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 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.
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.
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.
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.