After an almost unbelievable showing in spring training, New York Yankees fans were crossing their fingers for at least a presentable offensive season from 32-year-old catcher Kyle Higashioka. That did not happen, and Jose Trevino, brought in to replace Gary Sánchez, took the mantle as the far superior all-around option. However, over the last two months, Higashioka has broken out of whatever was holding him back and is becoming a threat to hit the ball at the plate.
Before we continue, I’ll throw out the disclaimer that Trevino is still the better catcher and obviously deserves the playing time he’s getting. However, for the current Yankees who are dealing with injuries and need the offense to come from everywhere, Higashioka no longer being a complete liability at the plate is vital.
The numbers for Higashioka were uninspiring through the season’s first few months. May and June were particularly awful in their own rights as he ceded time to the emerging All-Star Trevino. In May, Higgy sported a slash line of .194/.235./.226 with an OPS+ of 32 (average is 100). The power finally returned in June with his first homers of 2022, but much of June remained underwhelming with a slash line of .171/.190/.488 and an OPS+ of 80. Things were not looking good, and despite the team’s successes through those months, it’s never good to have only one trustworthy backstop option at the plate.
The good news is that it appears that Higashioka is turning it around. In the 12 games he played in July, his numbers skyrocketed up. Not only did his batting average reach the .267 mark, but his OBP hit .343, and most importantly, his OPS+ went to 101. Of course, that number is still only one percent above the average, but any fan would prefer their backup catcher to be 1 point over the average than 20 points under it.
For the four games that he has played in August, the numbers have only gotten better, too. He’s slashing .308/.308/.846 with an OPS of 1.154 and OPS+ of 211. It is almost impossible that he keeps up those numbers through the rest of the month, but a fraction of that will help a Yankees roster in need of offense.
As far as I can tell, Higashioka has made no apparent changes to his swing. His approach does appear to be slightly different. His following through the ball and better tracking of off-speed pitches have undoubtedly contributed to his success.
Higashioka’s swing is interesting because everyone has seen the kind of bat speed he has. It comes through the zone a lot faster than one might expect. Although, that can be to the detriment of his success. While he does still swing hard, there is a tangible difference in the kind of speed his bat is getting through the zone.
When Higashioka is hitting home runs and getting on base, not only is he working the pitch count and forcing the pitcher to throw strikes, but he’s focusing on the technique of his swing instead of the pure speed.
Bat speed is one of the most underrated things in the major leagues. But it does appear to affect Higashioka’s success as a hitter at times. It’s evident in the below clip. Another important piece to the puzzle is the count being 0-2.
Not only was Higashioka undisciplined in that clip, but he also swung the bat quite hard. Now, watch this clip and try to spot the differences.
The location on this Luis Castillo slider could have been better. No argument here about that tidbit. However, not only is the count full on a pitcher with some nasty stuff, but there is evident hesitation on the breaking ball, leading to a strong swing through the zone and barreling the ball into the seats.
Higgy is never going to be an elite hitter, but there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to the kind of bat speed he possesses. At its worst, there is a lack of tracking the ball through the zone and swinging for the fences. At its best, it allows a bit of precious time for the Yankee catcher to recognize the pitch movement and square one up.
Higashioka’s improvement, despite the Yankees' struggles, is a good thing. He doesn’t deserve to be in the lineup over Trevino, but as of now, it doesn’t seem like Yankees fans have to abandon all hope when he steps up to the plate.