Now that Austin Romine is a free agent, there is suddenly an opening for the Yankees’ backup catcher position. A few recent developments suggest that is a more interesting discussion than it may initially seem–and also that Kyle Higashioka may be well-suited to step into that role.
Remember, the Yankees recently announced that they hired Tanner Swanson to be their new catching coordinator by way of Minnesota. A few days later, Derek took a look at Swanson’s track record of helping catchers, particularly Mitch Garver (subs req’d), improve their framing and explored how that might impact Gary Sánchez in 2020. And for good reason: Swanson told Lindsey Adler of The Athletic (subs req’d) that framing is, in his view, the most valuable aspect of a catcher’s defense:
The philosophy is: how do we create more strikes and how to keep strikes, strikes. I think the implication that has for catchers who do it really well, it makes a real impact in the course of an at-bat, an inning, a game, a season. The elite pitch framers in our game are impacting the game in a huge way, so the question is: how do we do that really well without sacrificing the other skills that are also critical to the catcher position?Tanner swanson to lindsey adler
This is interesting for several reasons, but not just because of Sánchez. It may offer a hint into the team’s thinking about the backup catcher role next year. Austin Romine is one of the league’s best backups, but there has been almost no connection between him and the Yanks this offseason. That may be because the team has an elite pitch framer waiting in the wings in Kyle Higashioka.
Adler’s article described Higashioka as a framing “fanatic.” Higashioka himself describes his framing skills as likely reason why he still has a job with the Yankees. I think that self assessment is probably right.
Let’s start by looking at his framing data in his brief stints in the Major Leagues. Higashioka made his MLB debut in 2017 and also got playing time in 2018 and 2019. His performance in this area been elite. The lefthand column below is Higashioka’s Strike Rate, which measures the percentage of non-swings umpires called strikes with Higashioka behind the dish. The parentheses is the number of applicable pitches. The righthand column is the league leader’s figures that year, with the same parentheses. Check it out:
- 2017: 54.5% (178)
- 2018: 54.1% (640)
- 2019: 55.1% (474)
- 2017: 54.3% (2,401)
- 2018: 55.0% (1,728)
- 2019: 54.1% (2,680)
A few things. First, the sample size is limited with Higashioka, obviously. He just hasn’t had the time at the big league level. However, with that said, he’s been remarkably consistent and it’s stayed at scale. In other words, his rate stayed about the same from 2017-18 despite getting 500 more chances. It actually improved in 2019. Add it all up and he’s converted about 54.5% of non-swings into strikes in 1,292 chances. Baseball-Savant’s calculations say that amounts to 5 runs saved for the Yankees across those three seasons. That is significant in limited time.
As we can see by comparing that figure to the league leader, that’s not just good production, but basically the best in the league. In fact, had he qualified for the leaderboard, Higashioka would have been the best pitch framer in the league in both 2017 and 2019.There is, however, the problem of the sample size. It’s not one that we can just ignore, especially with new metrics like this.
Fortunately for us, Baseball-Prospectus’ catcher framing database includes Triple-A, where Higashioka has a much more robust sample. That data tells a similar story: he has an elite skill here. In 2019, seventy catchers received at least 2,000 non-strike pitches at Triple-A. Here are Higashioka’s rankings among those in key areas:
- Called Strikes Above Average: +0.021 (1st)
- Framing Runs: 15.4 (2nd)
- Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA): 15.2 (2nd)
- FRAA_Adjusted: 15.1 (2nd)
Other years tell a similar tale. These figures, coupled with his excellent production at the MLB level, are enough to conclude that Higashioka is an elite pitch framer. I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to reach that conclusion given the fairly overwhelming public evidence.
The common line about backup catchers is that they only need to be positives behind the plate. Swanson’s comments about the importance of pitch framing as a defensive skill is therefore very insightful in hunt the backup catcher–and it’s very good news for Higashioka. His unmistakable talent in this area, coupled with his low salary, strongly suggest that Kyle Higashioka will spend much more time in the Bronx come 2020.