After hitting .250/.250/.521 with four homers and a 102 wRC+ in 48 plate appearances in 2020, Kyle Higashioka was anointed as the starter in the postseason — without much success — over the struggling Gary Sánchez. Then Higashioka started off hot in the 2021 season, hitting .320/.414/.880 through April 27th, with four round-trippers and six RBI. His wRC+ was 240, and he had almost as many walks (13.8 BB%) as strikeouts (17.2 K%).
Considering his strong showing in 2020 and his hot start in 2021, Higashioka was making a case for increased playing time. I wondered whether he had the skillset to be a starter: he is a very nice fielder with a good arm, solid game-calling and framing skills. His bat, however, was always going to be the single most important trait for him.
As it turns out, Higashioka did receive some additional playing time at the expense of Gary Sanchez, who started off in good form, then struggled, and is now swinging a hot stick. And those additional, semi-regular at-bats ended up exposing Higashioka. Since April 28th, Higgy is hitting .131/.209/.213 with one home run and a 21 (!) wRC+. He has eight hits in 67 plate appearances over that timeframe, and his plate discipline numbers also deteriorated, to a nine percent walk rate and a 32.8 percent strikeout rate.
For the season, Higashioka’s line is down to .186/.271/.407 with a 87 wRC+, where 100 is considered ‘average.’ I think we have enough evidence to say that Higgy is not a starter, and while he could surely be one for a low-level team, he should not be the regular catcher on a contending team. But guess what? That’s OK!
He clearly wasn’t the second coming of Mike Piazza, but he isn’t the worst hitter in the world now either. There is nothing wrong with Higgy as a backup catcher, and while it wasn’t likely he would maintain the level of performance he showed in April, chances are that he isn’t a .100 hitter either.
In fact, Higashioka’s slugging percentage and isolated power comes in handy given the position he plays, with little to no offensive expectations. Seeing things in the big picture, his slugging percentage is higher than Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Brett Gardner, Miguel Andújar, and Rougned Odor.
Of course, that speaks more about the Yankees’ offensive struggles this year than Higgy’s skills as a hitter, but still. A .221 ISO (isolated power) is nothing to sneeze at, even if he is already under the Mendoza line. Higashioka is far from a bat-first catcher, but he is capable of hitting a home run or take a walk from time to time. That and his very good defense makes it worthwhile for the Yankees to start him once or twice per week to give Sanchez some needed rest, with the idea of keeping him fresh for the whole season.
Overall, Higgy is a good piece to have around. His 87 wRC+ ranks 27th out of 44 catchers with at least 90 plate appearances. He is a slightly below-average hitting catcher and a solid defender at a very important position. That’s a desirable backup backstop, and there is absolutely no shame in that. The Yankees would be smart to give the majority of at-bats to Sánchez going forward, but there is no harm in playing Higashioka once or twice a week.