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Finding an upgrade over Gary Sánchez is easier said than done

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The calls to replace Gary Sánchez behind the plate aren’t new to this year. He’s been the most scrutinized player on the roster for a few years now. But this time, moving on from him actually seems possible. Especially when the team’s general manager says so. In a press conference last week, Brian Cashman addressed the catching situation: “We’ll evaluate that particular position because we’ll be forced to now as we move forward…but, ultimately that will be a subject that we have to discuss as well and it could very well be a change. It could very well be a competition.”

By “forced to”, Cashman is pointing to Sánchez’s dreadful 2020. The catcher hit .147/.253/.365 (69 wRC+) in 178 plate appearances and struck out 36 percent of the time. Defensively, the new catching stance didn’t take. Gary ranked in the 37th percentile in Statcast framing and he allowed 5 passed balls (after 7 in a full season in 2019). This isn’t the first time Sánchez has had a bad season (hello, 2018), but this year may have pushed the Yankees’ over the edge. The problem: it’s not easy to find good and readily available catchers in baseball.

Wild Card Round Game 1: All you could ask for

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That was ideal, was it not? The Yankees clobbered Cleveland in Game 1 of this best-of-three series, 12-3. The offense was all over Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole mowed down his opponent. It’s not like the Yankees needed to blow out Cleveland to feel comfortable, either. In fact, this one felt over after Aaron Judge’s two-run blast on the fourth pitch of the game. An early lead with Cole on the hill against a scuffling Cleveland offense? Just what the doctor ordered. Let’s break it down.

The bats took Bieber off his gameplan immediately. The Yankees’ offense may have been frustrating and inconsistent during the regular season, but that was far from the case tonight. Intimidated by the presumptive American League Cy Young winner? Not a chance. The Bombers took a 2-0 lead four pitches into this one. It completely took Shane Bieber off his game. DJ LeMahieu led off with a single and Aaron Judge followed with this:

That was quick. Bieber had come out firing all fastballs and the Yankees made him pay immediately. The right immediately shied away from his heater thereafter.

Bieber threw 27 fastballs the rest of the game, or 26.7 percent of his final 101 pitches. He’s not necessarily a fastball dominant pitcher as he used the pitch just over 37 percent in the regular season, but still. The Yankees scared him off the pitch.

Cleveland’s ace had a chance to settle down after a scoreless second and two relatively quick outs in the third inning. But instead, the Yankees’ relentless offense made him pay. Bieber fell behind Aaron Hicks 3-0, got it to 3-2, but then walked him. Up came Luke Voit:

Not a fastball, but rather, a cutter right down the pipe. Voit made him pay to give the Yanks a 3-1 lead.

The Yanks tallied a couple of more runs against Bieber in the fourth. Brett Gardner jumped a first pitch fastball for an RBI double and DJ LeMahieu delivered an RBI single up the middle against a heater too. The Yankees may not have seen Bieber’s fastball much, but when they did, they pounced. And they weren’t done jumping on Bieber’s fastball there. Gleyber Torres delivered the knockout blow in the fifth.

That was the end of Bieber’s night. 4 2/3 innings and 7 runs for the starter with a 1.77 ERA this season. Welp!

The offense didn’t let Bieber capitalize on his curveball, either. As impressive as it was to see the Yankees punish Bieber’s sporadically thrown fastball, it was also great to watch them not flail at too many of Bieber’s curveballs. Opponents had a .095 batting average, .143 slugging percentage, and 51.5 percent whiff rate against his yakker this season. Tonight, it’s not what they did when they put the ball in play (1-for-6), but rather, what they did against it otherwise.

Sure, Bieber racked up four Ks on his breaking ball, but that doesn’t tell the story. They whiffed on 7 of 18 swings (39 percent) against the curve, well below his regular season rate. They also fouled it off 5 times. Plus, Bieber was only able to nab 3 called strikes on it. It simply just wasn’t his typical putaway pitch this evening.

Overall, Bieber went to his curveball on 36 percent of his pitches this evening, 10 percent higher than in the regular season. That would have been a decent plan tonight had his curveball been fooling Yankees’ hitters. Instead, the offense was locked in. They hunted fastballs while spoiling Bieber’s curveball.

Game 57: Another loss in Buffalo

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I’m glad there are no more games in Buffalo. The Yankees lost to the Blue Jays tonight at Sahlen Field, 4-1. Toronto trails the Yanks by two games with three to be played. There’s no reason to doubt a second place finish yet, but it’s getting uncomfortable. Also: the Yankees missed a chance to gain on the White Sox for the fourth seed. The South Siders lost but remain two ahead of the Yanks.

We’re doing abbreviated takeaways tonight as all of us are a bit busy today. Here they are:

  • Jordan Montgomery’s roller coaster regular season ends on a high note. What a strange season for the lefty. There was a bit of hype after some impressive performances in spring training and summer camp, but his regular season was all over the place. There were some strong outings and some awful outings. Overall, including tonight, he finished with a 5.11 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 10 starts and 44 innings pitched. He allowed 3 runs (1 of those was inherited by Adam Ottavino) in 5 1/3 innings and looked sharp. Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s homer was the big blow, but Monty also struck out 8 and walked nobody. I presume that he’s the teams fifth starter this postseason if the Yankees advance past the Wild Card round.
  • More than a personal catcher? It now looks like Kyle Higashioka could be more than Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher. Aaron Boone dropped that bomb before today’s game. Starting for a second straight night, Higgy went 0-for-3 today, though he was pinch hit for by Gary Sánchez in the 8th inning. More on that Sánchez in a moment. I think some forgot that Higashioka was hitting .188/.188/.281 (20 wRC+) in 32 plate appearances before that three homer game last week. Or that he was a career .164/.212/.336 (41 wRC+) hitter in 156 plate appearances at the big league level entering 2020. It can be worse than Gary Sánchez has hit this year (66 wRC+), folks. And it’s not that I don’t like Higashioka. To the contrary; he’s hit well in the minors and has a good defensive reputation. But if you think you’re getting an offensive upgrade with him instead of Gary, think again. Defensively? I won’t fight you on that.
  • 2020 has shown no mercy on Gary Sánchez. As if the batting line wasn’t bad enough, Sánchez ran into some bad luck as a pinch hitter tonight in the eighth. Up in place of Higgy and as the tying run, Gary barreled one to left center that Randal Grichuk made a leaping catch on for the final out of the inning. Gary has mostly earned his stat line this season, but he didn’t deserve the below tonight. Would have been a two-run double to make things 4-3. And it had an .880 expected batting average, per Statcast.
  • The bats don’t show up on the road again. The Yankees have knocked around Hyun-Jin Ryu a couple of times in the last year (once with the Dodgers, once with the Blue Jays). Not tonight. He twirled a gem this evening. He blanked the Yankees across seven innings and barely gave up any well-struck batted balls. The Yankees’ average exit velocity against Ryu was 83.4 MPH in this one. It was yet another instance of the Yankees’ offense struggling away from the Bronx. The Yankees did hit Ryu well at Sahlen Field earlier this month, so maybe credit to him for adjusting. Or, maybe the Yankees are just going through the motions at this point. Or maybe there is a problem away from home. Who knows for sure, but the numbers are glaring:
    • Home: 176 runs, .276/.366/.588, 150 wRC+
    • Away: 124 runs, .221/.318/.354, 87 wRC+
  • I was about to say that Adam Ottavino has looked better lately. Entering tonight, Ottavino hadn’t allowed a run in his last five outings. He had faced 18 batters, allowed 3 hits, walked 1, and struck out 7 while not allowing a run. This came after that horrendous performance in Buffalo when he faced six hitters and didn’t record a single out. Tonight, the bad Ottavino returned. He gave up a two-run double to Alejandro Kirk in the sixth which put the Yankees behind 4-0. One of those runners was on Montgomery’s line. Sigh. Ottavino is an enigma.

Three games remain, all at Yankee Stadium. The final regular season series begins tomorrow with the Marlins in town. Have a good night everyone.

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.

Game 44: Cole shoves

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Now this is more like it! Homers and dominant pitching against the Orioles is what we’re accustomed to. Today, Gerrit Cole went the distance and blanked Baltimore’s bats while the offense struck often and early. Let’s break it down before the second game of the twin bill.

We finally got the Gerrit Cole outing we’ve been waiting for. He put everything together in his complete game two-hit shutout this afternoon. The ace was on from the start and didn’t allow any hits through 4 2/3 innings. That’s when Hanser Alberto broke things up with a single to right, but it didn’t phase Cole.

Cole struck out 9 and walked just 1 in his 7 innings of work. Perhaps most notable of it all: he didn’t allow a home run. It’s the first time he’s done that this season. In fact, Cole didn’t allow much hard contact at all. The average exit velocity against him was 84.4 MPH.

Cole got a lot of mileage out of his curveball and slider today. He got 5 whiffs on 7 swings on the former and 10 on 20 swings on the latter. I wrote about Gerrit’s trouble with his secondaries ten days ago, particularly his ability to throw them in the zone. Perhaps that was part of his success today? Let’s see. First, his curve:

Hmm..not quite here. Not that these are all bad locations! But you could tell from watching that he was a little frustrated with his curve at times, especially the few that slipped and went high out of the zone. Now, let’s examine the slider:

Now that’s an improvement. He really seemed to have a good handle on it today and threw it where he wanted, whether in the zone or off the plate. Maybe he got a little too much plate with a few of those, but again: he got a ton of whiffs on the pitch and it wasn’t hit hard (79.9 MPH average exit velocity on 4 balls in play).

Numbers aside, Cole going the distance was huge. Obviously, this is the first game of today’s double header so he gave the bullpen a reprieve. Aaron Boone let Cole start the 7th inning despite having thrown 100 pitches through 6, though in fairness, Cole probably wouldn’t have let Boone pull him. That’s what you want out of the ace.

Home runs are good. I’ve been pining for the days of #TooManyHomers, and today, the Yankees gave me my wish. The lineup took Alex Cobb deep three times this afternoon. DJ LeMahieu led off with a dinger while Brett Gardner and Kyle Higashioka chipped in two-run homers each. On Gardy in particular, look at what this big dumb blog said about today’s lineup construction:

Here are all three homers:

Not much else to say other than that. Most good offenses thrive on home runs and the Yankees aren’t going to be the exception. Granted, guys like LeMahieu, Gardner, and Higashioka aren’t exactly known for their home run prowess. But when the big bats like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton return (apparently soon!), the Yankees will need the long ball from them. Remember when Judge was swatting dingers every day? Those were the good times. Those were the Bronx Bombers.

Leftovers

  • Mike Tauchman went 3-for-3, all singles. And hey, one of his hits came against a fastball! An 85 MPH from Tom Eshelman, that is. It was confounding to watch Alex Cobb keep throwing Tauchman splitters today, by the way.
  • Brett Gardner reached base all three times today, including the homer. However, he was caught stealing twice.
  • Gary Sánchez, the DH in this one, went 0-for-2 with a walk to bring his batting average down to .119. One of his two outs recorded was a bit of hard luck though: a 103 MPH line drive to first baseman Pat Valaika, which had a .700 xBA.
  • Here are the game two lineups:

Baltimore Orioles (20-23)

  1. Cedric Mullins, CF
  2. José Iglesias, SS
  3. DJ Stewart, RF
  4. Ryan Mountcastle, LF
  5. Rio Ruiz, 3B
  6. Renato Núñez, DH
  7. Hanser Alberto, 2B
  8. Chris Davis, 1B
  9. Chance Cisco, C

LHP Keegan Akin

New York Yankees (23-21)

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 3B
  2. Luke Voit, 1B
  3. Aaron Hicks, CF
  4. Clint Frazier, RF
  5. Gleyber Torres, SS
  6. Miguel Andújar, DH
  7. Gary Sánchez, C
  8. Brett Gardner, LF
  9. Thairo Estrada, 2B

RHP Masahiro Tanaka

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