With Austin Romine recently having signed a one-year deal with the Tigers, Kyle Higashioka seems to be in line to become the Yankees’ backup catcher.
A backup catcher plays an important role on any baseball team, even if the position isn’t glorified or covered to nearly the same extent that starters are. For years, Yankees catcher Austin Romine was as good as they come as far as backup catchers go. An organizational mainstay, Romine had been with the team for 13 seasons, as he was drafted in the 2nd round of 2007 draft. He debuted with the team in 2011 and played 60 or more games in five different seasons, most recently serving as the backup for starting catcher Gary Sanchez. Sanchez, an incredibly talented (albeit streaky) hitter, has struggled with staying on the field in recent years, as he was placed on the injured list five separate times from 2017-2019.
Each time that Sanchez went down, Romine stepped up and played a serviceable catcher for the team, including a career year with the bat in 2018, when he slashed .244/.295/.417 in 77 games and reached the 10 home run mark for the only time in his career thus far. Sanchez was always the clear superior catcher (except to a group of fans that irrationally hate him), but for years many fans have felt that Romine would easily start on many other teams if given the chance. It seems he’ll have that opportunity in 2020, as the Detroit Tigers signed him to a one-year, $4.1 million contract on December 13th. With Romine out of the picture, another catcher who’s been in the organization for over a decade will have a chance to cement his spot as the team’s backup catcher: Kyle Higashioka.
The Yankees drafted Higashioka, a catcher out of Edison High School in Huntington Beach, California, in the 7th round of the 2008 draft. Higashioka spent parts of 10 seasons in the minor leagues before he finally got a chance to break through with the big league club. He finally made his MLB debut at 27 years old in April of 2017, backing up Romine when Sanchez went down with a right biceps strain. Higashioka appeared in nine games before Sanchez returned, though he didn’t show much with the bat, going hitless in 20 plate appearances. His first career hit would have to wait, but when it came, it would sure be a memorable one.
Higashioka was recalled in June of 2018 when Sanchez was placed on the disabled list with a right groin strain. He recorded his first major league hit on July 1st, a solo home run off of Red Sox pitcher David Price in an 11-0 Yankees blowout win on Sunday Night Baseball. As if homering for his first career big league hit wasn’t impressive enough, career hits #2 and #3 for Higashioka both also left the yard, joining Alfonso Soriano as the only two Yankees ever to have all three of their first career hits be home runs. Higashioka stayed up with the big league club for most of the rest of the season, ultimately slashing a pedestrian .167/.241/.319 with a .560 OPS in 79 plate appearances across 29 games.
Higashioka put up similarly subpar numbers in his 18 games with the big league club in 2019, but three of his 12 hits in 57 plate appearances did leave the yard, so he continued to show that he definitely had some pop in his bat when given the opportunity. Most importantly, he stayed healthy throughout the 2018 and 2019 seasons, not being placed on the Injured List once, which suggests that he should be able to stay on the field for the team in the event that they need him to spell an injured Sanchez for a few weeks.
The other aspect of being a backup catcher that is highly valued is defense. In his multiple stints with the big league club, Higashioka has been nothing short of exceptional defensively. He has sported a .998 fielding percentage in that span, only committing one error in his 377 innings behind the plate.
While the Yankees recently signed veteran catcher Erik Kratz to a minor league contract, general manager Brian Cashman said at Gerrit Cole’s press conference on December 19th that he was fully prepared to give Higashioka a shot at the backup job in 2020. “We thought he was ready last year and beyond,” Cashman said. While the team has yet to see what they can get out of him in a full season with the big league club, they have high expectations for him in 2020. “Pitchers love throwing to him, he’s a lethal bat against left-handed pitching, he can really pop one pretty deep, so he’s a nice threat against left-handers,” Cashman added. “We’re very comfortable with his receiving skills and especially the bat against left-handers, so he’s earned the right to be our backup.”
Filling in for a fan favorite in Romine is somewhat of a tall order, but for the 29-year-old Higashioka, he doesn’t need to be a star to win fans over. Being serviceable enough with the bat and playing a stellar defense would go a long way in endearing him to fans and cementing his spot as the team’s backup catcher for the next few seasons.