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The Yankees’ new catching philosophy

By moving on from Gary Sánchez, the Yankees signal a change in what they value from the catching position.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

After five years, the Yankees parted ways with Gary Sánchez a month ago. Depending on the type of Yankee fan you are, you either loved that the Yankees finally moved on from Sánchez, or you felt the Yankees gave up on the Sánchez’s potential too soon. At the same time, some of you may feel a bit of both, like me. Regardless of how we thought about Sánchez or the decision to move on, his departure and replacements warrant a look at the shift in catching ideology for the Yankees this season.

Sánchez burst upon the scene in 2016, where he played 53 games, slashed .299/.376/.657, and hit 20 home runs. In the following five years, Sánchez had two seasons above league average by OPS+ (2017 and 2019), one league-average season (2021), and two seasons where he was below league-average (2018 and 2020). With a career slash line of .230/.317/.486, an OPS of .803, and an OPS+ of 113, it is hard to argue that Sánchez has not been an excellent offensive catcher in today’s game. Looking at more advanced metrics, according to Baseball Savant, Sánchez is consistently above league average in maximum exit velocity, average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, and barrels. These elite advanced metrics only add to an impressive offensive resume for a catcher in today’s game.

However, Sánchez’s Achilles’ heel has always been his defense. According to Baseball Savant, his framing has been below league average every season, except for 2018. At the same time, in every season, except for 2018, Sánchez has been a liability behind the plate. FanGraphs lists Sánchez as having a career total of -9 defensive runs saved (DRS), including a career-low of -10 in 2021 (he posted positive values in 2016 and 2018). Outside of 2018, Sánchez has been a below-league-average defender and pitch framer. However, his offensive production makes up for these defensive shortcomings when he hits, but the primary issue in recent seasons has been with the bat. Sánchez’s instability at the plate in recent seasons must have led the Yankees to reevaluate what they value at the catching position.

This offseason, the Yankees decided to part ways with Sánchez and, in doing so, completely changed their organizational philosophy at the catcher position. During the Sánchez era, the team put a premium on offensive production while overlooking the defensive issues. With the addition of Jose Trevino and the evident platoon of him and Kyle Higashioka, the Yankees have shifted to a defensive-centric catching philosophy. Looking at their career offensive numbers, Higashioka has a career OPS of .600 and an OPS+ of 61, making him 39 percent below a league-average hitter. Meanwhile, Trevino has a career OPS of .643 and an OPS+ of 72, making him 28 percent below a league-average hitter.

Neither catcher is starting due to their ability to swing the lumber, so we shouldn’t grade these catchers by their poor offensive numbers. If we wanted the Yankees to have a chance at quality hitting at catcher, the answer would have been to simply keep Sánchez. They didn’t and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it at this point, so we must move on.

Instead, we should look at Higashioka and Trevino’s defensive catching metrics. In 2021, Higgy played 67 games and caught 519 innings. Down in Texas, Trevino played in 89 games and caught 713 innings. Together they played 156 games and caught 1,232 innings. According to FanGraphs and Baseball Savant, Higashioka was worth five defensive runs saved (DRS) and was in the 84th percentile in pitch framing. Trevino was worth eight defensive runs saved (DRS) and was in the 96th percentile in pitch framing. Together, over 156 games, they were cumulatively worth 13 defensive runs saved and significantly above-average pitch framers, arguably elite.

Their ability to save runs and steal strikes make Higashioka and Trevino a solid defensive catching duo. While they may not hit like Sánchez, they should work better with the pitching staff and shore up defense at catcher. However, this means that the rest of the lineup will need to step up to make up for the reduction in offensive production compared to last season (the early results have certainly been wanting). For this new catching philosophy to succeed, the platoon must bring solid catching defense and elite pitch framing and help produce great pitching performances from this starting rotation and bullpen. If that happens, I think this trade-off of offensive production for better defense and pitch framing will benefit the 2022 Yankees.