Yankees: Corey Kluber’s no-hitter will make Kyle Higashioka the starting catcher
Few analysts and fans have paid attention to the unassuming, once third-string catcher on the Yankees, Kyle Higashioka. He occasionally would be called up from Triple-A when Gary Sanchez was injured and the team needed a backup catcher for Austin Romine.
However, things have radically changed since then, and Higashioka is now the one in the spotlight.
Yankees fans entered the 2021 season deeply concerned about whether Sanchez would return to his 2017 and (first half) 2019 forms when he slugger over 30 home runs and was a fearsome force. Many were worried that his performance would resemble his anemic production during the second half of 2019 as well as shortened 2020 season, when he was among the worst hitters in the sport.
Of equal concern was Sanchez’s poor fielding as a catcher. Although gifted with remarkable athletic ability and a powerful arm, he’s allowed pitched balls to get by him too easily, and he dropped simple pop ups behind the plate. Pitch framing hasn’t been a strong suit of his, either.
Sanchez has worked hard to improve his overall fielding. However, not enough time has gone by for fans to forget his 16 and 18 passed balls in 2017 and 2018, respectively, to give them hope that he could become at least an average fielder.
During the 2019 season, Romine elevated his game and performed exceptionally well in the batter’s box. His .281 batting average made him an attractive free agent during the 2020 offseason and allowed him to leave the Bombers for more money and a potential starting role with the Detroit Tigers.
Kyle Higashioka has stepped up in a colossal way for the New York Yankees.
After Romine left the club, Higashioka was given an opportunity to move into the backup role behind Sanchez. Although more experienced free-agent catchers were targeted, Higgy played well during spring training and earned the job.
During this past offseason and spring training, Sanchez worked hard with instructors to improve his defense and hitting. While his fielding has improved during the 2021 regular season, he’s still not an excellent defensive backstop. At best, he has gone from a struggling defensive player to merely become an average fielder.
Unfortunately, on top of this, Sanchez’s poor hitting has continued in 2021. He continues to strike out too often (34 times in 124 plate appearances) and he fails to get on base when he manages to put the ball in play. This is particularly true with runners in scoring position. Thus far, he only has managed to produce a paltry .186/.314/.363 slash line with five home runs and 11 RBI.
Despite Aaron Judge’s pronouncement, it’s becoming evident to everyone that Sanchez will not come away with the American League MVP Award — at least not this year.
Thankfully, Higgy has quietly stepped up. Despite limited play, he’s hitting for power (five home runs with eight RBI) and has been getting on base. Thus far, he has produced a .771 OPS and an OPS+ 114 — and that’s in the midst of a pretty bad slump at the moment. He’s also shown that he possesses the defensive chops to play in MLB; he is clearly a better fielding catcher than Sanchez.
And, although manager Aaron Boone has not admitted this, it’s apparent that Gerrit Cole, the ace of the starting rotation, has clicked with Higgy and prefers to throw to him rather than to Sanchez.
It’s no secret Kyle Higashioka should be starting over Gary Sanchez.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that Boone recently announced that Higgy will receive more playing time because of his solid all-around performance behind the plate and in the batter’s box. However, Boone diplomatically stopped short of declaring a definitive change in the roles of the two catchers, one of whom he considers to be a star.
Many analysts likely assume that it’s only a matter of time until Higgy is officially anointed the starting backstop. Maybe something will happen that will nudge the skipper to publicly make this move.
But what could possibly happen that would cause a tactful Yankees to make the change given the organization’s obvious loyalty to the Kraken?
Well, ladies and gentlemen, mark May 19 on your calendar as the day that Higgy probably wrestled away the starting catching position from Sanchez. While most Yankee fans have focused their attention on the extraordinary no-hit feat accomplished by the come-back kid Corey Kluber against the Texas Rangers (and deservedly so), Higashioka also elevated himself to a new level of prominence.
During post-game interviews with the media, Kluber repeatedly went out of his way to congratulate Higgy for the game he called. Boone and others chimed in as well.
To perceptive viewers watching that game, it was clear that Klubot had chosen to put his fate entirely in his catcher’s hands concerning pitch selection and location during the game. And what a wise decision that was!
As a result, Kluber — who many doubted could ever regain his two-time Cy Young form and who many criticized GM Brian Cashman for signing a 35-year-old “has been” instead of James Paxton or Masahiro Tanaka — thrilled Yankees fans around the world by throwing a no-hitter (a near-perfect game, only one batter walked).
Not since winning the 2009 World Series have Bombers fans experienced the same level of euphoria and nirvana as they felt on the evening of May 19. We can assume that Kluber, following Cole’s footsteps, will also ask Boone to arrange for Higgy to catch for him (if this hasn’t happened already) in future games.
Also, this could be that one dramatic turning point during the season that pulls Yankees players together and inspires them. The Yanks’ exciting, hard-fought sweep over the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium indicates that may be the case.
Starting Higashioka also has financial implications for the Yankees.
Finally, GM Brian Cashman is well aware that Higashioka makes approximately 10 percent of the $6.35 million that Sanchez earns in 2021. The affordable Higgy will be arbitration-eligible in 2022, and he won’t become a free agent until 2025. Think that doesn’t help with the team’s future finances?
So, what happens to Sanchez now? In my view, for all intents and purposes, he’s now the backup catcher for the Yankees (unless, of course, he can miraculously turn to form overnight). Yankees fans are savvy, and they don’t need to wait for an official proclamation. And if we’re thinking ahead, at this point, it’s unlikely that the underperforming and more costly Sanchez will be on the team next year.
Why not make the move now?