Weekly Mailbag: A Trade Proposal, Higgy Pop, and Expanded Playoffs!
By Andy Singer
Photo Courtesy of Julio Cortez, AP
Wow, this Friday sure feels different than last Friday! We went from talking about a team that had seen its offense basically disappear to talking about an offense that has set Yankee franchise records over the last few days. Not only did they become the first Yankee team to hit 5 home runs in a single inning, but they also managed to club 19 home runs in just a 3-game series versus the Jays, shattering their own record of 16. The starting pitching has been excellent over the last two weeks, even if people are only just noticing, but this team’s true strength is its deep lineup when everyone is healthy and clicking at the plate. I have to say, it’s been impressive and fun to watch.
Frankly, I was not as worried about this team as others. The Yankees, even despite their struggles from late August through early September, are built beautifully, so I was confident that the law of averages would eventually right the ship. It’s good to see the Yankees play like they did at the start of the season.
On to today’s mailbag. As always, send in your questions to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. I’ll answer the best 3-5 each week, so keep ‘em coming. This week, we’ll talk about a trade proposal, Kyle Higashioka, and the expanded playoffs proposal! Let’s get at it:
Keith asks: Trade Gary Sanchez and J.A Happ to Colorado for Jon Gray, Raimel Tapia and Tony Wolters?
This was one of the earliest questions to the mailbag for this week, and I’ve had a lot of time to chew on it. Obviously, the prize here would be Jon Gray, though there is logic to each player’s inclusion in this deal. Sanchez has underperformed relative to expectations, as has Happ until his recent tear. Likewise, Gray is an immensely talented pitcher who hasn’t been able to put it all together for long stretches; Tapia is a fast, contact-oriented outfielder; and Wolters is the quintessential defense-first catcher.
I know that there are a lot of people who are itching to jettison Sanchez as fast as they possibly can, but I would never make this deal. Sanchez has two years of team control remaining, while Gray has just one, just for starters. People across baseball dream about what Gray could do outside of Coors Field, but the underlying numbers suggest that Gray’s struggles really aren’t related to the Coors Field bandbox. Even in his solid 2019 season, Gray got hit hard and often. Gray carried a 43.8% Hard Hit Rate against in 2019, and hitters have typically averaged exit velocities of nearly 90 MPH since 2018. Despite the fact that Gray carried a seemingly sterling 3.84 ERA in 2019, his xERA was 4.76. Gray has always struggled to control his walks, but his carrying tool as a pitcher is supposed to be his stuff. One would expect this to show up in the form of strike outs, but Gray has typically struck out hitters at a merely above-average, as opposed to exceptional, rate. This year, Gray’s ability to strike batters out has cratered, striking out just 12.6% of batters faced. Gray has also seen his velocity dip from previous levels. So…one year of team control for a serious reclamation project? No thanks.
Tapia is another guy whose reputation is better than the actual results. Despite his speed, Tapia really isn’t a good outfielder (despite the love Statcast is giving him this year, we have multiple years of data showing he isn’t great out there, and the eye test doesn’t really show that anything has changed on that front), and his offensive profile is dependent upon contact, as he doesn’t walk much or hit for power. On the Yankees, he’s an extra outfielder.
Wolters is a great defensive catcher, and there’s nothing I could say to diminish that. However, he really can’t hit despite last season’s marginal success. I’m not sure he’d even make the Yankees as a backup catcher over the current crop of guys, though his defense is a real asset.
Lost in all of this is the fact that despite Sanchez’s struggles this season, every metric we have says that he has been at least an above-average catcher in total value since his first big league call-up in 2016. Is it disappointing that Sanchez is not a perennial Top-3 catcher with his talent? Yes, it is. However, even his production relative to talent makes him more valuable than the collection of Rockies in this list.
I know that I’ve been Sanchez’s staunchest defender on this site, and I’m sure people get sick of me saying that Sanchez is going to turn it around. I think he will always be a streaky hitter, and the Yankees need to work with him to understand what changed with his approach after 2017, when he became an all-or-nothing hitter at the plate. I also think the Yankees need to identify a viable 2nd catcher with whom they are comfortable taking 250+ ABs per year to take some of the load off of Sanchez and hedge their bets if Sanchez goes on a cold streak like he has in 2020. However, Sanchez still has two years of team control, and if he puts it all together, he is better than anything the Yankees can acquire. And yes, that includes signing Realmuto as a Free Agent, who will soon be entering his decline phase with bad hips…yeah, I’m not interested in that.
Sanchez-ranting aside, I would not make this trade. I think even someone with a cool perspective on Sanchez would turn this one down based on the return. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Gray is a post-Coors breakout candidate.
Mike asks: Kyle Higashioka plays good defense and seems to have some power at the plate. Can he be a 1-B catcher with Sanchez or someone else as 1-A?
The first two questions in today’s mailbag really play off of one another beautifully, so thanks guys! For the record, I will now forever refer to Higashioka as “Higgy Pop” after his 3 homer game the other night. How I never thought of that one, I don’t know, but I’m glad the Yankee broadcast team said it on YES. That was almost as much fun for me watching at home as it seemed to be for Higgy, who could hardly contain his smile as he rounded the bases the 2nd and 3rd time. With the 3 homer game, Higgy’s OPS stands at .833, which sounds great until we realize that he has just 36 plate appearances this season. So, who is Higashioka, really?
I dug a lot deeper into Higashioka in December 2019, so I recommend checking out that article to place what I’m about to say in context. In case you don’t go back and read that, I’ll summarize my primary points: Higashioka has a reputation for being a good defensive catcher, with good pitch framing, an ability to work with his pitching staffs as a tri-lingual catcher, and an acceptable arm (though diminished following Tommy John Surgery in 2014); he showed power throughout his minor league career, with a .253 ISO; his plate discipline was lacking; and he has been banged up with great frequency. Despite the injuries and potential negative plate value if the plate discipline robs Higashioka’s ability to tap into his plus power, I thought Higgy could be a valuable big league catcher on defense alone.
2020 has been strange, and unfortunately I’m not sure we’ve learned anything more about Higgy Pop. Well, other than the fact that we confirmed that he does have plus raw power. Higgy was banged up for much of the shortened regular season, right when Sanchez struggled the most. Surely Higashioka would have played more in Sanchez’s stead had he been available.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the Yankees can count on Higgy to be a 1-B catcher, or even a consistent backup due to his consistent injury issues. Higgy’s issues with injuries have been largely structural and date back to 2014, so I think that it’s fair to label him with the dreaded “injury prone” label. Until proven otherwise, that’s the label. I still think Higashioka is talented enough to be 1-B or a second-division regular, and I actually prefer him to Austin Romine, but I just don’t think he’ll be available enough to make it work.
The Yankees have some soul searching to do this off-season on the catcher position. I do think that the Yankees need to identify someone who can reliably catch 60-90 games per season next to Sanchez, and if Higgy’s not the answer, then they will need to go outside of the organization to do it in all likelihood.
Jake asks: Thoughts on expanded playoffs?
I hate it. 100%. I’m usually not this definitive about anything, but I can’t think of a proposal in baseball I hate more. For those of you that subscribe to The Athletic, check out what Keith Law had to say about it yesterday. He articulated my thoughts better than I can.
I can’t stand the idea that MLB would be willing to cheapen the regular season in this fashion. It’s what differentiates baseball from everything else. Baseball’s regular season is a grind, and team’s that succeed over that length of time should be rewarded. It’s the x-factor missing from baseball in 2020, and I hope it returns in 2021. Expanded playoffs would destroy that.
Keep the great questions coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. Thanks, and see you all next week!