Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka surprised many by going on a hitting spree during the first month of the 2021 season. He started off his campaign by collecting 4 hits in his first 10 at-bats, and a pair of them soared over the fence for homers. Moreover, in the first four games he started, Higgy demonstrated power and an exceedingly high on-base percentage that subverted his reputation as a light-hitting defensive catcher. Although he has proved that he’s capable of contributing, Higgy’s offensive performance in April has many fans wondering: Is this just a random hot streak, or is he going to produce like this all season?
While it’s unrealistic to expect Higashioka to consistently hit at the rate he was going in the beginning of April, his slugging to start the season was not a fluke, or the result of luck. He really has developed as a hitter since last season. One indication that Higashioka feels more comfortable at the plate is the fact that he is hitting the ball hard. His hard-hit rate is up 10 percentage points since last season and his barrel rate has also increased significantly from those of last year.
Higashioka has demonstrated plate discipline in 2021 that he didn’t seem to have in previous seasons. He’s not chasing as many pitches as he once did and his increased walk rate is evidence of that. So far this season, Higashioka has 7 walks over 48 plate appearances, and his 14.6 percent walk rate is significantly better than the league average, which typically hovers between eight and nine percent. That he has already walked seven times this year is a tremendous improvement, considering that Higgy recorded exactly zero walks in both 2019 and 2020.
Higashioka’s performance against breaking pitches is his Achilles’ heel right now. Opposing pitchers most likely have the scouting report on him by now and will undoubtedly take notice of this weakness. Higashioka has yet to record a single hit against breaking balls this season, and he’s struck out on them 8 times in 20 opportunities. Moreover, his whiff rate — the frequency with which he swings and misses — is a whopping 50 percent. He’ll need to make adjustments on sliders and curveballs in order to hit more consistently and become a real threat at the plate, especially since Higashioka will probably begin to see more curveballs and sliders, as more pitchers become aware of his weak spots.
While Higashioka’s increased walk rate is a positive development, he could stand to be a little less passive in his at-bats. It’s good that Higgy isn’t chasing so many balls out of the strike zone, but he might benefit from swinging earlier in the count and taking a slightly more aggressive approach at the plate. Higashioka swings at the first pitch about 12 percent of the time, which is below the league average.
In that same vein, against mistake pitches thrown right over the plate, known as “meatballs” in baseball lingo, Higashioka swings roughly 58 percent of the time. That percentage should really be higher. At the same time, Higgy being a bit passive in his at-bats doesn’t strike me as problematic. He has been walking, which is something he didn’t used to do, and it’s not concerning if Higgy is spitting on pitches out of the zone.
It’s always fun to watch a player subvert the stereotype of light-hitting backup catcher. Higashioka needs just one home run to top his total from last year. He has slowed down a bit from his hot start, but if he can adjust his mechanics and timing to make better contact on breaking pitches, Higgy will continue to exploit the way other teams underestimate his ability to hit.