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Can Kyle Higashioka handle the Yankees backup catcher duties?

Yesterday another Yankees free agent signed elsewhere. Austin Romine signed with the Tigers on a one-year deal to presumably be their starting catcher.

Romine was a solid backup catcher for the Yankees over eight seasons, especially the last two when he posted a 95 OPS+ over 505 plate appearances. In that time Romine gained some diehard fans – I called them Austin Romine Truthers (or Austin Rominites). These were the people that wanted him to start over Gary Sanchez because, when Sanchez was on the IL, Romine filled in admirably. But this blog is not about Sanchez vs Romine, because A) I’ve argued that enough, and B) I think it’s a ridiculous argument.

The backup role

There have been rumors the Yankees are interested in signing Martin Maldonado, but I wrote yesterday that I don’t see that happening despite his personal catcher relationship with Gerrit Cole.

Assuming the Yankees don’t sign Maldonado or another catcher to be Sanchez’ backup, that means Higashioka is the man. In my offseason GM plans I resigned Romine because I didn’t think another team would pay him to be their starter, but I don’t blame Romine for signing with Detroit even if the Yankees were offering the same money to be their backup (there are no reports of this, I’m just spit balling). I wanted to resign Romine because, while I don’t think he should ever start over Gary, I do recognize his value as a backup.

My favorite backup catcher the Yankees had in my lifetime was Jose Molina. He couldn’t hit a lick (56 OPS+ in 3 seasons with the Yanks). He was my favorite though because of the work he did behind the plate – like his brothers, he was an awesome defensive catcher with a cannon who worked well with pitchers. That is responsibility numbers 1-9 of being a backup, with offense being #11 just behind cracking some jokes on cross-country flights. Any offense you get from a backup is gravy, so whether Higgy slugs or sucks, I don’t care as long as he handles the staff. (Ironically Molina was Burnett’s personal catcher, and I hate personal catchers… but I blame Burnett not Molina for that).

We’ve seen that we cannot rely on Gary to be healthy for 6 months. He’s spent significant time on the IL for one reason or another the past two seasons, and even in 2017 – his best season when he played 122 games and received MVP votes – he missed a month with a biceps strain. I’m at the point where I’m building in a month of IL time for Sanchez, which means their backup will have to play about 50 games. Romine started 68 and 62 games respectively each of the past two seasons. So, can we count on Higgy for 50-ish games?

Can Higgy handle it?

Offensively, it’s difficult to take anything away from his sporadic 156 major league plate appearances. As Curry said, he does have some power. (My favorite nugget about Higgy is that his first three career hits were all home runs.)

He has shown he can hit a little in Triple-A; last season he slugged 20 homers and posted a 129 wRC+ with the RailRiders. His walk rate was low (~9%) and strikeout rate OK (~20%), but both were improvements from 2018. I haven’t loved watching his big league at bats. Frankly, he’s been over matched, striking out 31% of the time. He projects to be an all-or-nothing kind of hitter. That’s fine if he’s playing once a week, but as I said earlier, the Yankees might have to rely on him for more than that.

Defense is still the most important factor even if he needs to play more than your average backup. Catcher defense goes way beyond passed balls and wild pitches (but don’t tell any of the Sanchez haters that). Framing actually weighs more heavily in defensive value than PB and WP do. That’s why Gary’s defensive WAR was actually lower in 2019 than 2017-18, despite improving his blocking dramatically. He sacrificed framing to improve blocking, and honestly I’m not sure the Yankees were thrilled about that.

According to Curry, Yankees execs love Higgy’s framing. That’s very good news for his likelihood of being the backup catcher. Catcher framing is the art of a catcher receiving a pitch in a way that makes it more likely for an umpire to call it a strike. The past two years Higgy has not played enough to even show up on the Baseball Savant Yankees catcher framing list, so I’m gonna have to take the Yankees exec’s word for it that Higgy can frame.

Update: After posting this blog someone sent me the Baseball Savant data on Higgy, and he ranks very highly for strike rate. In the sample we have of him, he’s been very good at framing.

How about passed balls? In 377 MLB innings he’s allowed 3 PB (0.008 per inning) and in 4,675 MiLB innings he’s allowed 51 (0.011 per inning). Don’t be alarmed that his minor league rate is higher than major league. Pitchers are much less polished in the minors and the stadium backdrops might be inconsistent. It’s pretty encouraging that he’s only allowed 3 in the majors, because when he’s had to catch its with pitchers he is not used to.

Higgy has gunned down 17% of base stealers (league average is 28%). The sample isn’t huge, but what’s alarming is the frequency with which teams ran on Higgy. They were clearly testing him. There was an attempt every 10 innings, compared to one attempt every 13.1 innings with Romine and every 14.5 innings with Sanchez. Those numbers make sense – again, Higgy threw out 17%, Romine 23%, and Sanchez 33%. Frankly I was surprised when teams ran on Gary, but not when they ran on Romine and won’t be when they run on Higgy unless he can prove he’s better than 17%.

The last, even less quantifiable factor, is if Higgy works well with pitchers. I couldn’t find any quotes from Yankees pitchers about Higgy in the 3-minutes I spent Googling, so like the framing, I’ll trust Yankees management on this.

What does this all add up to? I’m not convinced Higgy will be a good backup catcher, but I think he’ll have the chance to prove me wrong. I hope he does, I just can’t wait to challenge the Kyle Higgsters during his first 7-for-20 streak.