Barring a last minute trade, the Yankees plan to platoon Kyle Higashioka and Ben Rortvedt behind the plate this season. At least, once Rortvedt recovers from the oblique injury the Yankees apparently knew about before trading for him. Now that the Gary Sánchez era is over, the Yankees are taking the all-glove-no-bat route at catcher this season.
This is something the Yankees tried almost a decade ago with Chris Stewart, except this time, the team has two defensive minded players at the position. Effectively punting a lineup spot is a bit of a gamble, but the Yankees are counting on not only the defense making it worthwhile, but also the rest of its lineup’s stars hiding this lineup spot.
As important as defense and a healthy rapport with the pitching staff is, how little offense is tolerable? Sánchez received plenty of boos for his missteps behind the dish (and yes, on offense too), but it’s not like blocking or framing a pitch are actively appreciated by most folks. So, on the other hand, I can’t imagine fans will hold back boos if and when Higgy or Rortvedt kill rallies this summer. Not that the Yankees’ front office takes too much stock in crowd sentiment, of course.
Seriously though, it’s very hard to have much hope for this duo hitting whatsoever. Whether you look at their career performances to date or 2022 projections, things are depressing from a run production perspective.
Of 46 catchers projected by PECOTA to accumulate 200 or more plate appearances, Higashioka (37th) and Rortvedt (43rd) rank near the bottom of the barrel in terms of projected DRC+. FanGraphs’ depth charts tell a similar story by wOBA: 38th of 51 for Higgy, and 48th for Rortvedt.
Higashioka owns a lifetime 63 wRC+ in 415 major league plate appearances, so it should come as no surprise that projections are down on his offense. Yes, he occasionally hits homers in bunches, but he also goes ice cold for long periods of time.
Rortvedt has a 40 wRC+ in the majors, albeit in far fewer opportunities than Higashioka (98 PA). His minor league numbers are better (93 wRC+ in more than 1,000 PA, including 106 wRC+ since 2018). Still, he has bat-to-ball concerns and not great plate discipline.
I don’t think we can dream on Higashioka finding his stroke at this point. He’s almost 32, after all. Rortvedt, 24, is still young, at least. Maybe he can tap into some of his raw power. Take a look at those biceps below. Also, take a look at his max exit velocity from last year. It would be a huge leap to believe in him on this alone, I know, but he hit one ball 111.4 MPH last year, which was in the 80th percentile of the majors. More of that would be great, but he’ll also have to work on making more contact (29.6 percent strikeout rate). Look, I’m trying to find something positive here.
New Yankees catcher Ben Rortvedt is built like an actual boulder pic.twitter.com/33yp1Fyhh8— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) March 14, 2022
For all the bad about the offense, I can’t just brush past the fielding projections. They’re great. Baseball Prospectus has the Yankees’ tandem amassing the second-most FRAA in the majors, behind Cleveland. Meanwhile, FanGraphs has the Yankees’ catchers eighth in fielding, but Rortvedt ranks as the fourth best projected catching defender in the majors on an individual basis.
Clearly, going with Higgy/Rortvedt is analytically driven. That could prove to work out. We’re talking about a 2-to-3 WAR projection in the aggregate by both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, even if it’s in no thanks to run production. Will it be fun to watch day in and day out? I’m not counting on it. Like I mentioned, it’s very difficult to appreciate framing and blocking on a regular basis. Rather, the at bats likely will be very frustrating. So for this platoon to really work out, it’s on the rest of the offense to perform up to expectations and/or rebound from last year.
Maybe this duo will be a pleasant surprise. Hope springs eternal, right? However, if the offense from these two simply proves too poor to tolerate, the Yankees can aren’t stuck. Hell, the Yankees should seek an upgrade regardless, but that’s neither here or there. There’s been some buzz about Sean Murphy and Willson Contreras in recent weeks, and either of those two would be substantial boosts. For now, the Yankees will roll with Higashioka and Rortvedt. Expect the pitching staff to be very happy, but don’t expect too much else.