2022 Storylines: The catching situation

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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.

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Wire Fan

    Teams hoping to win a WS can’t punt on several spots in the lineup. Thinking the rest of the lineup will make up for it sounds great but what happens when

    – the Yankees do their constant resting
    – injuries happen
    – they get to Toronto and Judge and Rizzo are not there

    What seems like a somewhat manageable soft 8-9 in the lineup can easily and quickly become a soft 6-7-8-9.

  2. MikeD

    Fans will tolerate IKF because he’ll bring more contact with a .270+ BA, plus the other aspects of his game (defense/base running) will be more evident. His offensive WAR will be low because of his OBP, but his ABs won’t drive fans crazy. The HiggyRor line-up spot will drive fans crazy. Low BA, low OBP and lots of K’s. We know what Higgy is, so the hope is the Yankees new hitting coaches can coax more out of Rortvedt’s bat. The Yankees did have success getting more from Didi’s and Hicks’ bats, but both were top prospects who were expected to hit. They simply didn’t with their original teams, but the talent was in there. That’s not Rortvedt, at least by reputation. He is young and a lefty, so I’m hoping for a pleasant surprise. There’s hope with Rortvedt, while Higgy is Higgy.

  3. Tim

    Not to continue to hash up the past but not long ago joe Girardi was considered a terrible move when he was brought over. So lets let it play out.

  4. Terry from LA

    Higgy is a total zero at the plate and can’t throw. I know nothing about the other guy, but he sounds like another zero. Say what you want about Gary, but at least once in while he could hit it. this team cannot win the WS with these two.

  5. James A Lombardi

    Another consideration is that, batting ninth in the order, they are likely up only 4 times a game, sometimes only 3, and one of those at bats will be available for a pinch hitter.

  6. Isiah Kiner Faleddardfa

    The defense first philosophy is definitely the way to go at both C and SS, Derek. How many games were lost last year as a result of the laziness and poor defense at those positions? Gleyber is not a SS and started to hit once he was moved to 2B. You could live with Gary’s poor defense and obesity when he was hitting but if he doesn’t hit and he can’t catch and he can’t run and he can’t even make a simple tag on a runner coming in to home plate then he’s basically a 1 tool player when all he can do is throw. Higgy to me is a 5 tool player because he can hit for average, hit for power, catch, throw, run, call a great game and put up drywall. He reminds me a lot of Jorgie in that regard. People forget the power he has but he’s fully capable of hitting 3 homers a game.

    I don’t know anything about this Rortvedt but he looks like he’s strong and in shape and that’s a definite improvement over Gary who often came into camp fat and round. Rortvedt is what a ballplayer should look like, especially a catcher who has to be both strong and nimble. I’m very pleased at this catcher duo we have this year. They’ll save a lot more games defensively than last year and will surprise folks at the plate. We don’t need them to hit a lot but they will anyway as will IKF.

    • StahhhPlayuhh

      a) calm down on the fat thing bro

      b) there’s absolutely no way high is a five tool player lolllllll he’s never once hit for average im crying

      • killick_there

        yeah the incessant fat criticisms are getting pretty tiresome.

    • Mike

      When has higgy EVER hit for avg?

    • I’m fine with below average offensive production from the catcher. My wife was sick and tired of me screaming “catch the effing ball Gary” at the TV.

  7. The Original Drew

    I know I will be paying extra attention to SB rates, framing and blocking from the catching position more. If one of these guys falters or has mental lapses there will be no mercy for them among the fans.

    This is another instance (Volpe) where the Yankees offseason moves aren’t putting their guys in the best position to succeed. The added pressure for them to be basically perfect on defense because the Yankees screamed loud and clear that they value that more than their bat. It’s not impossible for them to rise the occasion and thrive under that type of pressure but I don’t think it’s something you can count on when building your team.

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