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Who Should be the Yankees Primary Starting Catcher?

Who Should be the Yankees Primary Starting Catcher?

By Chris O’Connor

May 26, 2021

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While the Yankees appear to be done with Gary Sanchez as the undisputed, full-time starting catcher, the combined performance of Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka has been very solid. Those two have combined to catch every game through the first 47 games of the season. Thus far, from a team-wide standpoint, Yankees catchers rank tenth in fWAR, tenth in WRC+, 12th in slugging percentage, and third in both home runs and walk rate. With the plan appearing to be to mix and match Sanchez and Higgy based on rest, who is pitching, and matchups, I wanted to take a look at who should earn the bulk of the playing time behind the plate.

All stats are as of May 24.

Offense

Gary Sanchez has played in 32 games and has a slash line of .181/.312/.365 with 5 home runs for a WRC+ of 91. He is walking a career high 13.6% of the time and while his strikeout rate of 27.2% ranks in the bottom quarter percentile in the league, it is his lowest rate since 2018. Sanchez’s advanced statistics paint a much rosier picture than his raw output: his average exit velocity, hard hit rate, and barrel percentage are all solidly in the upper half of the league. The thing is, this has been the case for years with him. Just like how I believe that players like Gleyber Torres are capable of consistently outperforming their advanced statistics because of their raw skills as a hitter, I also believe that the inverse is true with streaky players like Gary Sanchez. ZIps projects a season ending WRC+ of 107, which seems a tad high to me for what are generally conservative projections. I would expect him to improve to around a league average WRC+ around 100, but not much more.

Kyle Higashioka has played in 23 games and has a slash line of .180/.296/.475 with 5 home runs for a WRC+ of 114. His walk and strikeout rates are startlingly similar to Sanchez at 14.1% and 26.8%, respectively. Higgy’s season, however, has a fairly clear split: in his first 11 games, he had a .320/.414/.880 slash line with four home runs and a strikeout rate of 17.6%. Over his last 12 games, he has slashed .083/.214/.194 with 1 home run and a strikeout rate of 33.3%. Like most things, his real hitting skills are clearly somewhere in between. Zips projects a WRC+ of 93, which is slightly below average. I believe that sounds about right.

Though Sanchez has an edge in advanced statistics that suggest that this is not all that close, he has also underperformed his advanced statistics for years and I do not expect that to change moving forward. While nobody doubts Gary Sanchez’s power, he has also hit .186 or worse in three of the last four seasons. I still give the slight edge to Sanchez from an offensive standpoint moving forward, but it is hard to be too confident in him when the pressure is on.

Defense

Defensively, this is not close and where Higgy really separates himself. In recent years, framing has become the priority for catchers rather than blocking and throwing out baserunners. Much of this is due to the fact that stolen base attempts have gone down significantly in recent years and the focus on pitchers has become strikeouts and limiting walks. While defensive metrics are imprecise, particularly this early in the season, both Higgy and Sanchez have long track records of consistent performance from a framing standpoint (in short: Higgy is a great framer over the course of his career while Sanchez is subpar). This season, among 39 catchers with at least 150 innings behind the plate, Higgy ranks third in Fangraphs’ framing score while Sanchez ranks 30th. According to Baseball Savant, Higgy ranks in the 98 percentile in framing score, sixth among 58 catchers. Sanchez ranks in the 33rd percentile in framing and 50th on that list. I only like using defensive metrics if they are in universal agreement, are consistent with track records, and match the eye test. With both catchers’ framing, it all adds up. This all makes perfect sense.

Gary Sanchez has improved his blocking: he and Higgy both have allowed only 1 passed ball, though Sanchez has allowed 17 wild pitches compared to just 8 for Higgy. Gary also does have a rocket for an arm, but he has not had the opportunity to showcase it as much due to the previously mentioned state of modern baseball; Sanchez has thrown out 1 base stealer in 10 attempts while Higgy has thrown out 3 in 13.

Add it all up and Higgy has four defensive runs saved while Sanchez has negative six, giving Higgy the clear advantage defensively over Sanchez.

Pitcher Performance

It is well known at this point that Higgy has become Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher. I wanted to look at how every starting pitcher has performed with each catcher:

Gerrit Cole with Higgy: 9 starts, 59.1 innings, 1.67 ERA, 84 strikeouts, 12.74 k/9

Gerrit Cole with Sanchez: Just one start, Opening Day loss against the Blue Jays: 5.1 innings, 2 earned runs, 8 strikeouts, 3.38 ERA, 13.51 k/9

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Corey Kluber with Higgy: 6 starts, 39.1 innings, 2.29 ERA, 40 strikeouts, 9.15 k/9

Corey Kluber with Sanchez: 3 starts, 11 innings, 4.91 ERA, 10 strikeouts 8.18 k/9

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Jamseon Taillon with Higgy: 0 starts together

Jameson Taillon with Sanchez: 9 starts, 42.2 innings, 5.06 ERA, 50 strikeouts, 10.55 k/9

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Domingo German with Higgy: 3 starts, 18 innings, 2.50 ERA, 18 strikeouts, 9.0 k/9

Domingo German with Sanchez: 5 starts, 26.1 innings, 3.42 ERA, 24 strikeouts, 8.20 k/9

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Jordan Montgomery with Higgy: 0 starts together, 2 innings, 0.00 ERA, 1 strikeout, 4.50 k/9

Jordan Montgomery with Sanchez: 9 starts, 46.2 innings, 4.24 ERA, 51 strikeouts, 9.84 k/9

Conclusion

None of this is too surprising; it is well known that Sanchez has been underperforming his immense offensive talent for years and his defense has long been subpar. The question is: does Sanchez’s offensive advantage compensate for his defensive shortcomings?

Ultimately, while Higgy’s offense has cooled off considerably since his blistering start, his decisive advantage defensively overcomes Sanchez’s slight offensive edge. It is clear in the list above that Kluber and German have performed better with Higgy and it appears that the top-of-the-rotation guys are being paired with Higgy as a preview of what the catching rotation could look like in the playoffs.

I think that there are a few reasons that the Yankees have yet to give the full time catching position to Higgy. For one, they do not want to risk losing Sanchez’s investment in the team if he is benched seeing as how he has a history of being moody. Though we have not seen it in some time, Sanchez has also had some torrid hot streaks in his past that the Yankees might be hoping to reignite. Finally, Cashman and the Yankees have an emotional attachment to Sanchez having signed him when he was just 16 years old in 2009. Unlike Higgy, Sanchez has the potential to provide good production from the DH position. Sanchez can still find plenty of playing time there when injuries inevitably strike and guys get their scheduled days off, not to mention when Higgy needs a break from such a physically demanding position.

At the moment, Sanchez has caught 244.2 innings behind the plate compared to 176 for Higgy. That needs to change moving forward.

#GarySanchez #KyleHigashioka

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