How Gary Sánchez, Kyle Higashioka Are Handling a Division of Playing Time Heading into Postseason
NEW YORK — Off the crack of the bat, Kyle Higashioka thought it was gone.
It was Higashioka's turn in the batting order with the game on the line in the eighth inning on Thursday night. Rather than stepping up to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs, however, he was sent back to the bench as Yankees' manager Aaron Boone elected to use Gary Sánchez as a pinch hitter.
The starting catcher job for New York has all of a sudden transformed into a "day-to-day" decision as the Bombers inch closer to the postseason.
Even with a chance to increase his playing time due to his teammate's struggles, Higashioka was on the top step of the Yankees' dugout, willing Sánchez's fly ball out of the ballpark. He let out a cry of frustration before sulking as Blue Jays' center fielder Randal Grichuk snagged the fly ball at the warning track.
New York went on to lose 4-1 to Toronto, the club's fourth loss in its last five games fresh off a 10-game winning streak.
"At the end of the day it's all about winning and I think it's going to take both of us to play well going forward to have success and we know that," Higashioka said. "Doesn't do any of us any good if we're going at each other. Luckily me and Gary are good friends."
Up until Thursday, all signs pointed toward Sánchez serving as the Yankees' starting backstop. Save for when ace Gerrit Cole is on the mound, a pitcher that Higashioka has worked with in each of his last four starts as a personal catcher of sorts, Sánchez's job appeared to be secure.
Comments made by Boone on Thursday afternoon, however, indicate that the organization has reached a tipping point with Sánchez's season-long slump.
"Performance matters, matchups matter and pairing guys matters," Boone said. "I think both [of our catchers] will probably play an important role for us if we're going to go deep in the playoffs."
Boone emphasized that the developing situation for the Bombers' backstops can change at any moment and decisions for the postseason have yet to be finalized. For the time being, and after Higashioka got the start on Thursday night, it's clear that both catchers are going to be used interchangeably.
So, how did we get here?
Sánchez is now hitless in his last 13 at-bats after his bid for his second go-ahead pinch-hit grand slam of the season fell short. After going 40 games without a single multi-hit performance, it looked like the 27-year-old might've broken out of his "bad funk" less than a week ago, when he put together back-to-back two-hit games, homering in three out of four.
That modest hot stretch feels like a distant memory now as Sánchez is hitting .142 this season (21-for-148) as of Friday morning, the lowest batting average among big leaguers with more than 100 at-bats in 2020.
One reason for his woes at the plate is pure bad luck. Sánchez ranks in the top three percent in Major League Baseball with a 17.4 percent barrel rate. He's in the top 13 percent in exit velocity and hard hit percentage, but he just hasn't been able to sustain results when putting the ball in play.
Meanwhile, Higashioka has taken full advantage of playing time this season. He's hitting .255 (12-for-47) entering play on Friday and is coming off his three-homer performance on Sept. 16 at Yankee Stadium.
Boone singled out Higashioka's abilities behind the dish as an "elite receiver" and his potential to hit for power as reasons why the organization believes in him. Those attributes, Boone said, are why New York was comfortable with Austin Romine—the Bombers' former backup backstop—walking away in free agency this past winter.
"He's also really grown in his presence and in his voice in our clubhouse over the last three years," Boone explained. "You're seeing a guy that's more and more confident and comfortable with who he is and as a catcher having an important role with the pitching staff. He's just continued to grow and he's performed really well for us here since he's come back from the IL."
New York has three games left in the regular season, against the Miami Marlins in the Bronx, as it jockeys for home field advantage in the first round next week.
It's safe to expect Higashioka will be behind the plate in Game 1 of that opening series, opponent yet to be determined. Cole's numbers on the mound have been far superior when working with Higashioka over the past month. After that, however, the player Boone pencils in at catcher in the starting lineup is up in the air and might not be decided until hours before game time.
Either way, Boone envisions both Sánchez and Higashioka playing a key role if the Yankees hope to survive and advance in October.
"It's hard to predict. We're still even though it's five days away from the postseason, that in a lot of ways is a long time in baseball," Boone said on Thursday. "Things happen and change every single day so there's nothing committed to right now but I expect both guys to play a role and hopefully play an important part of us being a champion."
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