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Why does Kyle Higashioka always underperform his expected statistics?

This trend has continued for a third straight season.

San Diego Padres v New York Yankees Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images

Why do players underperform some of their expected statistics? Well, that’s sort of an impossible question to answer without access to every single resource possible. However, it is an important question to consider for people such as managers, analysts, and more. A player could have a bunch of wonderful peripherals year in year out, but their on field performance just simply does not measure up to the statistical expectations. How and where do you draw the line at accepting reality is correct?

Of course, you might be wondering why in the world I am saying all of this theoretical nonsense. In the last couple of seasons, the Yankees have had a few of these players. If you looked at Joey Gallo’s Baseball Savant page during his tenure with the Yankees, you would see a bunch red (that’s a good thing). But watching him every day, you were pretty easily able to see why he wasn’t performing well. Too much swing and miss, too many takes on hittable pitches, and just pure frustration that not even top decile average exit velocity could overcome. While Kyle Higashioka isn’t nearly on the same level of talent as Joey Gallo, he too is a hitter who you look at the underlying numbers and are confused as to why he isn’t a more consistent hitter. I’ll refine that further – it is surprising that he is not at least a league average hitter.

Before I get into the points about Higgy’s game that are positive, it’s necessary to discuss the obvious parts of his offense that drag down what his overall performance could be. There are two things I have in mind, and they are directly tied with one another: whiffs and trouble with the curve. This has been one of Higgy’s worst seasons so far against breaking balls. His batting average sits at .147 and he is running a 38.6 percent whiff rate on the pitches. The same goes against offspeed pitches, but he doesn’t see that pitch group nearly as often. If you can’t hit slower pitches in the big leagues, you’re giving yourself a lower offensive floor and ceiling. None of that is surprising!

Where I’d like to focus for the rest of the piece is on the Yankees backstop’s ability to square up fastballs. For the third season in a row, he has a Slg% above .450 on heaters. In fact, this is his most successful performance against fastballs in his entire career. With a .424 and .493 xwOBA, Higashioka is handling fastballs quite well. All three of his long balls have come on this pitch and it’s his main source of hard contact. This will likely be a limitation of his for his entire career, but better to be good against one pitch than bad against them all!

The perplexing part of Higgy’s game is why his hard contact doesn’t result in more hits. Here are his xwOBACONs from 2021-2023 in order: .451, .381, and .496. I mean, this is what you want to see from any player. If you’re getting it from your time share catcher, then that is a big win. But to contrast his xwOBACON, here is his actual wOBA on contact in the least three seasons: .334, .338, and .394. Year in year out, there is a significant difference between the two! It’s not exactly clear why this happens, but spray angle (the direction of contact) and batted ball spin (top or back) are solid hunches. Here are a few hard outs of his this season:

Feel free to comb through all of Higgy’s hard hit outs using this Baseball Savant query. If you do, you’ll notice there are a few more lineouts just like the ones I’ve shown you. It’s a combination of 100+ mph line drives dying at the warning track or being hit directly at guys. Even Leody Taveras’ grab looked routine despite it being 104 off the bat. It’s not like this is new for Higgy, so I’m not particularly inclined to just say it’ll even out over time. It may be that even when he hits the ball hard, it’s still a routine play for most left and center fielders. He doesn’t have opposite field power and isn’t much of a singles hitter. This knowledge makes outfielders better equipped to position themselves and get better reads off the bat. If you know what’s coming, fielding is a lot easier.

You don’t need to see spin data to know that these hits are being dragged down. From Higashioka’s perspective, there isn’t much you can do. If you’re hitting the ball hard and your job is to be a good defensive catcher, then you might just have to accept this and hope that from time to time you get enough lift to hit around 10-15 home runs with some coming at opportune times. This also provides us a quick lesson on how exit velocity and launch angle aren’t the only factors that should be used in expected statistics. Thanks for that, Higgy.