right foot last year – although there was no bad blood or serious issues, Cole simply preferred to have his starts caught by backup Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka. Just looking at surface numbers, it’s easy to see that Cole performed better with Higashioka as his catcher last year (3-1, 1.00 ERA, .147/.190/.242 opposing slash line) than with Sánchez behind the dish (4-2, 3.91, .224/.282/.494). Higashioka was even the catcher for all three of Cole’s playoff starts, where he pitched to a 2.95 ERA and 0.93 WHIP.
It’d be easy to draw the conclusion that Cole is better with Higashioka behind the plate, but there could be any number of causes for Cole’s late-season turnaround other than his pairing with Higgy. Correlation is not causation, and that holds especially true when we’re dealing with a sample size of less than 65 innings of pitcher-catcher tandem.
With that in mind, it makes sense to have the Yankees’ starting catcher, Sánchez, catch the team’s best pitcher, Cole. Despite some uncertainty coming into camp, Aaron Boone confirmed that there are currently no plans for Cole to open the season with Higashioka as his personal catcher, a decision that could pay off big-time for the Yankees this year.
For one, this is a sign of confidence in Sánchez. The team is giving him every chance to fully re-establish his value after a disastrous 2020 season, and that should include an opportunity to develop a rapport with the team’s most important pitcher. Although there have been a few notable personal catchers in MLB history, it must be a source of pride for the team’s starting catcher to work with the undisputed staff ace in the biggest games.
We don’t know this for a fact, but it’s probably also safe to assume that last year’s shortened spring training and abbreviated summer camp did not offer enough time for Cole and Sánchez to fully connect. Cole recently talked about how tough it was to build relationships with his teammates last year (Credit goes to Max Goodman for posting the quote on Twitter):
With a full spring training hopefully on the horizon, this will allow the requisite time for Cole and Sánchez to get on the same page. An effective battery is more than just calling pitches and locations; it’s a dance that requires a give-and-take relationship between two leaders. More reps together in camp will only help the battery grow stronger.
Furthermore, it wouldn’t accomplish much to have Cole exclusively work with Higashioka, or even exclusively with Sánchez, for that matter. Things happen of the course of the season – injuries, hot-hand situations, scheduled days off. Over a 32-start season, it’s unrealistic to think that Cole will only work with one catcher the entire time, anyway. Even if he prefers Higashioka, he’ll likely have to pitch to Sánchez eventually over the course of a six-month season.
Interestingly, there weren’t any noticeable differences in Cole’s pitch mix, locations, or strategies with Higashioka behind the plate than there were with Sánchez. His numbers were obviously better, but it’s not like he completely reinvented himself when pitching to Higashioka. Instead, Cole’s slump (which happened to coincide with Sánchez doing the catching) was probably the same as any other ordinary skid, and the Yankees were fortunate when their temporary solution (changing catchers) appeared to spark Cole. Additionally, Cole faced an easier schedule in September with Higashioka behind the dish than he did during his August struggles, which probably played a role in his improved numbers.
Gerrit Cole is a great pitcher, but great pitchers can go through short slumps too. With there being no definitive evidence that working with Higashioka was the sole reason for Cole’s resurgence, the Yankees are right to have Sánchez catch Cole out of the gate. In the ideal scenario, Sánchez rediscovers himself at the plate and becomes an indispensable part of the lineup – should that be the case, Boone would want him catching the games that his top starter pitches.
The best version of the 2021 Yankees has Gerrit Cole on the mound, 60 feet and six inches away from Gary Sánchez. For that to come to fruition, building an effective battery has to start now.