After being drafted in 2008, Kyle Higashioka weaved a long journey through the Yankees system and to the major leagues. Since making his major league debut in 2017, he has seen limited playing time for the Yankees backing up Gary Sánchez and riding the Scranton Shuttle numerous times during his several years with the big league club. Now with Sanchez’s departure from the Bronx, Higashioka appears to have his best chance to establish himself as the Yankees go-to catcher and provide the most value for the team.
2021 Stats: 211 PA, 10 HR, .181/.246/.389, .272 wOBA, 71 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR
FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 294 PA, 14 HR, .213/.268/.416, .292 wOBA, 84 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR
Higashioka’s offensive line from 2021 was not pretty. It says something about his defensive ability that he had a positive fWAR in limited playing time as the backup catcher. Still, it is fair to question why the Yankees would essentially turn over the catching position to him coming off that type of season. A look behind the numbers shows that he should trend upward in 2022.
It is likely that the front office looked deeper into his offensive numbers and saw a chance for them to trend upward. He averaged 90.5 mph on his exit velocity last season, which was 2.2 mph above the major league average. Hitting the ball harder than league average does not jive with his .200 BABIP, indicating that he was the victim of some bad luck in 2021.
Another positive sign for Higashioka in 2021 was his eight percent walk rate. This was a noticeable increase after he had failed to draw a walk in over 100 plate appearances during the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Kyle Higashioka’s second home run of the game! pic.twitter.com/Sz8ftEDRiB— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) March 25, 2022
One thing that may work in Higashioka’s favor this year is an ability to use platoon splits in his favor. The Yankees’ backup catchers, Ben Rortvedt who is on the 40-man roster and Rob Brantly who isn’t, are both left-handed hitters and could be worked into games more often against right-handed starters. Higashioka posted a .791 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2021 as opposed to a .558 mark while facing righties. He also struck out seven percent less of the time while facing lefties.
A lot of Higashioka’s value comes from his ability to frame pitches. He rated in the 84th percentile of major league catchers last season when it came to framing pitches, dramatically helping Yankees pitchers steal strikes on the edges. Until automated umpires make it to the major leagues, this is going to be a highly regarded skill.
At face value it looks like Higashioka struggles to control the running game. He threw out just 13 percent of runners who attempted to steal against him last year, but that does not tell the whole story. His 1.94 second pop time getting the ball to second base is elite and ranked eighth in baseball last season — he was comparable to Sánchez’s pop time of 1.93, that resulted in a 17 percent caught stealing rate. The Yankees’ struggles to cut down runners on the basepaths is likely a result of the pitching staff’s approach over their catcher’s ability to get the ball to the base quickly.
With a lot of value being placed on his pitch framing, Higashioka was credited with five Defensive Runs Saved last season despite playing in just 67 games with 519.1 innings behind the plate. Barring a late spring trade, it is likely that Higashioka will see the bulk of the work behind the plate for the Yankees this season. He will need to show that he can continue to play strong defense behind the plate over a larger sample size while improving his offensive production.
The Yankees are heading into 2022 with Kyle Higashioka as their primary catcher. He is not likely to be in the discussion for an All-Star appearance and fans will almost certainly be spending the next few months proposing upgrades. However, if he can continue building on his strong framing metrics while hitting for power and finding just a little more luck on his hard hit batted balls, Higashioka could prove to be a very valuable piece to the Yankees in 2022.