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How good is Kyle Higashioka?

Are you an avid defender of Gary Sánchez? Are you an avid hater of Gary Sánchez? Then this is the article for you.

Kyle Higashioka is the other part of the Yankees’ catching tandem, and while Sánchez has been widely considered one of the most controversial topics in Yankee circles, the same can be said about Higashioka. He’s either a terrible baseball player who can’t hit and doesn’t hold a candle to Sánchez, or he’s a pitching whisperer who makes everyone pitch better. Very rarely do you see any middle ground here. You can’t credit Higashioka without bringing down Sánchez, and you can’t credit Sánchez without bringing down Higashioka.

Is Higashioka no more than just a good backup? Is he actually a pitcher whisperer? Well, as with most things, the answer isn’t one of these two extremes.

What Does Kyle Higashioka Bring to the Table?

The Higster, who debuted in 2017, is well known for his defensive prowess. According to every defensive metric in the book, Higashioka is elite defensively. There’s really no overrating defense as good as his. With a career 16.5 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) and 18.5 CDA (Catching Defensive Adjustment) in just 968.1 innings behind the dish, he produces like one of baseball’s premier catchers defensively. This season alone he ranks extremely well in all defensive metrics:

CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average): 5th
FRAA: 9th
CDA: 9th

This is out of 112 catchers in the sport, and in spite of the fact that FRAA and CDA are volume metrics, so Higashioka is hurt by the fact that he’s a backup on the Yankees. I bet this might be pointless to many, though, as we know his defense is his best trait.

What about the offense?

Higashioka this year has a mere 78 wRC+, significantly worse than Sánchez’s 106 wRC+. Projections also favor Sánchez, with Sánchez having a projected 107 wRC+ according to Steamer, and Higashioka a mere 90 wRC+. To people who adore Sánchez, this is enough to end the debate. Higashioka may barrel the ball a lot and have a similar xwOBA at .344 to Sánchez, but it doesn’t matter since Higashioka has never been a good hitter and will never be able to hit better than Gary…

What if I told you that Higashioka’s not only going to get better offensively but that he could get worse offensively and still be better than Sánchez?

Kyle Higashioka VS Gary Sánchez: The Final Verdict

Sánchez has a 2.1 bWARP (Baseball Prospectus WAR) this season. Higashioka has a 1.2 bWARP, so Gary is better. Article over.

Except, Sánchez has a much greater total of Plate Appearances. Let’s adjust for per 650 Plate Appearances. Per 650, Sánchez has a 3.3 bWARP, pretty darn solid. Higashioka though? He has a whopping 4.0 bWARP per 650. That’s interesting, but maybe this is just an outlier year. Higashioka has a 60 wRC+ after May, there’s no way a 60 wRC+ hitter is better than Sánchez.

No chance…unless…

Let’s look at Higashioka’s career stats and compare then to Sánchez. Why? Well in 2021, Sánchez has nearly as many PAs as Higashioka does in his career, so we can get an accurate representation of who truly is better. Higashioka has a career 2.6 bWARP in 401 PAs, while Sánchez has a 2.1 bWARP this year in 419 PAs. This is despite the fact that Higashioka has a career 66 wRC+ and is only getting better offensively.

If Higashioka at a 66 wRC+ is better than Sánchez at a 106 wRC+, then does that mean Sánchez just sucks? No, he’s a valuable member of the organization and of the roster. A 3.3 WAR/650 is solid and considering he’s paid around $6 million, the Yankees are getting good value. Higashioka being better shouldn’t be a knock on Gary, but as an exciting future for Higashioka.

Kyle Higashioka’s Ceiling

It’s hard to measure an accurate ceiling for a guy like Higashioka who has had a small sample size offensively, but I do believe his ability to barrel the ball should create a league-average offensive catcher (85-90 wRC+). With his stellar defense, he should insert himself into top 10 catcher talks if he gets 400 PAs. In fact, on a per-rate basis, Steamer believes Higashioka would be a top 9 catcher in the sport. The defensive talent is all-worldly, and with an 85-90 wRC+, Higgy could make himself one of the most underrated players in the sport. I wonder if he gets the starting nod next year or if he’s used in a platoon with a left-handed catcher so that his prowess vs LHP can be properly utilized.

He’s more valuable than Gary Sánchez at this point behind the dish, but I still love Gary. He’s had his moments and is certainly a valuable offensive piece, but as a catcher, Higgy is just the better player, and he might be a top 15 catcher already.