Projecting Kyle Higashioka in 2020
One of the most divisive topics on Yankee blogs over the last 4+ years has been the backup catcher position. Austin Romine handled the job on a full-time basis beginning in 2016, and let’s just say that opinions of him are mixed. Some Yankee observers have thought that Romine was one of the better backup catchers in baseball, possibly even capable of playing more as a second-division regular. Others though have derided Romine’s play behind the plate, and lament the amount of playing time the Yankees were willing to give him behind the plate, particularly in 2017. As many of you are well aware, I fell into the latter category, although I acknowledge that Romine’s offensive performance improved significantly enough in 2018 and 2019 to make him a solid backup catcher. The truth about Romine is somewhere in the middle: I think that he was a passable, albeit replaceable backup catcher in 2016 and 2017, and a solid complementary catcher in 2018 and 2019 who was forced to play to much due to injuries to Gary Sanchez.
Now that Austin Romine has signed with Detroit, it is likely that longtime prospect, Kyle Higashioka, will get the first crack at replacing Romine behind the plate. Backup catcher is an important position for the Yankees, as Gary Sanchez has missed significant chunks of time in each of the last two seasons, which means the backup catcher will likely get 250 or so plate appearances in 2020. Higashioka is something of an enigma due to his limited exposure to the Major League level the last two seasons. I think it’s time for us to take a crack at projecting who he could be in 2020.
Obviously, we do not have reliable defensive metrics for Higashioka’s 12 years of play in the Yankees’ system. Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) provides framing data for minor league catchers, but that is merely one piece of the puzzle. Pop times, arm strength, framing, game calling, blocking, and pitcher interactions are just some of the factors that all play into catching a professional game. While we don’t have much data for Higashioka’s minor league performance, we do know what his reputation has been. Higashioka has always been considered a strong defensive catcher, earning high marks for his pitch framing, game management, and above-average pop times.
While the 2019 MLB sample size is minuscule, HIgashioka compares favorably to both Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine. Let’s start with pitch framing, according to Baseball Savant:
Kyle Higashioka Framing, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
Again, we are talking about a criminally small sample size here, but HIgashioka was a significantly better pitch framer than either Romine or Sanchez in 2019, particularly with regards to getting the low strike called. This matches Higashioka’s scouting reports, which have always noted his abilities as a receiver. Pitch framing can be a volatile skill, as we saw with Gary Sanchez in 2019, but I expect Higashioka to be better than average, particularly given the fact that the scouting report matches even small sample size statistics.
One thing that Higashioka is not known for is possessing a cannon for an arm, particularly after Tommy John Surgery in 2014. However, the limited statistics we have for his 2019 MLB performance are relatively possible. Check it out, per Baseball Savant:
Kyle Higashioka’s 2019 Pop Times, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
Obviously, we’re talking about a sample size of 7 throws, but those throws do give us an idea of what we can expect from Higashioka, given that velocity and pop times stabilize relatively quickly. Higashioka’s velocity is middling, as expected, but it does compare favorably to Austin Romine. Higashioka makes a quick exchange, and posted well above-average pop times in 2019. In fact, based on the metrics we have, I think it is possible that Higashioka is at least as good as Romine, if not better, as a receiver and thrower.
The other place that Romine received top marks was with his ability to relate to the pitching staff. Higashioka also gets rave reviews in that arena as well. I highly recommend Bronx Pinstripes’ article about Kyle Higashioka’s journey, but of note is the fact that Kyle Higashioka is tri-lingual, speaking English, Spanish, and Japanese. In addition to the fact that the Yankees love Higashioka’s makeup, his ability to communicate one-on-one with every pitcher on the Yankee roster is a huge plus.
Overall, I think that Higashioka can be expected to produce above-average results defensively behind the plate.
Obviously, Higashioka has yet to produce offensively at the big league level. While Higashioka has shown some pop, the overall numbers are ugly: .164/.212/.336 in 146 ABs since 2017. However, Higashioka’s minor league numbers since 2016 provide some hope. I compiled some of his statistics from 2016-2019. Here’s what I found:
Kyle Higashioka Minor League Stats 2016-2019 (Click to Enlarge)
A couple of notes here. Higashioka has some definite pop, posting a .253 ISO, and he made decent contact in the minors, hitting .266. However, his plate discipline does leave something to be desired, as Higashioka posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly 3:1. Given that fact, Higashioka may have trouble consistently tapping into his power at the Major League level, but with enough playing time, it is possible that he could live up to his above-average minor league performance at the plate.
One other note that must be mentioned: HIgashioka has not played a ton of baseball the last few years. Yes, he has split time with other catchers since 2016, but he also has a tendency to get banged up. Obviously, the Yankees will not be asking him to play a ton, so this may be a moot point, but it does bear mentioning.
All-in-all, I think that we can expect Higashioka to struggle some at the plate, but his minor league career points to enough upside that Higashioka may be able to outperform expectations.
Kyle Higashioka is getting his first crack at a regular MLB roster spot at 30 years old. While that is not common, I think that HIgashioka will be able to handle it. If everything breaks right, I think that Higashioka can be even better than Romine was during his years in pinstripes, and even if Higashioka’s offense never quite comes around, I think that he is good enough defensively to be an asset behind the plate. And if Higashioka gets hurt or flounders at the plate? The Yankees did sign Eric Kratz to a minor league deal…so there’s always that!
My bold prediction: Higashioka cements himself as the backup catcher in 2020, and we all stop arguing about Austin Romine.