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How does Kyle Higashioka rank among backup catchers?

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Would the Yankees benefit from pursuing a new backup catcher once the lockout ends?

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Since the start of the offseason — truly, even, since last winter — the catcher position has been at the forefront of pretty much every conversation about the New York Yankees. In particular, fans and analysts alike have hyper-focused on everything Gary Sánchez does, arguing about every swing, every ball in the dirt, and every sideways glance to a point that it borders on an unhealthy obsession. Many have called for the Yankees to jettison the Kraken, and instead hand the starting job over to backup Kyle Higashioka.

The 31-year-old arbitration-eligible catcher has gained somewhat of a cult following beyond his performance, with many fans latching on to a strong 16-game stretch in 2020 and a strong April 2021, both of which were powered in part by multi-homer games against the Toronto Blue Jays. His overall production, however, has been less than stellar: in 139 career games, he has a .183/.234/.385 slash line, good for just a 63 wRC+ despite 23 home runs in that span. Looking at these numbers, and the question must be asked — should the Yankees look for a replacement for Kyle Higashioka as their backup catcher?

To tackle this question, I ran a query on FanGraphs’ leaderboards, bringing up the following stats for every catcher with at least 50 plate appearances in 2021: wRC+, HR, fWAR, K%, BB%, Pitch Framing (FMR), barrel percentage, and hard hit percentage. I then exported this data to a Google Sheet, then removed every starting catcher — for this, I defined a starting catcher as the catcher intended to play the majority of the games in 2021 (thus including players like Victor Caratini, who was supposed to back up Austin Nola in San Diego but played 116 games due to Nola’s injuries) and any catcher who a team currently intends to start in 2022 (using FanGraphs RosterResource Depth Chart). That left us with a sample pool of 44 catchers, ranging in number of plate appearances from Rafael Marchan’s 56 to Eric Haase’s 381.

Here’s some of the data, in graph form, with Kyle Higashioka highlighted in each chart.

Because nothing can be simple when it comes to the Yankees’ backstops, this data provides a very mixed picture of Higashioka. His actual production at the plate in 2021 left a lot to be desired, as his 71 wRC+ ranked 24th among backups. His ability to put the bat on the ball, however, arguably exceeds them all — his 15.6 barrel percentage leads them, while his 46.7 hard hit percentage ranks third. Compared to his peers among backup backstops, Higashioka is a bit of a Statcast darling, with a .340 xwOBA that is comparable to Sánchez and higher than J.T. Realmuto, albeit in a limited sample size. Add on his above-average pitch framing, and well, it becomes pretty easy to see why some look at Higashioka and see a potential starter.

I do not expect Higashioka to ever become the power hitter capable of being a starter that some hope he will be — between his platoon splits (.791 OPS vs. lefties, .558 vs. righties), lack of consistency (1.088 OPS in April 2021, .546 from May 1st to the end of the year), and inability to hit the breaking ball (.087 batting average, .165 xBA, .188 SLG, .268 xSLG against them in 2021), there’s simply too much evidence at this time that suggests he will be nothing more than a catcher with the ability to hit one out if he runs into a fastball. However, given his framing ability and the fact that the team has multiple holes at other positions (shortstop, first base, center field, just to name three), he’s more than adequate to back up Gary Sánchez next season.