Better late than never.
In the end — if this is the end — Kyle Higashioka gained the role of the Yankees’ top catcher, or at least a healthy share of it, as much as Gary Sanchez lost it. Aaron Boone’s stated decision Tuesday to give Higashioka “more playing time” at Sanchez’s expense paid immediate dividends, with Higashioka contributing a home run and single while guiding Corey Kluber to his first victory since 2019, 5-1 over Baltimore at Camden Yards.
Now all the Yankees, still an underwhelming 10-13, must do is ensure they don’t get hurt anymore by their decision last December to retain Sanchez when they could have let him go for nothing.
“I don’t really concern myself too much with who’s gonna play when,” the ever-diplomatic Higashioka said. “I know if I’m playing my best baseball, more than likely I’ll end up finding more playing time at some point. So my main focus is just going out there and playing my best every time.”
It sure appears that Higashioka’s best baseball in 2021 tops Sanchez’s by a considerable margin. Higashioka plays superior defense to Sanchez by any public metric, and he now boasts of a .320/.414/.880 slash line to Sanchez’s .182/.308/.309. If Sanchez has recovered somewhat from last year’s disastrous .147/.253/.365, Higashioka has nevertheless widened the gap — in the small sample of the first month, granted — that led to him usurping Sanchez last October.
“I think when he got to the big leagues … he understood that his calling card was his defense and his ability to receive and all that, and obviously has poured a ton into his craft behind the plate and understandably and rightfully so. It’s obviously an important thing,” Boone said. “But I think as he’s been here now, he’s also started to take some pride in game planning and preparing for pitchers that he might have to face.”
Confirmed Higashioka: “Marcus [Thames, Yankees hitting coach] has been really good at making sure that I put as much emphasis on studying the opposing pitchers as I do studying the opposing hitters. So I think that’s been a big key for me.”
Higashioka represents the sort of feel-good story that, beyond his obvious improvement as a ballplayer, can elevate a club’s mood and soften a hardened, fed-up fan base. The Yankees’ seventh-round draft pick in 2008 (the same year they selected a high-school right-hander named Gerrit Cole in the first round), the 31-year-old took 10 years to reach the big leagues, 23 big-league at-bats to notch his first hit (a home run) and four years to land a permanent roster spot with the Yankees. Watch him do something good in a game — one of the few players on this team for whom that has not presented a “needle in a haystack” challenge — and you can see his teammates’ joy.
Sanchez, conversely, serves as a victim of his own early success in 2016, when he dominated the competition so thoroughly for those two months that one graying Post columnist (OK, it was me) described him as “the rookie you’d want most on your team for the next decade.” Yeesh. If Team X’s second catcher put up Sanchez’s 2021 numbers and was making, say, $1.5 million, you wouldn’t break a sweat over it. Sanchez, however, earns $6.35 million in a season when Hal Steinbrenner is staying under the luxury-tax threshold, and his failures to live up to his past — as well as his general streakiness — seem to wear folks down.
Credit to the Yankees for sticking with and developing Higashioka. Demerits for sticking with and failing to sufficiently fix Sanchez to this point. If it’s too late for do-overs, though, this playing-time makeover can only help the team weather this brutal storm.