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Kyle Higashioka is slowly earning more playing time

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The Yankees’ long-time backup catcher is currently playing at a high level, and his game has evolved enough to give the team more options at the position.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

For several years now, excluding the 2020 playoffs, Gary Sánchez has been the New York Yankees’ starting catcher. And he has been a very good one for the most part, although last season was more than forgettable for him.

Working in Sánchez’s shadow has long been Kyle Higashioka. He has been with the Yankees since 2008, yet he made his major league debut just four years ago, in 2017. In each season he has played from that point on, Higgy has received precious few plate appearances, mainly because pf Sánchez’s immense talen.

For his career, Higashioka has hit .199/.244/.431 in 225 plate appearances before Satuday’s game. His wRC+ is 77, so, sure, he does not have much of a track record at the plate thus far.

However, he has shown a statistical improvement since last season that may indicate he is more than just a backup catcher. In 2020, Higgy hit .250/.250/.521 with four homers in 48 trips to the plate, with a much more decent 102 wRC+. He took no walks, though, so most people chalked up his success to small sample size noise.

This year, he has kept on raking. Again, the sample is tiny (21 PA) before Saturday’s contest against Cleveland) but he is hitting .353/.476/1.000, with three round-trippers and a 292 wRC+. Most encouraginly, though, he has started taking his bases on balls, with four walks against three strikeouts.

Is it possible the Yankees have more than just a backup catcher in Kyle Higashioka? We won’t know for sure until we have much more statistical evidence, but it’s fair to say he is more interesting now than a few of years ago.

It’s also fair to say that he has improved a lot offensively in the last few months, which is nice considering he is already seen as an above-average defensive catcher. Higashioka recently credited his swing path for his improvement. “I’m kind of the Ted Williams school of thought, trying to have a slight uppercut match the plane of the pitch to give yourself the most margin for error,” Higashioka said when asked about his recent homer barrage. “You miss on top, it’s a line drive. You miss underneath, it’s a homer and if you square it up, it’s a gapper. So, I think it just shows my swings where it needs to be and as long as I keep swinging at good pitches, hopefully I’ll continue.”

Of course, Higashioka is no Ted Williams, but he doesn’t need to be. He just need to be respectable with the bat, and he will have a place on the Yankees long-term. Right now, he is doing just that.

It seems like, after all these years, Higashioka is going to the plate with a plan, and is executing it. He has been making hard contact the past two seasons, and he has cut his O-swing% (percentage of swings on balls outside of the strike zone) from 44.1 in 2019 and 38.5 in 2020 to 27.1 in 2021. In other words, he is avoiding bad pitches and taking advantage on hittable ones.

Higashioka doesn’t need to be the Yankees’ starting catcher. That’s still Sánchez’s job, and deservedly so. But Higashioka might be slowly evolving into a starting-caliber backstop, and the idea of Higgy playing at least a couple times a week to keep Sánchez fresh is an attractive one. Manager Aaron Boone can get creative with lineup arrangements. Higgy can spell Sánchez on occasion, and he can do the same with Giancarlo Stanton, sending Gary to the DH spot.

Even when the inevitable regression comes, it’s possible that Higashioka’s offensive and defensive contributions can make him a respectable overall backstop, and the Yankees should make some room for that kind of profile, at least until he stops playing like one. It would mark a victory for Higashioka and the team’s player development if he can at least hold on to some of the gains he’s flashed.