Should Kyle Higashioka be Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher?

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Gerrit Cole gets the ball tonight in what will be his final regular season start. In all likelihood, Kyle Higashioka will catch him this evening. Higgy has caught Cole’s last three starts, all of which have been excellent performances from the ace. The Yankees have yet to put an official label on it, but it sure looks like Higashioka is Cole’s personal catcher. Should that hold, Gary Sánchez will be on the bench for Game 1 of the postseason. The numbers for Cole throwing to the two catchers are jarring:

By Catcher
Split G IP ERA HR BB SO BA OBP SLG tOPS+
Kyle Higashioka3 20.0 0.901527.127.184.21124
Gary Sanchez8 46.0 3.91121260.224.282.494131
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/22/2020.

Catcher ERA typically is not indicative of much, but considering how stark the results are between the two backstops and Sánchez’s lack of hitting this season, it’s become a pretty easy decision to make. Stuff-wise, Cole doesn’t look any different with either catcher behind the plate. That said, there are some differences worth pointing out that perhaps Gary can take into account for 2021.

When I last wrote about Cole, hitters were teeing off against his fastball. I surmised that a big problem was his inability to throw his secondary pitches in the strike zone, making it easier for batters to sit fastball. I guess I was wrong. Here’s a heatmap of Cole’s secondary offerings in his last three starts, all with Higashioka behind the plate.

And yet, Cole’s fastball has been even more effective despite a lack of curves, sliders, and changeups in the zone. With Higgy, batters have a .241 wOBA and .268 xwOBA against Cole’s fastball. With Gary, opponents’ wOBA is .343 and xwOBA is .366 against the heat. Huge difference.

Perhaps it wasn’t as simple as just being able to wait for Cole to throw a fastball since nothing else was going to be a strike. Rather, it appears that pitch usage with Higashioka behind the plate is not as predictable as when Sánchez has caught Cole. Let’s start with overall pitch selection:

Pitch TypeHigashiokaSánchez 
4-Seam51.0%54.1%
Slider20.9%25.5%
Curve20.9%15.0%
Change7.1%5.4%

Fewer fastballs and a little more balance in the slider/curve department when Higashioka catches. Let’s now go to when Cole falls behind in the count:

Pitch TypeHigashiokaSánchez 
4-Seam54.9%69.4%
Slider27.5%16.8%
Curve9.8%6.6%
Change7.8%7.1%

Now here’s a massive difference. 1-0, 2-0, 3-1…whatever the count may be, hitters could bank on a heater coming with Gary catching Cole. Not so much with Higashioka. Alright, how about when Cole’s ahead in the count?

Pitch TypeHigashiokaSánchez 
4-Seam47.1%44.8%
Slider22.1%35.6%
Curve23.5%15.6%
Change7.4%4.0%

Fastball usage is pretty similar here. If anything, Higgy has been more willing to have Cole throw his curve, whereas Sánchez went more slider heavy. Finally, let’s look at even counts.

Pitch TypeHigashiokaSánchez 
4-Seam51.9%52.2%
Slider15.6%23.0%
Curve26.0%19.5%
Change6.5%5.3%

Again, Higashioka seems to favor the curveball a bit more than Gary. Here’s a visual breakdown of count and pitch usage by catcher:

Higashioka catching.
Sánchez catching.

Overall, it’s evident that Higashioka has called a less predictable game with Cole on the mound as compared to Sánchez. In fairness, we can’t assign 100 percent of the credit or blame to Cole’s battery mates for pitch calling. He can shake them off he wants, you know. Still, the results with Higashioka have been much better and there is a noticeable difference in how Cole has attacked hitters with Higgy behind the plate. The fastball isn’t as hittable and the overall numbers are great.

I’ve been a staunch defender of Sánchez, but I can’t argue for him in favor of Higashioka with Cole on the mound at the moment. If Gary was raking, it might be a different story. I know he’s hit better of late, but it’s not enough to convince me that catching him over Higgy in Game 1 is the right move. It’s a bit easier to stomach Higashioka in the lineup now that the offense is at full-strength, too. This situation can be reassessed next year, but for now, it’s time to pair Higashioka and Cole for the rest of 2020.

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7 Comments

  1. mj

    Higgy should not only catch Cole, but should be the starting catcher. He is an exceptional receiver. he frames better, blocks the ball better and calls a better game that Sanchez. He is also a decent hitter. I can’t stomach watching Sanchez behind the plate and wondering when the next past ball is coming.

  2. Smurfy

    Here’s the perfect place to say it: Higashioka for Cole; Kratz for Deivi Garcia; and Gary, that slugger who used to know both Kraken crackin’, and how to hit a sure single to right center when you need it, well, that slugger to DH those games as the third best catcher. So, he is motivated to work that way for the team, and we WILL appreciate it, when it happens. And thanks for the efforts and bruises, if we had robo-umps your lame snatch and fumbles would serve. (Great arm, though. But both Montgomery and King fell to ‘not being in sync’ that day.)

  3. MikeD

    For the most part, I’m fine with Higgy catching Cole since Sanchez has not exactly lit it up at the plate, to be kind. That said, Sanchez caught Cole for his first six starts this year when he put up a 4-0 record to a 2.75 ERA, with two of his three double-digit K games coming with Gary catching. Also, while Higgy has caught Cole’s last three starts, one of those games–the first–Cole surrendered five runs in only six innings, but he was only charged with one earned run. It started strong, but it wasn’t exactly a stellar debut for the Cole/Higgy combo as Cole was not able to limit the damage. It was after that game that many Yankee fans were starting to grumble about Cole. It was ridiculous, of course, but just noting that was one of three games pairing Cole and Higgy. It’s really been the last two starts that Cole has gotten fully back on track. The prior two starts before they were paired were Cole’s worst, and by his own admission he was having some command issues. Not sure that had anything to do with Sanchez. The real test would be to put Sanchez back behind the plate to catch Cole now that Cole seems to be back in top form. Remember, it took until start 11 or 12 last season before Cole really took off.

    Regardless, one thing is clear. The Yankees are purposely matching Cole and HIggy, and that is telling. It means Cole is more comfortable pitching to Higgy, and I agree they should stick with it at this stage in the season. If your ace pitcher prefers one catcher, then go with it since the primary catching isn’t hitting all that much anyway.

    2021? No issues if Cole were to start 32 games, for arguments sake, and Higgy catches around 20 of them. I wouldn’t lock Higgy to all of Cole’s games, meaning making him his personal catcher. Primary catcher? Sure. If I remember correctly, Cole had a preferred catcher in Houston too. Maldonado.

  4. CentralScrutinizer

    I strongly dislike the idea of personal catchers. If the pitch selection is a problem then Cole and Sanchez can work it out between themselves. Its not that complicated. I find it difficult to believe that Cole robotically throws whatever pitch Sanchez or any other catcher calls for. I’m far from Sanchez’ biggest fan but I can’t fathom that pitch selection is a sufficient justification for making this change because it could easily be fixed. I could see Cole asking for Higashioka because he feels more comfortable working with him. When you pay a guy as much as the Yankees are paying Cole he gets what he wants. But in the Post today a story quoted Cole as saying that he could work with anyone and that teaming him with Higashioka wasn’t his call. So either Co le is covering up his own request or Boone is engaging in a bit over-managing (perhaps at the request of some misguided analytics geek in the FO). I would guess that it’s the latter.

  5. Gerreddardit Cole

    Absolutely he should, Derek. Catcher ERA is one of the most important stats for a catcher and Cole clearly pitches better with Higgy than Gary. Higgy is a better receiver, a better framer and blocks more balls. And I think Higgy gives us more pop in his bat too. You don’t hit 3 dingers in a game if you have no power. Higgy needs to be starting Game 1 of the postseason and any subsequent game that Cole starts. Gary will just have to sit on the bench. I also think Kratzy needs to be Deivi’s personal C so perhaps the next post should be about that. Just look that that awful performance in Boston. It wasn’t Deivi’s fault, it was Gary’s.

    • Links

      David Cone…is that you?

    • Andy

      Gary Sanchez’s lifetime postseason BA is only 0.178 and only 0.129 in 2019! Not even to mention his disastrous performance in 2020. Gary Sanchez alone killed Yankee in 2019 ALCS game 4. What makes Yankees to still believe he is good? He should not be in any championship team!

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