Spring Training Competition: Backup Catcher

After I teased out the Yankees’ position battles last week, it’s time to start digging in to each competition now that spring training is underway. The backup catcher job seems like the good place to start considering that pitchers and catchers were first to report.

The favorite

The Yankees’ have two catchers on the 40-man roster. One is the starter Gary Sánchez, who we all want to see disrobed in October. The other is Kyle Higashioka, who is out of minor league options. Higgy’s roster status on its own makes him the obvious frontrunner for the backup catcher gig. There’s more to Higashioka’s standing on the 40-man to his candidacy, however.

The big selling point is his defense, particularly his pitch framing. Bobby touched on this a few months ago, and in 2019, Higashioka’s called strike rate was tied for the highest in the majors minimum 250 opportunities. On the flipside, he’s not the greatest thrower in spite of a good pop time. Fortunately for him, stolen bases attempts are down in this day and age.

The Yankees have been pretty great at identifying and churning out solid defensive backstops over the years. They were ahead of the curve on pitch framing over a decade ago, so it’s not surprising that they’ve groomed Higgy into what he is now. But more intriguing, perhaps, is his potential at the plate.

Higashioka has always had good power and has hit well throughout the minors, including last year. The 29 year-old hit 20 homers and recorded a 129 wRC+ in 270 plate appearances at Triple-A last season, leaving not much more left to prove at the level. But there’s a big difference between hitting well as a once-or-twice a week catcher vs. playing everyday. He’ll have to find a way to stay fresh should he land the job.

For what it’s worth, PECOTA likes Higashioka a good deal. I already wrote about why I don’t think he’ll quite live up to that 89 DRC+ and 1.3 WARP projection, but it’s a good sign to see some love thrown his way no less. ZiPS and Steamer aren’t quite up to PECOTA’s liking, but are in the ballpark. In any case, we all should be thrilled if Higgy is the backup and performs up to PECOTA’s evaluation.

Veteran competition

The Yankees brought in Erik Kratz, Chris Iannetta, and Josh Thole as non-roster invitees to spring training. At 39, 36, and 33 years old, respectively, these guys have been around the block. It’s good to have some veteran insurance in camp especially considering the beating catchers take behind the plate.

Kratz has bounced back-and-forth between the Yankees and other clubs in each of the last three seasons, so it’s clear the Yankees have taken a liking to him. It’s pretty hard to imagine a backstop at his age breaking camp with the Yankees, but it’s safe to say his presence is valued. Perhaps this is the beginning of a transition into the coaching ranks.

Iannetta has had some pretty good seasons as a starter earlier in his career. But in the “what have you done for me lately?” department, it’s another story. In 2019, Iannetta recorded a 70 wRC+ and -0.5 fWAR in just 52 games. This happened a season after he did the following:

Can’t hurt to see if there’s any gas left in the 2018 tank, especially on a minor league deal. Iannetta did average a 92.1 MPH exit velocity in a small sample last year, by the way. He probably has an opt-out date late in camp, so if another big league job comes calling and the Yankees are planning to roll with Higashioka, Iannetta will land elsewhere.

Longshots

Josh Thole could have gone in the previous section since he is a big league veteran, but he better fits in here. Thole is most famous for being RA Dickey’s personal catcher. He actually had some decent offensive production in his early years with the Mets, but he’s been out of the majors since 2016. He was hurt all of 2017 and then spent the past two seasons in the minors with the Tigers, Angels, and Dodgers. He’s probably destined to be minor league depth, either in Double-A or Triple-A.

The Yankees have also brought in lifelong minor leaguers to big league camp in Kellin Deglan and Wynston Sawyer. This is a customary practice for all teams in spring training as you need enough catchers to handle the swath of pitchers on the roster before cuts start rolling in. Deglan and Sawyer aren’t actually going to beat anyone else in this post today, but considering they’re non-roster invitees, they’re worth a mention.

Deglan, 27, got his professional career started with the Rangers in 2010 before the Yankees brought him in prior to 2018. Sawyer, 28, also got his career going in 2010. He was with the Twins since 2018, so it stands to reason that he’s one of Tanner Swanson’s guys.

My pick

Has to be Higashioka, right? Not only have the Yankees telegraphed that he’s the organization’s choice, but he’s also the one who deserves it most. He’s put in the work and his been with the Yankees since 2008, when the team drafted him in the seventh round out of high school. That’s a long time to keep on pushing forward in the minors without many big league chances.

Not only has Higashioka put in the more than requisite work, but he’s also the best option of the bunch. Hell, he may have been a better option than Austin Romine the past couple of years. There’s some potency in his bat, though sporadic playing time may hinder it a bit. We know the defense is a plus. It’s time to get Higgy with it.

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10 Comments

  1. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    You do know this is really just a sham competition for show don’t you, Derek? Higgy is our backup C and some are saying he could be starting C by season’s end. He knows the pitching staff inside and out and is our best defensive catcher with Romine now in Detroit. These other guys are hacks and has beens. One weakness in Higgy’s game is the bat but I think working with Jorgie this Spring will remedy that.

  2. Stephen A today, addressing the Astros: “That championship trophy is bogus. Your behinds ain’t no damn champions! You’re cheaters.”

    • Mungo

      This is the greatest punishment the Astros players and the Astros ownership and management will have to live with. They will never be recognized as champions, and they will forever be attached to cheating. They become the modern day version of the 1919 Black Sox, 100 years apart.

  3. chip56

    On a completely different note:
    How is the first question to Gerrit Cole not: “Gerrit, you were in the clubhouse last year with Altuve, Bregman, Springer, and the rest. Presumably you saw them all with their shirts off. Were they wearing any sort of buzzer devices under their shirts?”

    • I would love to hear his response, though I doubt he has the guts to say yes if he did see the buzzers. I doubt any player will contradict the MLB report saying there wasn’t enough evidence for cheating in 2019. But I would love it if some player did.

  4. RetroRob

    It’s Higashioka’s job. He has more than enough skills to be the BUC. Excellent pitch framer and some pop in his bat. He’s out of options and if they try passing him through waivers he will be immediately claimed, which means in the process they would weaken their catching depth. Not happening. Iannetta is there for a bit of fake competition, or in case Higgy gets injured. They may also be able to convince Iannetta to stick around on a AAA assignment for a month or two while they continue to review Higashioka.

    My main concern with Higgy is his prior injury history. BUCs don’t play every day, but they absolutely have to be available when needed. Romine would take a beating and keep on ticking. That’s critical in this role.

    • chip56

      The concerning piece is that, assuming Higgy wins the job, Kratz, Thole, Iannetta could all conceivably opt out and become free agents. At that point your catching tandem in Scranton is what: Wynston Sawyer and Kellan Deglan?

      • RetroRob

        I’m guessing not all these guys have opt outs. Iannetta likely does but I doubt Kratz does. He’s been part of the Yankees org on and off for years, and even maintains his permanent home in Scranton. Some speculation that he’s angling ultimately toward a coaching job with the Yankees after this season.

  5. chip56

    Higgy is fine; he just gets hurt a ton. I think it does also speak to how thin the catching situation is in the upper minors for the Yankees.

  6. JG (Ben Francisco)

    Higashioka -175
    Iannetta +350
    Kratz +500
    Thole +900
    Other +1200

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