Gary Sanchez gave Yankees fans hope when he launched a pair of homers in the season’s first two games, but he’s batting just .146/.281/.167 in 57 plate appearances since that time and is currently mired in a 2-for-28 slump. In light of those struggles, Yankees skipper Aaron Boone acknowledged last night that Kyle Higashioka will see increased playing time at the expense of some of Sanchez’s starts (link via the New York Post’s Dan Martin).
Boone declined to name Higashioka the new starter and said decisions on who’ll start behind the plate will be made on a “day-by-day” basis, but he made clear that Higashioka has “earned more playing time.” Higashioka has already drawn the start in four of Gerrit Cole’s five appearances this season, so it seems fair to assume that pairing will continue. Corey Kluber also had his best start of the season last night with Higashioka behind the dish, so perhaps that’ll set the tone moving forward. There’s no concrete definition of how playing time will be divided up, but at the very least fans ought to expect closer to even timeshare for now. Boone noted that he’s already spoken to Sanchez about Higashioka receiving increased playing time.
Of course, while Sanchez’s struggles are likely the primary driver of this shift in playing time, it also has to be emphasized that Higashioka has put himself into position for an increased role. He’s out to a strong start in 2021, hitting .320/.414/.880 with four homers and a pair of doubles through 29 trips to the plate.
The power may seem like a sudden development for the 30-year-old Higashioka, but that’s really not the case. He hit .250/.250/.521 with four homers in 48 plate appearances last year, and back in 2019 his ISO (slugging minus batting average) of .250 highlighted plenty of pop as well. Since Opening Day 2020, Higashioka is slashing .274/.312/.644 in 77 plate appearances.
Higashioka’s batted-ball profile gives some optimism that this isn’t a total small-sample fluke, too. Statcast credits him with 10 barreled balls in those 77 PAs dating back to 2019 and 13 in 134 PAs dating back to 2020. He’s being credited with a barrel in 9.7 percent of his plate appearances dating back to ’19 and 12.9 percent since the start of the 2020 season; either would rank among the game’s very best over a full season. It’s unlikely that Higashioka is going to continue to make premium contact at quite such a high level, but those results certainly merit a larger opportunity — particularly when his counterpart is struggling to this extent.
From a defensive standpoint, Higashioka is the superior of the two and is generally regarded as a plus defensive option. He’s drawn strong framing marks and positive totals in Defensive Runs Saved each season since 2018 in a limited workload, though his career 20 percent caught-stealing rate is below the league average of around 27 percent. Sanchez, to his credit, is at a hefty 32 percent in that regard, but he’s more prone to passed balls and draws inferior framing ratings to Higashioka. Catching coordinator Tanner Swanson told reporters yesterday that Higashioka’s defensive skills are “elite.”
The shuffle in playing time only further shines a spotlight on what has been a mounting issue for the Yankees for years. Sanchez’s ceiling is obviously an All-Star caliber slugger, but he’s been maddeningly inconsistent — to the point that the Yankees mulled whether to trade him or even perhaps non-tender him this past offseason. They opted to tender him a contract and eventually agreed to a one-year deal that pays Sanchez $6.35MM for the 2021 season. He’d be arbitration-eligible for a third and final time this winter, but the early shuffle behind the dish seems like a portent for greater change down the road.
If Higashioka struggles with an increased workload or goes down to injury, Sanchez may yet be given another opportunity to snap out of his current swoon and recapture his 2019 form. But if Higashioka proves capable of handling a larger role and/or Sanchez continues to struggle, the questions about Sanchez’s future will only grow louder. At the very least, taking a closer look at Higashioka now gives the Yankees more information on how to address the catcher position moving forward. Higashioka is controlled through 2024 via arbitration. Sanchez is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2022 season.