After a dominant outing against the Mariners by Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, the most prominent storyline was surrounding not just the big right-hander, but the man behind the plate, Jose Trevino. After a 2021 season where Cole essentially insisted on Kyle Higashioka throwing the signs down instead of Gary Sánchez, their results together in 2022 have been subpar, and the most recent outing aids that narrative.
On August 3rd against the Mariners, Cole gave up a home run on a hanging slider to Eugenio Suárez in the first inning at Yankee Stadium with Higashioka behind the plate. Afterward, YES Network displayed this graphic showing the differences in his results with the different catchers:
That graphic sparked an entire discussion about which catcher was better to throw to for not only Cole but the rotation as a whole. The answer, for the most part, is Trevino. The numbers support that (and not just the finicky catcher ERA), but it does induce thoughts about how each catcher calls pitches and if that could be why the number differences are so drastic.
The men who don the so-called tools of ignorance are unique for many reasons, so pitch-calling differences will occasionally happen due to the improvisation required by the position. However, it does feel like there is a disconnect when one catcher calls the shots instead of the other, which isn’t usually good when it’s the same pitcher.
Below are all the balls that went into play or resulted in outs when Cole pitched to Trevino in his most recent outing against the Mariners:
And here they are in Cole’s not-so-good outing with Higashioka behind the plate.
Cole had 16 fastballs of 23 balls in play or outs with Trevino, while with Higashioka, he had 12 fastballs of 26. Those results don’t paint the entire picture, but they help suggest that Higashioka could focus more on using off-speed or breaking pitches to try and get outs instead of Cole’s fastball.
Another interesting piece to the puzzle is the location of certain pitches. Higashioka could be limiting Cole by focusing on one spot instead of just letting the heater ride and working the off-speed from it. There is evidence of that. Below are two visuals from the same two outings looking at all the pitches and location results courtesy of Baseball Savant.
The outing with Trevino:
The outing with Higashioka:
There is a difference in the location of the fastballs that Cole is throwing. Specifically, to right-handed batters in his outing with Higashioka calling the shots, he threw only one inside fastball to right-handed hitters of the 18 he threw in total; the remainder went to lefties. The lower-outside edge was the preference, and it’s unclear whether that was part of the scouting report done on the Mariners or if that was something the duo agreed to focus on just in general.
On the other hand, with Trevino, Cole threw his fastball pretty much everywhere to hitters on both sides of the plate. The main goal of the outing with Trevino was establishing the fastball, which everyone knows is Cole’s best pitch. When he can find his primary stuff, he’s lethal. But there could be hesitancy on an inside fastball call if he’s been throwing it outside the entire time.
There was also an interesting dichotomy in how Cole located his off-speed pitches. Against left-handed batters with Trevino, the Yankees ace loved dropping his knuckle curve to the top of the zone, which was highly effective. All those pitches that ended in the upper part of the zone were called for strikes, and one was fouled away. Cole danced around the outside edges of the zone with his off-speed and breaking pitches far more than he did with Higashioka against those left-handed hitters.
The most telling sign outside of the visualizations is what Cole said after his start against the Mariners with Higashioka behind the plate. It was even a key to the game before his most recent outing. He knew the pitch selection was off at times, and working on that and establishing his fastball was extremely important to his impressive showing.
“There were some bad pitch selections; there were some bad pitches, and we got punished for it again,” Cole said. Later in the interview, he continued, “I think between [Jesse] Winker and [Carlos] Santana, there were some non-competitive pitches, but there were a handful of pitches that were very close that were not getting reactions that we were anticipating on.”
During the first Seattle game, YES Network broadcaster Paul O’Neill noted that the two didn’t get into any rhythm in the previous Cole start (where Higashioka also caught him). He mentioned that there were lots of shake-offs, and everything felt slower. Even Michael Kay talked about how four games prior, manager Aaron Boone switched Higashioka, and it didn’t appear to work very well. So these issues have been well-documented by everyone surrounding the Yankees; one can acknowledge that pitchers can be unique on any given day, but these two Cole outings weren’t particularly anomalous.
The improvisation that both catchers have appeared in different forms. On the one hand, Trevino has consistently established one or two pitches and then moved from there. At the same time, Higashioka can sometimes abandon a pitcher’s best stuff in favor of other pitches in their respective arsenals to experiment with different combinations.
It’s a strategy that may work with some hurlers, but it hasn’t worked at all this year with most of the Yankees rotation, and specifically Cole. While Trevino appears to be the go-to guy from a roster and production point of view, there is something to be said about the battery’s 2022 success with the All-Star behind the plate rather than Cole’s perhaps-former old reliable.