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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Kyle Higashioka

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After playing well in the shortened 2020 season, Kyle Higashioka’s playing time this coming season will likely hinge on the performance and health of Gary Sánchez.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Few players on the Yankees roster will have their 2021 playing time as closely tied to the performance of one of their teammates as Kyle Higashioka. For several years, it has looked as if playing time behind the plate revolved around who would be backing up Gary Sánchez for the next decade. But as Sánchez has struggled to stay on the field due to injuries and poor performance in recent years, a bigger role for the Yankees’ other catchers has emerged.

Higashioka took advantage of those opportunities in 2020 to become Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole’s preferred catcher for much of the season. Sánchez’s poor performance at the plate elevated Higashioka to the starting role through the playoffs. Even with that swap on the depth chart at the end of 2020, Higashioka is not viewed as the Yankees’ starting catcher heading into 2021. He will be competing for playing time while staying ready, should a larger role once again present itself.

2020 Stats: 48 PA, .250/.250/.521, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 22.9 K%, 0.0 BB%, 102 wRC+, 0.5 WAR

2021 ZiPS Projections: 303 PA, .225/.267/.426, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 25.1 K%, 5.0 BB%, 77 wRC+, 0.6 WAR

If Gary Sánchez can return to being the offensive force he has been at times in his career, then he will certainly be the primary catcher in 2021. This would make it almost impossible for Higashioka to get the 303 plate appearances that ZiPS projects for him this coming season. But it is also unlikely that the Yankees will give Sánchez as many chances to work through slumps as they have in the past, which could lead to more regular playing time for the Yankees’ backup catcher.

Higashioka has played in the backup role since first getting called up in 2017. As the backup, he has improved his offensive output every season while giving the Yankees steady defense behind the plate. That said, the team has not just handed Higashioka the backup catcher role during his career. Last year they carried veterans Chris Iannetta and Erik Kratz into camp, and this season Robinson Chirinos is filling that veteran role.

Chirinos is coming off a bad season that saw him register a -0.8 fWAR, but as recently as 2019 he was a solid major league regular with Houston. Higashioka does not have any minor league options remaining and could plausibly be pressed by Chirinos, who is in camp as a non-roster invitee for a spot on the Opening Day roster.

From an offensive standpoint, the biggest glaring deficiency in Higashioka’s game is the lack of walks and the resulting low on-base percentage. He has gone two seasons and over 100 plate appearances without a walk at the major league level.

Higashioka overcomes the lack of walks with above average power as he slugged an outstanding .521 in 2020. His above average 89.7 mph exit velocity shows that he was making regular hard contact during the season.

The Yankees like Higashioka’s defensive metrics, where he rates in the 70th percentile of MLB catchers in pitch framing. Those metrics helped him register a plus-two DRS mark in just 107 innings last year. The biggest vote of confidence in Higashioka’s abilities came from Cole, who requested Higashioka as his personal catcher for most of the season.

On top of his solid pitch framing, Higashioka has outstanding pop times on his throws to second base. In 2019, he was ranked eighth among major league catchers with average pop times of 1.94 seconds. Those times got even better in 2020, but it could be aided by the small sample size of playing just 16 regular season games.

Kyle Higashioka is the favorite to emerge from spring training as the Yankees’ backup catcher. Should Gary Sánchez, falter Higashioka could once again be thrust into a starting role for the team. His production in 2020 was solid in a small sample size, but he will have to build on that over a full season to lock down his role with the Yankees moving forward.