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Kyle Higashioka’s fascinating batted-ball profile

The Yankees’ likely starting catcher is a potential late bloomer breakout candidate.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Usually when I conduct a hitting analysis, there are three parts: batted ball profile, mechanics, and production trends. This time around, I’ll be focused on mostly data.

Why am I doing that? Well, that’s because Kyle Higashioka — today’s centerpiece — truly doesn’t have much of a performance history in The Show. Yes, he had a 129 wRC+ over 70 games in 2019 at Triple-A Scranton, but that really doesn’t matter all that much. It was a long time ago at this point, and Higgy has made several swing adjustments since then.

One might be extremely confused why the Yankees were so willing to trade Gary Sánchez with no apparent alternative for an everyday role. While we were all disappointed at what the Yankees got out of Sánchez’s powerful bat in his later years, he was still an above-average hitter throughout the entire span of his Yankees tenure. (Even after his All-Star 2017, he had a 99 wRC+ from 2018-21.) Compared to other catchers, only a few came close to his offensive production. Replacing him with some sort of combination of Higashioka and Rortvedt is an odd move. It’s almost like they’re fine with leaving a near-automatic out in the nine-hole of the lineup.

Now, I’ll need you to open up your mind for this one. It’s hard to convince anyone that a career-long backup catcher entering his age-32 season is anything more than what he’s previously shown, but I am going to attempt to do exactly that. In the last two seasons especially, Higgy has hit the crap out of the ball whenever he’s put it in play. In his largest sample size season (2021) of 135 batted balls, he had a .343 xwOBA and .451 xwOBACON. A .343 xwOBA is above league average and significantly better than his actual outcomes which resulted in a poor .272 wOBA.

That gives us our first point. Higgy was very unlucky last season. I think at times using BABIP alone is extremely misleading, but there is something to say about a .200 BABIP in 135 batted balls. It’s unlikely and is bound to improve. Whether that results in better overall results for Higgy is an unknown, but it’s undeniable that he was very unlucky. This ball in particular was one of his biggest exit-velocity drives of 2021, and Jarred Kelenic had to make a nice play to track it down:

Now, onto some more data. Staying locked in on batted-ball metrics, here’s a list that will soon be of interest:

  • Joey Gallo
  • Kyle Higashikoa
  • Giancarlo Stanton
  • Aaron Judge

These are the top four Yankees hitters in Barrel Percentage from the 2021 season. The first three are all above 15 percent, while Higgy was good for a 14.1-percent rate. That’s very good. To be that accurate with the barrel is a sticky trait. In other words, year over year you can expect this rate to be within this realm. And by the way, that is almost three percentage points better than Sánchez, Higgy’s former competitor.

Moving onto Dynamic Hard-Hit Rate (DHH%), another interesting tidbit comes to the surface. Higgy beat out Judge and Stanton in this category! His DHH% was 29.3 percent, while Stanton and Judge checked in at 27.3 and 26.9 percent respectively. Gallo was first on the team and ahead of Higgy. You may not be familiar with this statistic but you should be.

Hitters can hit the ball hard as heck, but when it comes down to it, that ball must be within a certain range of launch angle if the hitter wants it to result in a hit. For example, you can hit the ball too high and too low at 110 mph and both result in an out. The fact that Higgy beat out Stanton and Judge (some of the league leaders in this category) means a lot. Yes, he had 200 fewer batted balls, but either way he did a lot with them. Not only did he scorch them, but he hit in zones that usually make for good results.

It’s easy to get carried away with a spreadsheet, but some things just cannot be denied. Higgy obviously does not hit the ball with the same authority as the players I compared his metrics to, but anytime your name appears near or next to that trio in a batted-ball profile, it’s worth noting. These deep-cut metrics were all better for Higgy than they were for Sánchez and like I said previously, these metrics tend to be sticky over time.

This also does not mean that Higgy is bound for All-Star success. He still has iffy plate discipline and struck out 28 percent of the time last year. Those parts of his game need to improve if he wants to make the most of his batted-ball profile. Still, don’t be so surprised when he smokes home runs like he has in spring training. Higashioka is well capable of hitting the ball with power.

Perhaps the 400+ plate appearances he is bound for will help Higashioka in his development of feel for the zone. If that happens, then the Yankees may have a catcher with proven plus defense and some pop to go along with it.