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Should we be concerned about the Yankees’ inability to throw out runners?

The short answer is no, but it’s a developing situation.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Do you remember the time when throwing out runners was a premium skill? A catcher’s defining trait wasn’t their framing or setup position; it was if they had a rocket arm that could limit the running game. Despite Gary Sánchez’s struggles as a receiver and blocker during his time in the Bronx, he had a cannon for an arm that was effective in both limiting attempts but also throwing out runners. He did this despite the team’s myriad of pitchers who were either slow to the plate or threw wicked breaking balls that were tough to throw on. Granted, the environment at the time wasn’t so stolen base friendly, but Sánchez was impressive regardless. However, in 2023, the Yankees’ duo of catchers is nothing like Sánchez.

Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka are fantastic defensive catchers overall. Both were well above average framers in 2021 (Trevino was the best in the league according to Baseball Savant). Trevino was also a top-tier blocker and Higgy was just below average on the season at -1 catcher runs according to Baseball Savant’s catching metric. Those two things were really all we had to be concerned with last year, but with the stolen landscape reversing course back to the 20th century, throwing out runners will be highly important this year and going forward. In fact, they’ve been a vital part of the Yankees’ offensive success. The first few weeks have shown us how impactful taking extra bases can be.

So far, Higgy and Trevino have fared like the rest of the league; they’ve had no success in throwing out runners. With an 0-for-12 start, I’ve begun to consider that the team may have a slight problem when it comes to limiting the running game. Yes, the entire league is dealing with this issue, but there is still reason to ponder the situation under the context of the Yankees’ catchers. I’ll address this semi-concern by looking through the most important metric for it: pop times.

Since Trevino figures to get the majority of the starts behind the dish, I’ll start with him. He is off to an 0-for-10 start, and to be honest, his throws down haven’t been too impressive. I’m not talking about throwing accuracy either — Trevino’s average arm strength of 77.0 mph is far below league average. Here is an accurate throw from last week that just didn’t have enough zip on it:

Trevino got this in an ideal spot for Volpe to put down a quick tag, but the combination of Domingo Germán’s slow pace to the plate and the long hop allowed Amed Rosario to smoothly slide safe into the bag. Much of this blame can be placed on Germán, but Trevino’s throw wasn’t fantastic regardless.

Given what we know about arm strength being the most significant factor in pop time, Trevino may be bound for struggles all season if his pitchers don’t help him out. He is able to compensate a little bit with a fast exchange and get a to a 1.97 pop time on average, but his arm limits his ability to throw out runners on a consistent basis. When you don’t have a cannon, you need to be perfect with your transfer every single time. You have little room for error if your arm can’t pick up the slack. The important question for Trevino is whether his pitching staff can do a better job in managing runners as they become accustomed to the new rules. To give their catcher a shot at tossing out runners, they’ll have to be strategic with their pickoff attempts and quicker to home plate.

Higashioka has a slightly different situation. He’s allowed all his runners to take bases as well, but only two have attempted. Last year, he sat at 80.1 mph on his throws and that allowed him to be slightly quicker than Trevino with an average 1.95 pop time. I know the difference is small, but it still matters. We will need more time to see if Higgy is more competent at throwing out runners compared to Trevino, but his 13/29 (44.8 percent) conversion rate last year suggests he is the more viable option. Here is his most recent throw down to second:

Jhony Brito actually gave Higgy a great shot on this, but his mechanics were wonky and it resulted in an errant throw into center field. He is typically quite sound with his mechanics, so I wouldn’t read too much into it. But the fact that Higgy felt the need to rush could be indicative of his and Trevino’s pressure to nab some runners. I’m assuming Higgy will regain his throwing form next time around, and if he proves he can be a step ahead of Trevino again, he has a chance to take more of the timeshare than we originally thought.

Right now, it’s not clear how the Yankees’ front office and coaching staff views this potential pain point. In other words, the team will have to weigh Trevino’s framing ability at the bottom of the zone with his inability to throw out runners. If Higgy can be better with his arm and show more thump with the bat, expect him to steal some at-bats from the 2022 All-Star. Right now, my thoughts are still developing on the matter and there is one key factor affecting the situation that needs more time to develop: the pitchers. They are just as impactful in this situation as the catchers, and if they can improve, the Yankees’ catchers will as well.