Yankees: Should starting pitchers have their own personal catchers?

Oct 5, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; New York Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka (left) talks to starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) against the Tampa Bay Rays during the fifth inning in game one of the 2020 ALDS at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 5, 2020; San Diego, California, USA; New York Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka (left) talks to starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) against the Tampa Bay Rays during the fifth inning in game one of the 2020 ALDS at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports /

A controversial issue GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone have faced this year is whether New York Yankees’ pitchers should be permitted to have their own personal catchers.

Typically, MLB managers decide who the starting catcher is for their teams. They make this decision based on the hitting and fielding abilities of the candidates for the catcher position. It’s all pretty straightforward.

However, this year Boonie has found himself in an awkward position. His preferred choice to catch for the Yanks, Gary Sanchez, has been in and out of batting slumps (right now he’s arguably the best hitter on the team, though), has failed to hustle, has made several mistakes on the base paths, and still hasn’t exactly taken a leap on defense.

In fact, earlier in the season, the skipper announced that backup catcher Kyle Higashioka would get more playing time due to Sanchez’s subpar performance in the batter’s box and on defense.

Since Boone’s announcement, Higgy has hit inconsistently after getting off to a good start.

Still, Higgy remains a better fielder than Sanchez and is the preferred catcher by the team’s two premier starters, Gerrit Cole and Corey Kluber. (The fact that Higgy was catching when Kluber threw his no-hitter against Texas no doubt sealed the deal.)

How things are going so far with the Yankees’ personal catcher situation

Coincidently, putting Sanchez’s leg kick modification when batting aside, the Kraken started impressively raking around the time Boone announced that he would be catching less in the future. Perhaps he needed this motivation to help get him back on track. Thankfully, the Yanks have profited as a result.

Up until now, Boone, the pitchers, and the players involved have not spoken about the situation, at least publicly. A significant conundrum is that while the Kraken can hit the ball a mile and bring in a run or more with one swing, he also hurts the team by striking out frequently, making gaffes on the base path, and delivering inconsistent defense behind the plate.

During a recent Blue Jays game in Buffalo, for example, he hit a solo home run in the second inning and then allowed a passed ball that helped Toronto scored three runs. Thankfully, the Yankees came back to win 6-5.

For some reason, the ability of catchers to call the correct pitches during a game doesn’t receive the amount of attention it should. True, pitchers can shake off signs from the catcher if they wish to, but they tend to throw what’s recommended by the catcher in most cases.

And a good catcher will keep his pitcher focused and even-keeled, especially during a rough patch in a game.

The quality of the relationship between pitcher and catcher is paramount

Overall, the quality of the relationship between the pitcher and the catcher is essential. Both need to be able to relate and be on the same page with one another. Good things happen when the pitcher and catcher are in sync, and bad things happen when they are not. We have all seen it go both ways and what it can do to a team.

In the present case involving Higashioka and Sanchez, it appears that Cole and Kluber prefer Higgy’s pitch calling strategy and how he engages with them on the field over the Kraken’s. Based on what they have said following games, they feel more in tune with Higgy than Gary. To their credit, they have not said anything negative about Sanchez.

This all leads to the question, should Yankee pitchers be able to determine who catches for them? Are there certain situations in which it is good for the club?

My guess is that both the experienced elite pitchers had privately informed Boone that they prefer Higgy behind the plate than Gary when on the mound and that Boone decided to honor their wishes. The situation involving Cole and Kluber is unique. It’s doubtful that the skipper will honor the similar preferences of other pitchers on the roster.

The data clearly show that Cole and Kluber perform much better when Higgy catches them than when Sanchez does. The difference is significant, and the Yankees’ skipper knows this.

Criticism of the arrangement

Many previous players, veteran analysts, and fans don’t like the idea of permitting pitchers to determine (or even influence) the manager’s decision in regards to who catches them. They fear that such a practice – which could be interpreted as favoritism – can lead to division on the team and sow dissension among the players, possibly interfering with the club’s chemistry and overall performance.

What if other Yankee pitchers also want to determine who catches for them? Should their requests be honored, too? And what about the two catchers involved? Will such a practice interfere with the working relationship between Higgy and Gary by setting up a competition between the two? In my view, these are all legitimate concerns.

Yet, Boone has to make similar player personnel choices when he drops the starting lineup every game day. Look at the outfield situation right now. Aaron Judge is the only player who has earned everyday playing time.

Thus far, while there is admittedly a competition for playing time, Clint Frazier, Brett Gardner, and Miguel Andújar have not complained (at least publicly) and have handled Boone’s game-day decisions professionally.

Though this is a somewhat different situation, we would assume that Higgy and Gary have been doing the same. Regardless, catching is a stressful and extraordinarily taxing job, and Sanchez cannot catch every game anyway.

A new generation of ballplayers

The ballplayers today are of a different breed compared to those who have come before them. By the time players make it to the major leagues, they have been through the competition meat grinder. They are battle-tested in more ways than one.

In the end, management and the players need to focus on the most important thing, winning games, making the playoffs, and reaching the World Series. If Higgy makes Cole and Kluber even that much better pitchers, then why not insert him in the lineup when the club’s two best pitchers take the mound? Honestly, what would doing the reverse accomplish? Wouldn’t you rather a pristine outing from your starting pitcher instead of one extra potent bat in the lineup?

While Sanchez’s feelings and pride might be hurt, he should be able to recognize that it’s all about the team and not individual players.

Veteran pitcher David Cone, the Yanks’ announcer on the YES Network, has stated that he doesn’t like this arrangement, primarily because it takes Gary’s bat out of the lineup. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

When Sanchez doesn’t catch, he can fill in as the designated hitter when Stanton is injured or needs a rest. Or, he can be a critical pinch hitter coming off the bench at a crucial point during a given game. Plus, at this point, Gary playing a few games over Stanton really wouldn’t upset many fans.

Also, there’s serious discussion about having Stanton play right field this season, as he regularly did when he was with the Miami Marlins. This would free up the designated hitter spot in the lineup for Sanchez’s bat when Cole and Kluber are on the mound.

While I have criticized Boone’s decision-making a lot in previous pieces, I think that he has dealt with the catching situation quite well. The team is more formidable and more likely to win games when Higgy catches for Cole and Kluber. The problem is lineup flexibility. When that’s fixed, we won’t even be talking about this anymore.