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Kyle Higashioka’s framing is a boon for the Yankees’ pitching staff

Higgy’s bat is questionable, but his ability to steal strikes was on display over the weekend against the Red Sox.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Statcast has changed the lexicon of the typical baseball fan. Exit velocity and hard-hit rate have become important stats to follow for hitters, while things like spin rate and pitch velocity are their pitching equivalent. For catchers, framing is the term of the moment.

Framing, or the delicate art of stealing strikes by a catcher, can impact the outcome of a game because it directly impacts the outcome of virtually every at-bat. Evidently, it’s not the same, for a hitter, to face the opposing team’s starter, setup man, or closer in an important spot down 1-2 than up 2-1 in the count.

When it comes to framing, Yankees’ catcher Kyle Higashioka is comfortably above-average, perhaps even elite. He is capable of doing this on any given game:

Watching that clip, there are two takeaways: one, I hope Luis Severino bought dinner for Higgy on Saturday. And two, Higashioka’s framing directly changed the outcome of two of the at-bats shown in the clip: a 3-2 pitch that should have been a walk was called strike three, and a 2-2 offering that should have made the count 3-2 resulted in a punchout.

Here, thanks to the reliable folks at @UmpScorecards, we can see how Higashioka’s framing impacted the game.

Last year, when he played 67 games, Higashioka was in the 84th percentile in catcher framing last year according to Baseball Savant. He also recorded five Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), while Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), also had him as a major positive. Putting his performance in context and comparing it to the rest of the league, we find that, according to Baseball Prospectus, Higgy finished 11th out of 116 qualified catchers in Framing Runs, or called strikes above average, with 7.7.

In that particular stat, former Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez ranked 93rd, Ben Rortvedt 33rd, and Jose Trevino was third. Do you see the trend? The Yankees have clearly prioritized framing as they’ve remade their defense, and want to reap the benefits of stealing some strikes on a regular basis. They’ve actively tried to bring in the very best framers in baseball, ensuring that no matter who is playing on any given night, they will be competent in the framing department, even if it means sacrificing on offense.

All things considered, games like Saturday remind us why Higashioka is regularly (or semi-regularly) in the lineup even though he’s done very little with the bat thus far. He had a tremendous spring training performance, but nobody is expecting him to hit 25 home runs. If he can keep his framing skills intact and contribute a few homers here or there, he shouldn’t be a problem for the Yankees (first few games notwithstanding). He may not be the ideal hitting catcher, but his work behind the plate makes him a solid starting option for what the New York is trying to do.

The Yankees have an impressive bullpen with overpowering stuff, and a solid rotation. They don’t necessarily need too much help, but the lift that Higashioka gives them makes them look all the better. The Yankees are betting that the consistent work Higashioka does on the margins does more than offset the poor offensive unit they’ve constructed behind the plate.