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