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Behind the mask: Kyle Higashioka

Kyle Higashioka knows his role by now. The 29-year-old has been the third-string catcher for some time now, and he is only going to be called up if there is an injury. He was a seventh-round draft pick, and his scouting report dubbed him as an above-average hitter but being more of a defensive catcher, possessing an excellent baseball mind. This included him having good situational awareness, being a good game caller, and being a great pitch framer. Pitchers have said they love throwing to him. He does the little things right.

However, Higashioka has had some hardships. He missed the entire 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He has also not been able to find success at the plate in the big leagues. His major-league career started with him going 0-for-22, which is the longest hitless streak to start a career by any Yankee ever. His first hit was not too bad: a home run of David Price and the Red Sox. He also homered for his next two hits, becoming the first player since 1920 to accomplish the feat.

This led to me calling him Kyle “Only Hits Homers” Higashioka. While Higashioka has a meager .143/.209/.267 slash line, he still wants to find ways to fine-tune his game and get better, whether or not there ever becomes a clear path for him to the majors.

A native of Huntington Beach, Calif., Higashioka’s father is a third-generation Japanese American. And while English is his native language, a couple of years ago he decided that he wanted to learn Japanese. The reason for the endeavor was twofold: not only would it allow him to get in touch with his roots, but it also would allow for him to more easily communicate with Japanese pitchers, namely Masahiro Tanaka.

Everyone knows how important it is for a catcher to be on the same page with the pitcher. It allows the pitcher to feel comfortable and get into a rhythm. Higashioka is able to visit the mound during a game and rattle off the names of all of Tanaka pitches in Japanese as well as different locations around the plate. Making an attempt to communicate in Japanese is apparently a sign of respect. Another is not taking the last piece of food on a plate, something else Higashioka has taken up to better get in touch with his culture.

But it doesn’t just stop with speaking Japanese – he also speaks Spanish, having taken it through high school. He can communicate with all of his Latin American pitchers and teammates and make them feel more comfortable. This all equates to Higashioka being a revered receiver and teammate in general.

He also is one who is going to keep his word. Early in his career, he promised his mother that he would eventually get a college degree. He’s been taking classes in mechanical engineering at Orange Coast College during the offseason.

We know that we won’t see Higashioka all that often, barring an injury (but with the way this season is going, who knows). We also know that he is going to keep working on his game and is willing to do whatever it takes to benefit the team.