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The Yankees Have A Great Defensive Catcher. Is He Poised For An Offensive Breakout?

There were quite a few unconventional narratives surrounding the New York Yankees leading into the 2022 season. One such thread was their apparent transition to prioritizing defense. This was especially true when it came to the catcher position, as the team jettisoned its starter of five-plus years (Gary Sánchez) to make way for a backstop with roughly a season’s worth of major league games under his belt (Kyle Higashioka).

At the not-so-tender age of 31, Higashioka is finally getting his shot at the big league level. His career has so far been a slow burn: He spent nine seasons in the minor leagues before his first taste of major league action, and after another four years of being the organization’s third option, he finally earned his spot as the backup catcher in 2021.

On the surface, the Yankees’ new everyday catcher sticks out in a lineup of sluggers. Higashioka’s defensive prowess is well documented, even earning him the coveted role of preferred catcher for ace Gerrit Cole. But given his career weighted runs created plus (wRC+) mark of just 60,1 it is fair to wonder whether what he provides with the glove makes up for what he lacks with the bat. Higashioka has put up some unique and strange batting lines in his major league tenure, even failing to draw a walk in two consecutive seasons.

Kyle Higashioka had a slow start in the big leagues

Batting statistics by season for Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka, 2017-2021

Season G PA Avg. OBP SLG wRC+
2017 9 20 .000 .100 .000 -73
2018 29 79 .167 .241 .319 52
2019 18 57 .214 .211 .464 65
2020 16 48 .250 .250 .521 102
2021 67 211 .181 .246 .389 71

Source: FanGraphs

In the shortened 2020 season, Higashioka was an above-league-average hitter for the first time in his career, but he had another rough season at the plate in 2021. Among 58 catchers with at least 150 plate appearances, Higashioka had the 14th-lowest wRC+ mark

So even with a less-than-stellar track record, the Yankees have decided that Higashioka deserves the lion’s share of catching duties. Is it because they think the defense outweighs the offense? Possibly. They may also believe that his bat can come around, which would make him one of the most valuable catchers in baseball. There are at least a few factors that line up with the latter: Higashioka swatted 10 home runs in just 67 games in 2021, and he sports a career isolated power mark of .196.

Isolated power, or ISO, is a crude but useful metric calculated by subtracting a player’s batting average from their slugging percentage. In practice, it attempts to measure a player’s extra-base hit rate. For some context, the league-average ISO has hovered between .161 and .183 since Higashioka debuted, making his career mark comfortably above average. In 2021, his .207 ISO was 13th-best among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. 

Just because a hitter has some power under the hood doesn’t necessarily mean he will break out, however. There are plenty of sluggers who don’t produce enough to justify a roster spot. But Higashioka has another thing going for him: In 2021, he had one of the best barrel rates in all of baseball.2

Higashioka barrelled up batted balls at a healthy rate of 15.6 percent in 2021 — good for 28th best in the league, sandwiched between prolific sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and George Springer. Among all hitters with 150 plate appearances, that put Higashioka in the 93rd percentile. By other Statcast metrics such as exit velocity, hard-hit rate, expected slugging percentage (xSLG) and expected weighted on base average (xwOBA), Higashioka also graded out well above average.

Higashioka’s underlying metrics show his potential

Advanced batting statistics and league percentile* for Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka, 2021 season

Metric Result Percentile
Barrel rate 15.6% 93rd
Exit velocity 90.5 mph 78th
Hard-hit rate 46.7% 84th
Expected slugging percentage .499 88th
Expected weighted on base average .340 75th

*Among players with at least 150 plate appearances.

Source: FanGraphs

Put another way, Higashioka should have been a much better hitter than he actually was in 2021. But why were his actual results at the plate so poor? Expected results are a good indicator of how a hitter may perform in the future, but they don’t net teams runs in the present. For Higashioka, the answer be something as simple as bad luck.

Higashioka’s batting average on ball in play, or BABIP, was just .200 — sixth-lowest among all hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. Catchers tend to have a BABIP lower than their other positional peers, as they often lack speed on the basepaths and are prone to more general wear and tear on their bodies. But the league-average BABIP for catchers in 2021 was .278, meaning Higashioka was especially unlucky.3

Furthermore, while Higashioka’s xwOBA of .340 was one of the better marks in baseball, his actual wOBA of .272 was one of the worst. Actual wOBA helps inform a player’s wRC+, so that explains why Higashioka’s output was 29 percent worse than the league average. Baseball Savant tells us how lucky (or unlucky) a hitter is by subtracting his actual wOBA from his xwOBA, and by this metric, Higashioka was the second-unluckiest hitter in baseball with at least 100 balls in play.

The difference is even more drastic by slugging minus xSLG, where Higashioka’s expected mark of .499 was 50th, while his actual mark was 241st. His 110 point difference was once again one of the biggest in the sport, this time ranking as the third-highest negative disparity between slugging and xSLG. All of this signals that, if he brings a similar skill set from 2021, Higashioka should be headed for a positive regression in 2022.

Though Higashioka hasn’t quite gotten off to a hot start in 2022, we may have already seen the precursors to a standout season: He swatted seven home runs during spring training, trailing only Bryce Harper, the reigning National League MVP. With some better luck and the same power potential, Higashioka has the chance to be one of the year’s best breakout stories.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Through games of April 11.

  2. Barrel refers to the most optimal combination of launch angle and exit velocity, and barrel rate refers to how often a hitter achieves barrels on batted balls.

  3. The overall league-average BABIP was .292.

Brian Menéndez is a baseball writer, a cat dad and a resident of Seattle, Washington. His work can also be found at Baseball Prospectus, Beyond The Box Score, DRaysBay and The Hardball Times.

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