The New York Yankees third string catcher first made headlines last season when, in a big rivalry game against the eventual World Series Champion Boston Red Sox on ESPN, he collected his first major-league basehit: a homerun off of former American Cy Young Award winner David Price. This broke an atrocious 0-22 start at the plate in Higashioka’s big league career. For the then-28 year old career minor-leaguer who was well-traveled and respected with the Yankee organization, it was a chance too make a statement and he did just that. After absolutely annihilating a knee-high, 89 mph David Price breaking ball, Higashioka soon collected his next two basehits: both homeruns. Eventually, his teammates in the Yankee clubhouse christened him “Kyle All He Hits Is Homers Shioka.” Or, as renowned pun-enthusiast and legendary Yankee announcer John Sterling would say on the call, “Kyle The Home Run Strokah!”
He was just the second Yankee of all-time to hit 3 homeruns for the first 3 hits in his big league career. The other was Alfonso Soriano a mere 2 decades ago.
Unfortunately for the 4th-generation Japanese-American, he’d shortly be sent down after his first taste of success in The Show due to the mid-July ’18 activation of star catcher Gary Sanchez from the disabled list. For Kyle Higashioka, however, this experience was invaluable. As a catcher who had been passed up many times, he was turned to in a time the Yankees needed him and he delivered in more ways than they could have fathomed from a player who was looked at as nothing more than a “solid farmhand.”
But just what was his impact?
Higashioka’s strong point by many is considered to be his remarkable defense: a strong throwing arm that actually rivals that of Gary Sanchez. He’s thrown out 30.2% of would-be basestealers in his minor league career, not a far cry from Gary Sanchez who hovers around 35%. Sanchez is considered to be among the elite in this category; while second string catcher Austin Romine is around league average. His framing is always positively rated, which is something that you can’t take for granted—especially with a struggling Yankee staff. Scouts rave about his game calling. Higashioka epitomizes everything a manager wants in his back-up backstops in the case of dire straits.
But believe it or not, while all of these things are absolutely important, the most valuable asset with him behind the plate controlling the game by every pitch isn’t anything he does with the glove.
Higashioka is of Japanese descent, but was born in Huntington Beach, California, with English being his native-tongue. The ideal-SoCal kid, Higashioka was big on the obvious things, such as heavy metal (he even wears Iron Maiden socks during practices!), surfing, and soaking everything in that life offered in the outskirts of the ever-so luxurious downtown of Los Angeles.
But it wasn’t until he took on a new hobby right before Spring Training in 2017 that he became the Yankees secret weapon in times of need. Kyle, like most catchers, will tell you that the key to being a great catcher is communication with your pitcher. Heading into Spring Training that year, he figured he’d be working hands on with Yankee ace Masahiro Tanaka, a starting pitcher from Itami, Hyogo, Japan who was embarking on his fourth Major League season (10th overall professionally).
Higashioka’s father had always pressured him into learning Japanese dialect, and Kyle knew that it was just the time. Higashioka stated in an interview with the New York Times that “a rule of thumb is that they don’t consider you Japanese unless you speak Japanese and I would a lot more proud to speak Japanese because I am Japanese.” So, he bought language software, worked hands on with his dad and Yankees translator Shingo Horie, and dove head first into the cultures and customs of that the Japanese way of life has to offer.
Over the course of that Spring, he got particularly close with Tanaka as battery mates. He was the first catcher since coming over to the states that Tanaka didn’t have to use what little-broken English he knows to communicate in other ways on the mound than through gestures and pitch signs. It took a massive burden off of the Yankee right-hander as he’s still learning how to improve his English.
So, Higashioka is bilingual? No, he actually isn’t. Kyle Higashioka learned Spanish in high school and speaks it fluently. While Sanchez naturally speaks Spanish so it isn’t a necessity for Higashioka, he still can communicate with a pitcher such as Domingo German, who is enjoying a breakout campaign (15-2, 4.05 ERA), the same way he would a pitcher who speaks Japanese or English.
Baseball is a melting pot of cultures. The Yankee starting 5 is led by a pitcher from Japan. He’s followed by future Hall of Famer and American-born CC Sabathia. Somewhere in the mix is German, who’s from the Dominican Republic and Canadian James Paxton. The Yankees also anticipate ace Luis Severino to come off the IL very soon, who is also Dominican. The fact that he can speak to such a diverse staff with such disparate backgrounds without an interpreter is absolutely incredible and unheard of. The communication between Higashioka and his pitching unit is a major-difference maker that shows. And it is for this that Higashioka is one of the most respected players within the Yankee organization and one of the most valuable assets behind the plate in the game.
Higashioka had Tommy John Surgery and a bunch of knee surgeries and is still a unique, elite catcher behind the plate. The Tommy John Surgery, if anything, has made his arm stronger and he is the definition of a workhorse and team player who is ready to be called upon whenever needed.
The Yankees will, however, get Gary Sanchez back on Saturday from the IL. According to Fangraphs, Higashioka had one option left heading into 2019 and that was used in April when Sanchez got hurt for the first time. The Yankees corresponding 25-man move has yet to be announced, but it should be expected that Higashioka or Austin Romine will have to be expendable.
While Romine has been a staple in the Yankees clubhouse since 2011, he has never really offered any value of significance for the Bronx Bombers. His lifetime -0.3 WAR (wins above replacement) is awful and despite a somewhat solid offensive output in 2019 (.735 OPS), has just an abysmal 0.4 WAR to brag about on the season. With Romine being barely a replacement level player, I don’t see how you can’t keep Higashioka. In just 10 games, he’s offered half the value that Romine has offered all season. In the 6 starts he’s had since Gary hit the 10-day IL, Higashioka has put on an absolute laser show for the Pinstripe Faithful. In his last 6 games, he’s eaten 8-ribeye steaks, complimented by 3 longballs and a .292 batting average.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone has expressed that he wants to ease Gary Sanchez back in, and DH him in Monday’s doubleheader against the Orioles. That could bode well for both players for obvious reasons.
The Yankees could go a number of ways in an attempt to carry 3 catchers while Gary finds his stride. They could DFA Cameron Maybin. If 2nd baseman Gleyber Torres is more hurt than let on, they could always switch him out on the IL with Sanchez. Mike Ford could also be sent down.
But, tomorrow the waiting will be over and we’ll find out the Yankees corresponding move.
UPDATE: With the activation of Gary Sanchez, Higashioka has been optioned to the minor leagues and this is, in fact, his final option. However, it should be noted that Austin Romine is in his walk year and they expect Higashioka to be the backup catcher longterm after this season.
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(Photo credit: SNY)