Should the Yanks Trade for a Catcher?
By Cary Greene
June 11, 2022
Yankee fans will undoubtedly be bombarded with trade related “click-bait” in the next month and a half, as the July 31st Major League Trade Deadline approaches. Articles will be written about this player and that player and most of the various pieces won’t even properly dissect whether or not a trade for the player is even remotely possible, they’ll also mostly fail to weigh the advantages and disadvantages. Yankee fans are basically in for a month and half of blogging about any and all players who writers think the Yankees should at least look at.
From studying the market and from reading both blogs and various media articles, it’s clear that various players are out there who have captured many writer’s interest. Much of the interest was precipitated by the mere presence of Gary Sanchez, the human lighting-rod, toiling away in pinstripes for the Yankees over the past several seasons. The fact was - and still is - that Sanchez is vastly overpaid for the production he accounts for. Media sources are trying to paint some sort of delusional picture that he’s doing great in Minnesota, but the fact is that the Twins are quite hesitant to use him regularly behind the plate, and offensively he’s not performing up to his $9,000,000 contract. The Yankees were lucky to unload him to be honest.
Gary strikes out way too much, even still. He has very poor recognition of the strike zone and he can’t seem to draw walks consistently. He’s also a poor baserunner, and defensively, big red flags go up when you look at his overall abilities. Sanchez has always had a strong throwing arm (85.7 this season) and his slightly above average Transfer-Rate (.72 seconds) have helped him remain still able to throw out runners but he’s actually still below average at negating an opponent's running game.
There’s not much else to like though. He’s marginally below average at handling pitching staffs (rCERA -1 already this season in limited catching duty), his pitch framing is “meh,” as in - replacement level and if we factor in his lack of bang-for-the-buck on offense, it’s actually been a godsend that the Twins were willing to take him this season. Sanchez has a median trade value of -$200,000 this year, in his big “walk-year.” Based on all of this, there is zero chance the Yankees would ever want him back - so I wanted to squash that to start.
The point of this article is to advise readers here at SSTN that they shouldn’t fall for “upgrade the catching” articles because, when you really look at the Yankees catching situation in detail, I’m not sure it would be possible to upgrade the catching without negatively impacting the pitching staff’s overall performance. With regard to the catching-department, Brian Cashman has done an outstanding job of positioning the Yankees in 2022. Might there be a need to upgrade the backup catching situation? Possibly, yes. More on that in a minute.
I’ve studied the entire catching market and I’ve also looked deeply into all the advanced metrics and I’m here to tell you, the Yankees have struck gold with Jose Trevino as the primary catcher. If you’ve wondered, who is this guy and where the heck did he come from? - you’re not alone! Few Yankees fans probably realize that back in April Brian Cashman very quietly fleeced the Rangers, trading Albert Abreu for Trevino. Trevino will earn a mere $720,000 this season and the Yankees have three-more-years of team control beyond this season as he’s classified as a “pre-arbitration-eligible” player for this season. Why do Yankee fans like Trevino so much?
Well, for starters, Trevino passes the eyeball test in almost every regard. He has an OPS of .794 this season. Considering Gary Sanchez has a .717 OPS, Trevino, who only strikes out 13.5% of the time and is an excellent base runner who also avoids hitting into double-plays to boot, is a massive offensive upgrade over “Mr. Strikeout”, er, I meant - Mr. Sanchez (28.2% K-Rate this season, seriously??).
When what else Trevino brings to the table is considered, Yankee fans' eyeballs ought to be popping out of their heads and landing in their yoo-hoo’s and their jaws should be falling open and rapping table-tops as he saves runs and routinely turns pitches well off the plate into strikes. Trevino is a defensive stalwart in every regard. He’s a tick slow to second base and admittedly, he has a weak throwing arm but he’s smart and on the same page with the pitcher - it all results in him being decidedly average at stifling other team’s running games.
Trevino saves runs like a champ (+6 DRS already this year, some catchers play their entire careers and never approach a DRS like that) and his pitch framing is nothing sort of Roswell-Incident “other-worldly.” I’m actually wondering, is Trevino from the planet Krypton (and if so, does he have any friends who also play baseball?)
With the fact that Trevino is an absolute stud of a catcher, let’s get to the other question... Are the Yankees also set at backup catcher or should they look to make a move at the deadline for somebody who might represent an upgrade?
The answer to this question involves understanding which catchers are out there and also requires Yankee fans to realize what they already have in house. There is often a gap between where a veteran player “presently” is in the early part of a season and where he is “expected” to eventually be. Such is the case with Kyle Higashioka so far this season.
The Yankee farm system has been soundly pillaged by Brian Cashman in the past several seasons and it’s not what it once was in terms of tradable assets. Should the Yankees push to upgrade the backup catcher or can they live with what they have and find ways to make it work?
Well, as we know, Ben Rortvedt is now on a rehab assignment. It will be at least a month until he’s potentially ready for a call up. Let’s open the “who should be the backup to Jose Trevino” conversation by acknowledging that so far this season, Kyle Higashioka is a 0.0 WAR player. He’s tied with the aforementioned fellow Yankee Ben Rotvedt in this department, but Rotvedt hasn’t played a single game for the Yankees yet and Higgy meanwhile has already played in 32 games so far. Suffice it to say, Higgy is off to a horrendous start offensively speaking.
At this point, the thought of replacing him has to have at least crossed Brian Cashman’s mind while he’s buttering up his flapjacks and getting ready to apply the Chokecherry Syrup. (If you’ve never had real Chokecherry syrup, definitely give it a try because it adds a whole new meaning to the concept of a pancake).
When we look at what kind of offensive player Rortvedt is, the first thing that jumps out is that he strikes out a ton! Way too much in fact (29.6% last season). Higgy meanwhile is “only” striking out at a 21.5% rate this season, so the Yankees would appear to need to consider this first and foremost. Rortvedt has options and Higgy doesn’t, so if the Yankees wanted to bring Rortvedt up to replace Higgy, that would be it for “Mr. 66” as he’d have to be DFA’d.
Higgy has the higher ceiling currently (xwOBA of .334), but he’s playing well below expected levels (wOBA is .197). Higgy is by far a better baserunner than Rortvedt also, so “there’s-that” to consider also. More than likely, Higgy will improve as he goes along this way and he’ll start remotely resembling the so-so player that the back of his baseball card says he is. Rortvedt really needs more time in the minors to work on his plate discipline and his overall offensive game.
Defensively, Higgy does an okay job of framing pitches, as evidenced by his .8 Framing and his 45.3% Strike-Rate stats, which aren’t nearly as good as Trevino’s 4.2 / 52.3 numbers this season and also several notches below Rortved’s 2.3 / 49.8% numbers from 2021 with the Twins.
Our own Andy Singer pointed out earlier this season that Higgy wasn’t doing a great job handling Gerrit Cole and the numbers show that Andy identified that Higgy was a big drop off from Trevino. Beyond the handling of pitchers, which Higgy is actually well above average at handling, Higgy remains a bad offensive player who, as I noted, should improve as the season goes along.
I would contend that Rortvedt simply isn’t even close to being ready to be called up and barring an injury to Higgy, the Yankees should not look to cut Higgy simply in favor of Rortvedt. Several Yankees need more time to get their season’s going, Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks are two such players and I think we can add Higgy to the shortlist as well.
Should the Yankees look to upgrade from Higgy? Well, that depends on who might be available and when we evaluate a catcher, we sure had better know what we’re talking about. Let’s look at who’s out there next. First, the big picture snapshot should be considered. I included Gary Sanchez for a baseline frame of reference because Yankee fans should be intimately familiar with him. Catchers that the Yankees might have varying degrees of interest in inquiring about ahead of the Trade Deadline might be the Phillies Garrett Stubbs, Wilson Contreras of the Cubs, Tyler Stephenson of the Reds and Sean Murphy of the A’s.
● Clearly Wilson Contreras is a very good offensive player and he does keep his strikeouts at acceptable levels, though he’s a bit prone to hitting into double-plays, but with only a -0.7 wGDP, the Yankees could live with that I imagine. Contreras is somewhat affordable to trade for and the Cubs have long been interested in moving him so it’s a safe bet that he’d be available.
● Garrett Stubbs of the Phillies is a very interesting journeyman who hits from the left-side, but he’s playing out of his mind right now and will likely regress. The other question is, can Stubbs hit righties? With the Phillies season disintegrating before their eyes, Stubbs would be very easy to obtain for any interested team and he could be had for a lesser prospect to boot.
● Tyler Stephenson would be difficult to pry from the rebuilding Reds and he’d also be expensive, but he checks many of the boxes. His strikeout rate is a concern, and his pitch framing leaves a lot to be desired.
● Sean Murphy also strikes out at a high clip and he’s not good at all when it comes to handling a pitching staff - not to mention, trading for him would be absurdly expensive, as in - probably not realistic unless Yankee fans would like to offer Anthony Volpe.
Next, the splits need to be considered and as you can see, yes indeed, Stubbs and Contreras, who I’ve identified as each being very available, check the Splits boxes magnificently. Each would be a massive offensive upgrade from Higgy.
Lastly, before we rush to any conclusions, some pertinent advanced metrics should be evaluated. It turns out that the glow wears off Contreras quickly when we consider how bad he is in key areas. He bleeds DRS which is concerning and he also is bad at handling a pitching staff and bad at pitch framing. Meanwhile, Stubbs is significantly worse than Higgy but a lot more palatable than Contreras and, given he’s tons better offensively.
I think it might be worth it for the Yankees to put a full-court-press on the Phillies for Garrett Stubbs, but not before giving Kyle Higashioka every opportunity to get on track. Here’s why I like Stubbs more - Higgy has an xwOBA 55 points below that of Stubbs. “If” Higgy were playing at a level he should be playing at, I’d be on-the-fence regarding a trade but honestly, I’d probably still want to make the upgrade. That said, Higgy in reality is .253 points below Stubbs’s wOBA - that’s basically the distance between the earth and Mars. It’s significant. Yes, Stubbs will regress and yes, Higgy will improve, but if, or when, this all happens, it’s still a deal I’d absolutely do.
The Yankees have shown that they just might be a legit world series contender this season. The Bombers have to get past the Jays, the Astros, the Rays and probably the Red Sox. It sure would be nice to have a lefty catcher around who mashes righties, instead of Higashioka. Garrett Stubbs is the one player the Yankees might want to truly look at if it is determined that upgrading from Higgy is necessary.
Ben Rortvedt just isn’t “that guy” yet - he’s not. He could become so, but his strikeouts and lack of offense just don’t justify dumping Higgy at this point, especially considering that Higgy is likely to start playing better.