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The Yankees’ all-defense catching plan is workable — for now

Kyle Higashioka has not hit at all, but he and Jose Trevino have helped the pitching excel.

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

If the 2022 Yankees are going to best their counterparts from a year ago, it’ll be because their hitting took a step forward. The Yankees are traditionally known as an offense-heavy team, but Brian Cashman and the front office uncharacteristically ceded offensive production to defensive skills when planning for the catcher position this year.

The trade of Gary Sánchez left Kyle Higashioka and new acquisition Ben Rortvedt to share the position, though Rortvedt’s oblique injury led to the Yankees trading for Jose Trevino instead — a career backup who like Higgy has never hit, but is known for his framing skills.

Higashioka’s incredible spring training — a .423 batting average and 7 home runs over 11 games — created some hype that his game might become more well-rounded, and we would never miss Sánchez’s home run power ever again.

Unfortunately, Higgy has been ice cold with the bat over the first month of the season. In a small sample of 12 games, he’s batting .121/.143/.294, with eight strikeouts versus only four hits. He has a -0.3 fWAR so far, an impressive feat over so little time. FanGraphs has him tied for the second-worst WAR of any catcher so far, in either league.

Trevino, for his part, has done quite well in his backup role, with more hits than Higgy has. However, he’s only received 19 plate appearances and has a higher BABIP than his career norm.

New York’s catchers were understood to not be able to hit much, and were expected to make up for it by ranking among the best in MLB at defense and managing their pitching staff. Throughout his career, even in the minor leagues, Higgy has earned rave reviews for his framing and receiving skills. Gerrit Cole famously began eschewing the much more offensively productive Sánchez to have Higashioka catch his starts.

Trevino is one of the very best framing catchers in baseball — Baseball Savant lists him as in the 100th percentile in the skill in the small sample of 2022. Despite joining the team late in the spring, the team’s pitchers are already comfortable with him, including the notably finnicky Cole. Interestingly, Baseball Savant has Higgy’s framing as middle of the pack so far this year, but considering his track record the safest assumption is that his mark will rise with more innings played.

It’s difficult to quantify how much the early success of the Yankee pitching staff is due to Higashioka and Trevino’s influence, but it’s undeniable that they’re off to a better start than expected, particularly the starters. As of Tuesday, the Yankees are third in MLB, and first in the American League, in ERA with a 2.65 mark. They’re also first in the AL in WHIP and strikeouts, and second in batting average against. The pitching has kept the team afloat as the offense struggles a bit to kick things off.

However, it’s only fair to note that so far offense has been down throughout all of baseball. As of Monday, the MLB batting average is .232, very far down from what’s typical. Batting average is always lower before the weather gets hot, but the baseballs themselves also appear to be to blame, suggesting we may see lower numbers than recent years even as the summer gets going, inflating the stats of pitchers everywhere.

Higgy being an almost guaranteed out at the bottom of the lineup has been especially frustrating as the offense has scuffled. If he’s part of what could keep the Yankees at the top of the pitching stats list, that’s something you can live with, especially if the likes of Gleyber Torres, Joey Gallo, and Josh Donaldson start playing closer to their expected production. If the pitching starts to struggle, though — and it likely will dip at some point, considering the shortened spring and the inevitable injuries that will pop up — it’ll be a lot harder to stomach. The Yankees’ plan has worked, but it remains less than foolproof.