If you know me, or have for whatever reason read my articles throughout the years, you know that I am a day one Gary Sanchez apologist. Through all his struggles, I’ve been right by his side. Now, that’s not going to change heading into the 2022 season, but I’d be lying if I said Kyle Higashioka doesn’t deserve a serious look as the starting catcher.
Higashioka’s Misleading Results
Higashioka will turn 32 in April, and is coming off his best season as a Major Leaguer. Well, best season by some standards.
On the surface, Higashioka had a pretty dismal 2021 season at the plate. In 211 Plate Appearances, he slashed .181/.246/.389 with a .272 wOBA. He struck out at a 28% clip and, from a pure production standpoint, wasn’t good.
Among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances in 2021, Higashioka had the 15th most strikeouts, ranked 25th in SLG and was outside of the top 30 in batting average, OBP and wRC+. While these rankings aren’t pretty, his underlying metrics tell a clearer story.
Peeling Back the Curtain
There’s a lot to be excited about when we look beyond the box score. Most notably, Higashioka was 10th in xwOBA, 8th in Hard Hit % and 2nd in flyball % amongst catchers with at least 200 plate appearances in 2021. So not only is he hitting the ball hard, but he’s hitting the ball in the air. His average launch angle in 2020 was 18.5, in 2021 it was 21.7.
While the ideal launch angle is anywhere between 15 and 20 degrees, those who hit the ball harder, like Higashioka did in 2021, can get away with a higher launch angle. If Higashioka can get his average launch angle closer to 20 degrees, though, some of the below fly outs may turn into home runs,
There are so many examples of these types of flyouts from Higashioka, and they are all good indicators.
Higashioka also showed improved discipline at the plate in 2021, bringing his chase% down from 38.5% in 2020 to 30.1% in 2021. That also lent itself to more walks for Higashioka. In 48 plate appearances in 2020, he didn’t take a base on balls one time. In 2021, he was able to get his BB% up to 8.1%, the best mark of his career. It seems, then, that Higashioka was dealing with some bad luck last season. After all, his .272 wOBA compared to his .340 xwOBA is a good indication of that.
Higashioka’s Defense Sets Him Apart
While Higashioka’s greatest strength has always been his defense, his improvement at the plate (despite poor results), has nudged me towards the idea that he should be the Yankees’ Opening Day starting catcher. And no, not just because Gerrit Cole will be on the mound.
But while we’re on defense, let’s marvel at Higashioka’s performance behind the dish in 2021. While it may seem diva-ish that Gerrit Cole likes to have Higashioka as his personal catcher, you can’t blame him when looking at the numbers.
Among catchers with a minimum of 100 innings behind the plate in 2021, Higashioka ranked 11th in pitch framing, good for 84th percentile. Gary Sanchez, on the other hand, was in the 17th percentile.
Higashioka trumps Sanchez in nearly every defensive category. He posted 5 DRS in 2021, while Sanchez posted -10. Higashioka also had 3 strike zone runs saved, while Sanchez sat at -1. Higashioka’s rCERA (which aims to measure a catcher’s game calling) was 2, while Sanchez’s was -5.
All of this is not to say Gary Sanchez is by any means a bad player. He might be a bad defensive catcher, but there’s still plenty of hope for him as a hitter. Sanchez posted a .336 xwOBA in 2021 and continues to get criminally unlucky despite hitting the ball hard. He also improved his plate discipline by a significant margin, posting a 11.8% BB%, up from 10.1% in 2020 and 9% in 2019.
But in many ways, the writing is on the wall. Higashioka is a far superior defensive catcher to Gary Sanchez, and is in many ways catching up to him offensively. I don’t think the Yankees will come out of the gate in 2022 with Higashioka as the everyday starting catcher, but don’t be surprised if that changes come mid-season.