Yesterday, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman described catching prospect Kyle Higashioka as “a name not to forget” in an interview with SiriusXM’s Reality Meets Fantasy. The problem is that lots of Yankees fans probably never heard of Higashioka in the first place. However, the 26-year-old gave plenty of reason for people to find out more about him in 2016. In 102 games at Double-A and Triple-A, he had an .847 OPS with 21 home runs.
Had he been a few years younger with this level of production, Higashioka would be up there with Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres as one of the most exciting prospects in the minors. But an injury-riddled career has hindered him since he was selected in the seventh round of the 2008 draft. He had the incredibly poor fortune of needing Tommy John surgery as a catcher, despite drawing good reviews as a defensive backstop.
According to Brendan Kuty at NJ.com, Higashioka spent the 2015-2016 offseason making mechanical adjustments at the plate, with the hope of hitting more flyballs. The decision made sense, as he had yet to post an OPS above .700 at any level. But in addition to hitting for more power in 2016, he also managed to keep his strikeouts at a reasonable level. Despite having a pull-friendly, flyball-oriented approach, he struck out just 17.5% of the time, suggesting an above average ability to make contact.
Of course, Higashioka’s age might cause people to shy away from hyping him up. But it is important to remember that he has not always been able to stay healthy, playing in just 67 games from 2012 to 2014. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for catchers to take longer to put things together in the batter’s box. For example, Cardinals’ backstop Yadier Molina had a career OPS of .692 through his age 26 season, compared to a .769 OPS since then.
Rangers’ catcher Jonathan Lucroy is another example of a catcher who took a while to become a productive hitter. His first above average offensive season in the big leagues was in 2012, when he was 26 years old. Obviously, it is unfair to compare Higashioka to catchers like Molina and Lucroy, who already had experience in the big leagues. However, considering his injury history, Higashioka’s offensive outburst in the minors should not be ignored.
Going into the 2017 season, Higashioka figures to be behind Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine on the depth chart, which means he will probably start the season in Triple-A Scranton. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, if his long journey of a career makes a stop in the Bronx in 2017. After nine seasons in the Yankees organization, he has certainly put in the necessary hours.
Data is courtesy of Fangraphs.