Although the season ended in disappointment, many Yankees made positive strides in their development. You wouldn’t normally expect a 32-year-old backup catcher to be in that group, but Kyle Higashioka took a big step forward to establish himself as one of the most dependable second-string backstops in baseball.
2022 Statistics: 83 games, 248 PA, .227/.264/.389, 10 HR, 83 wRC+, 74th percentile framing, 1.7 fWAR
2023 Contract Status: Entering second year of arbitration eligibility
The Yankees’ backup catcher just logged far and away the best season of his career, almost tripling his previous single-season wins mark while appearing in a career-high 83 games. While he did only manage an 83 wRC+, there were tangible improvements in his offensive game, cutting down on his strikeout rate by seven points and whiff rate by over four points while adding over four points of contact. He also showed a curious knack for home runs in big moments.
There was this eventual game-winner off Shane McClanahan on June 15th ...
... as well as this solo shot to tie the first game of a doubleheader in the regular season finale series against the Rangers, setting up the eventual Harrison Bader game-winner:
That said, there is obviously ample room for improvement at the dish. After going two seasons without drawing a walk, Higashioka posted an effectively league-average walk rate in 2021, but that got slashed in half in 2022. It didn’t help that his bat was silent as the grave until the beginning of June (a 22 wRC+ through his first 28 games). He also saw regression in his quality of contact — despite posting a career-best average exit velocity, Higashioka’s normally surprisingly high barrel rate took a hit thanks to an uptick in groundballs.
It feels like Higashioka is the object of a disproportionate amount of disdain from the fanbase. Sure, he’s never going to approach a league average hitter. But alongside Jose Trevino, Higgy gives the Yankees far and away the best defensive catching tandem in baseball, and that’s an enormous amount of value before even picking up a bat.
As nice as it would be to have multiple above-average players at every position, it’s just not a reasonable expectation — doubly so when it comes to the backup catcher. A more productive discussion would see Higashioka compared to those in a similar role, and as far as backup catchers go, he is one of the best. Among catchers who started no more than half of their team’s games behind the plate, Higashioka leads the field in defensive value according to FanGraphs while his 1.7 fWAR ranks third. He tied for 11th with AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Adley Rutschman with +4 Statcast framing runs.
MLB Trade Rumors projects Higashioka to earn $1.7 million in his second year of arbitration eligibility. This is an absolute bargain for what he contributes on the field — paying under $2 million for almost two wins of production allows the Yankees to reap a substantial amount of surplus value.
The Yankees have lots of questions to answer this winter and figure to be active on the free agent and trade markets. However, despite the availability to several intriguing options via signing (Willson Contreras) and trade (Sean Murphy) I do not expect changes to be made at catcher. Between All-Star and AL Platinum Glove winner Trevino and Higashioka, New York went from suspect defensively behind the plate to top of the league.