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Kyle Higashioka Will Be Just Fine as the Yankees Backup Catcher

Panic spread through the Bronx when Yankee backup catcher Austin Romine signed with the Detroit Tigers this offseason. Romine was signed for a one year, $4.15 million deal, and Yankee fans and critics were outraged. Headlines left and right criticized the Yankees for not even offering Romine a contract and many questions were raised: how could they disregard someone who has been part of their organization since 2007? For so cheap a price, why did the Yankees not retain one of the better backup catchers in all of baseball? Who will catch the forty to seventy odd games for the injury prone Gary Sanchez in 2020? Will they really rely on Kyle Higashioka?

Nostalgia surged; Yankee fans and critics were not ready to give up Romine. The former second round pick who was Designated for Assignment (DFA’d) as recently as 2015, and played a whopping 645 games in the minors before becoming their backup catcher in 2016, was a surprisingly beloved player. Romine was tough as nails and even fought former two-time MVP (and now his Tigers teammate) Miguel Cabrera in one of the most memorable Yankee brawls of the last decade. When Sanchez went down with injuries from 2016-19, Romine always picked up the slack; he caught 230 games in the last three years compared to Sanchez’s 317 games caught, a lot for a backup catcher considering they tend to catch about one fourth to one third of the primary catcher’s games played. Thus, it is no wonder why the Tigers trust him as their primary catcher in 2020. Romine even developed double digit hitting power in a backup role. In his last two years in pinstripes, he batted .295 and .314 with Runners in Scoring Position. To add salt to the wound of Yankees fans, Kyle Higashioka who owns a career .164 Batting Average in the majors, is taking his place.

Higashioka has some crucial red flags during his time in the majors. He does not walk a lot (5.8 BB%), strikes out way too often (30.8 K%), as well as being a vastly below average hitter (.548 career OPS and career 41 wRC+ as well as the .164 BA). For this reason, many articles were published about how the Yankees should be searching for a new backup catcher like defensive wizard Martin Maldonado (who eventually resigned with the Astros). It’s easy to see frustration from Yankee fans and critics that Higashioka is the current backup catcher in 2019, especially when General Manager Brian Cashman said that Higashioka is “ready to go” for the 2020 season, and feels “comfortable” with him as a backup (NY Post). However, there are underlying reasons and statistics that backup why the Yankees went with Higashioka. 

First of all, Higashioka has been in the Yankees organization since 2008 and has even played more games than Romine in the Minors (657 games). Since his MLB debut in 2017, Higashioka has already been called up for three extended periods of time and has run out of minor league options. As a result, if the Yankees wanted to stash Higashioka back in the minors, they would have to DFA him and risk another team claiming him through waivers. Secondly, the Yankees have never had to spend more than $2 million dollars for a backup catcher, so even though signing Romine to a $4.15 million deal does not seem to be a lot for the Yankees, it is a significant number in the case of a backup catcher. Furthermore, $4.15 million is actually significant to the Yankees right now. The Yankees current payroll stands at around $244 million, and if the Yankees go above $248 million they will be subject to harsh luxury tax penalties (42.5% tax rate on every dollar they spend over the $208 million budget). Thirdly and most importantly, the Yankees will test out Higashioka in 2020 because he has potential to be just as good, if not better than Austin Romine.

That might seem improbable, but Higashioka’s major league stats don’t reflect the amazing Triple-A season he had last year. In fact, Higashiok’s performance shows he is ready to catch at least forty games for the Yankees in 2020. Offensively, Higashioka tore up Triple-A. He had 20 HRs, a .278/.348/.581 slash line, .303 ISO, .385 wOBA, and 129 wRC+. Higashioka has also increased his walk rate and decreased his strikeout rate. Higashioka had an 8.9 BB% and 19.6 K%, which is slightly better than his 2018 Triple-A season (7.6 BB%, 20.3 K%), and a lot better than his career in the Majors (5.1 BB%, 30.8 K%). All of these measurements show that Higashioka has the makeup of an elite offensive catcher, contrary to the statistics so far in 56 MLB games over three seasons (a small sample size which doesn’t reflect his overall abilities), which he might surpass in 2020 alone. Conversely, Romine never had more than 13 HRs in a single minor league season. Higashioka has a legitimate shot to better Romine offensively in the near future.  

Defensively there should be little doubt that Higashioka is a superior receiver. In fact, baseball analysts even believe that Higashioka has lasted so long in the Yankees organization because of his elite framing skills. All of these statistics are defense measurements for catchers that show their framing ability (catching the ball efficiently so a strike is called, and thus being able to turn balls outside the strike zone into strikes). To have a whole framing run essentially means that a catcher is such an elite and consistent framer that he saved a whole run from scoring. Among seventy Triple-A catchers in 2019, Higashioka ranked first in Called Strikes Above Average (+0.021), second in Framing Runs (15.4), second in Fielding Runs Above Average (15.2), and second in Fielding Runs Above Average-Adjusted (15.1). While Romine is a respectable framer (career 4.7 FRM), he is not nearly the type of framer as Higashioka. In just 18 MLB games in 2019, Higashioka had an astounding 2.7 FRM compared to Romine’s -0.9 FRM in 70 games. Furthermore, Higashioka has the edge over Romine when controlling the running game. Out of 78 qualified catchers (with five chances to throw out a runner at second base), Higashioka had a 1.93 Pop Time, which was seventh best in the Majors in 2019. Romine, on the other hand, had a 2.06 Pop Time, which was sixty-fourth in the Majors. Higashioka’s pop time has a direct impact on his CS% as he threw out 25% of runners in Triple-A in 2019 (15/60). However, in the past Higashioka has thrown out 66.7% of runners as recently as his 2018 Triple-A campaign (32/48). Although Romine is also elite at controlling the running game as he had a 37.5 CS% in 2019 (6/16), he never had the type of peak Higashioka did when attempting to throw out runners. As a matter of fact, Romine’s best CS% either in the Minors or Majors goes back to his Single-A season in 2008 where he threw out 47.4% of the runners (18/38). As a result, Higashioka has more potential than Romine with his strong arm behind the dish.

Based on the statistics that backup Higashioka as a better all-around catcher than Romine, as well as the logical reasons to let Romine walk in free agency, the Yankees are making the right move to have Higashioka as their 2020 backup catcher. Although Romine’s career as a Yankee should be remembered fondly, Yankee fans should be excited to see Higashioka receive more playing time. Already Higashioka brings a level of intrigue and wonder to the pinstripes; his first major league hit was very memorable. When Higashioka debuted as a Yankee in 2017, he had no hits in his first twenty-one at bats and as a result was sent back down. He had to wait until the following year to get another crack at his first hit. After not having a hit in his first four at bats in 2018, Higashioka hit a home run. Amazingly, Higashioka’s next two hits were also home runs, thrilling baseball fans everywhere and declaring his potential on the big stage.

Besides hitting bombs at Yankee Stadium and the skills he will bring behind the plate, Higashioka is made for New York in other ways. He is an amazing guitarist (seriously, look up Kyle Higashioka guitar on Google and you will be blown away) and has drawn comparisons to Yankees legend Bernie Williams. Instead of bemoaning the loss of Romine, Yankee fans should look forward to the flair and thunder Higashioka brings to the Bronx for the 2020 season.

Key:

Runners in Scoring Position (RISP): Any situation where a runner is on second and/or third base. MLB average: .261 Batting Average with RISP

Batting Average (BA): Hits/At Bats. MLB average: .252 BA.

Designated for Assignment (DFA’d): A player that is removed from the 40-man roster and is traded or placed on irrevocable trade waivers. If no team claims this player through waivers (a specific system that makes players available for trading with other teams), the player can be outrighted to the minor leagues, or become a free agent.

BB% (Walk percentage): The percentage of Plate Appearances that result in a walk. MLB average: ~8.0 BB%

K% (Strikeout percentage): The percentage of plate appearances that result in a strikeout. MLB average: ~20.0 K%

OPS: On Base Percentage ((Hits + Walks + Hit by Pitches/Plate Appearances))+Slugging Percentage ((Singles + Doubles*2+ Triples*3+ Home Runs*4)/At Bats)). MLB average: .758 OPS.

wRC+: Weighted runs created plus. A stat that quantifies total offensive value and factors in the different dimensions of each ballpark. A wRC+ of 100 is replacement level, and anything above that is X% above league average (i.e. a wRC+ of 101 is 1% above league average offensively). 

AVG(BA)/OBP/SLG (Slash line): MLB average: .252/.323/.435.

Called Strikes Above Average, Framing Runs, FRM: 

Fielding Runs Above Average: Defensive runs saved for any position player. 0 is average, greater than 0 is above average, and less than zero is below average.

Fielding Runs Above Average-Adjusted: Defensive runs saved that are comparative to the player’s specific position. 0 is average, greater than 0 is above average, and less than zero is below average.

ISO: Isolated Power. A way to show a player’s power based on all hits, except for singles. It is essentially a truer slugging percentage. (Doubles+Triples*2+Home Runs*3)/At Bats. MLB average: .183 ISO. 

Pop Time to Second Base: The time it takes for the ball to go from the catcher’s mitt to fielder’s glove at Second Base. MLB average: 2.01 Pop Time.

CS%: The percentage of runners thrown out trying to steal a base. MLB average: 27.50 CS%.

Sources:

http://baseballsavant.mlb.com/

http://www.espn.com/mlb/stats/team/_/stat/batting/seasontype/2

https://www.fangraphs.com/

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/players/

https://nypost.com/2019/11/15/yankees-navigating-a-conundrum-behind-gary-sanchez/

https://www.spotrac.com/mlb/new-york-yankees/payroll/

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