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Has Kyle Higashioka Earned the 2021 Starting Job?

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The Yankees season has ended in thrilling yet disappointing fashion for the Evil Empire. Many players such as Gleyber Torres, Brett Gardner and Adam Ottavino had disappointing 2020 seasons for the Bronx Bombers, but it’s catcher Gary Sanchez who struggled the most.

Despite an absolute cannon for an arm that rivals Cubs’ Willson Contreras for best backstop arm in baseball, that’s where the celebration of his glove ends and the defensive woes begin. He is one of the league’s worst pitch framers, he is not a good pitch caller and the amount of passed balls allowed is alarming. Yet, this isn’t anything new for the Sanchize. In fact, he worked with Tanner Swanson in an attempt to improve his defense. In some facets, he has improved and in other areas he’s somehow regressed more. He’s turned more low pitches into strikes this season, although that isn’t saying much with how many strikes he normally costs the Yankees low in the zone. He had five passed balls in 321 innings caught in 2020. For comparison, in 2019 he caught 742 innings and had seven. Anything from a pitcher without command takes a trip to the backstop. While it was a struggle prior to this (52 passed balls since 2016) it seemingly got worse and the pitchers threw 19 wild pitches to Gary Sanchez this season. Gary, while working with Swanson, developed a new squat behind the plate: sitting on his leg. This has allowed Sanchez to steal more strikes and improve his pitch framing, but the more important aspect in plate blocking has gone even further to the wayside as anything to the right side of Sanchez is an automatic struggle because his right knee is virtually in the dirt. This also allows more baserunners to steal off of him due to the fact he can’t quickly pop up behind the dish to throw them out. He allowed 14 runners to steal on him in 2020 of the 19 who attempted. The 73% success rate of baserunners raised his career percentage up to 67%. The idea of his new squat is to push forward into his throw, instead of jumping up from his knees, saving his health as he’s had a number of knee issues over the years.

His offensive side of the game was all around terrible. His 17% barrrell percentage in 2020 was up there with former NL MVP Bryce Harper, Rays’ second baseman Brandon Lowe and Oakland’s third base superstar Matt Chapman. However, his BABIP was only .159, and combining that with a 36% K rate leads to an awful measurement. There’s a few takeaways you could like for Gary Sanchez analytically, such as his O-Swing% was the lowest of his career. He swung at the lowest percentage of pitches outside of the strikezone than he ever has. The issue is the teams threw him more pitches in the strikezone and he didn’t hit them nearly as hard as we’re used to from Sanchez, when he did connect. His OPS+ was 69 (nice). 100 is league average. He had a negative WAR. Fascinatingly enough, 2020 had the highest pull percentage of his career at 57.6%.

The statistics you’d find for Sanchez on the back of a baseball card you’d get when you buy your gum are also awful. While he hit 10 homeruns in only 156 ABs, he only had 23 hits total. 43% of Gary Sanchez’s hits were the longball, really showing that he’s homerun or bust. He only had 18 walks. His .618 OPS was 13th worst among qualified Major League players, derived from a statline of .147/.253/.365. He did only post a 26% K%, 10 percentage points lower than his career averages, which is a promising sign for the 2x All-Star.

Clearly, his defense wasn’t great and his offense was somehow worse. The Yankees other option? Kyle Higashioka, who quickly became friends with new ace in town Gerrit Cole. He’s become Cole’s personal catcher over Gary Sanchez, in similar vein as when Eddie Perez would start over Javy Lopez for the Braves whenever Greg Maddux was on the bump. Higashioka put on a defensive clinic in the postseason, with some of the most amazing plays you’ll ever see from a big league catcher.

Higashioka made those plays the entire series, effectively saving those runs, which doesn’t show up in a boxscore. That’s what you’ll get from him: excellent athletic ability, potent framing, decent enough pitch calling and a guy who knows what works best for his staff. The article I did on Higashioka in August of 2019 gives intriguing insight to how Higashioka works with his pitchers and why it’s so indispensable.

Higashioka didn’t play much in 2020. Higgy totaled just 16 games and 48 at bats in the shortened season. During this time, he drew zero walks and zero sacrifices so his average is the exact same as his OBP. He hit to a modest .250/.250/.521 slash for a .771 OPS (around .750 is league average) but didn’t have enough at bats to qualify. In only 48 at bats, however, he put up a 0.4 WAR per Fangraphs measurements and hit four homeruns, hitting homeruns at a far more efficient rate despite having six less total than Sanchez.

He pitched so well with Gerrit Cole in comparison to Sanchez that the Yankees started him in Game One against former American League Cy Young recipient Blake Snell. For comparison, in 2020 Cole pitched eight games to Sanchez to a 3.91 ERA, but pitched to an even 1.00 ERA with Higashioka in four regular season outings. In the game against Snell? He hit a homerun to tie the game at three a piece in the fifth inning, a game New York went onto win.

Overall, he played in five of the seven Yankee postseason games in 2020. In four of the five ALDS games, he hit a robust .308/.357/.538 for an .896 OPS. When he was lifted last night for a pinch hitter, the Yankees didn’t go to Sanchez, rather Mike Ford. Ford had not had a postseason at bat up to that point and had a .496 OPS in 2020.

Considering Gary Sanchez offensively was literally the last choice for the Yankees when it mattered most and Higashioka is far superior defensively, things may not be set in stone for the Sanchize heading into 2021 as the Yankees look to take back their AL East crown. Higashioka will likely get a lot of looks in Spring, perhaps even break camp this year as the number one catcher for the organization, even if Gary Sanchez is still with the Yankees. With how much stock the Yankees put into Gary Sanchez, it may be time to move on, but will they? Time will tell.

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