Kyle Higashioka doesn’t look like a backup anymore.
Not when it comes to playing time, his production, or the eyes of his manager.
“He’s just earned more playing time,” Aaron Boone said before Tuesday’s game against the Orioles. “Simple as that. Higgy's done a great job. His improvements over the last couple of years on both sides of the ball have been strong. The way he's played here on the onset of the season has earned him some more opportunities."
It didn’t take long for Higashioka to further simplify his case for more looks. The backstop went 2-4 with a solo home run in the Yankees’ 5-1 win on Tuesday. He also called Corey Kluber’s most efficient and effective start in two years.
Higashioka wasn’t thinking much about his evolving role after the game, though.
“I don’t really concern myself too much with who’s going to play when,” he said. “I know if I’m playing my best baseball, more than likely I’ll end up finding more playing time at some point. My main focus is just going out there and playing my best every time.”
Higashioka has always been a talented receiver, but his offensive production is what has stood out this year.
His long ball against the O’s, an oppo shot, was his fourth this season after just 27 plate appearances. His third multi-hit game of the year brought his average up to .320, while his OPS soared to 1.294. He now has eight hits and six RBI in 11 games, only seven of which have been starts.
The scorching start follows a 2020 campaign in which Higashioka hit four homers in 48 plate appearances while slashing .250 /.250/.521.
“When he got to the big leagues, I think he understood that his calling card was his defense and his ability to receive and all that,” Boone said postgame. “He’s poured a ton into his craft behind the plate, and understandably and rightfully so. It’s obviously an important thing. 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.”
A frequent reader of Ted Williams’ hitting philosophies in high school, Higashioka admitted that offense became an “afterthought” earlier in his pro career because, “I’ve always been taught that you can save a lot more runs on defense than you can drive in at the plate.” But Higashioka credited hitting coach Marcus Thames for making sure he watches just as much video on opposing pitchers as he does opposing hitters.
“I think that’s been a big key for me,” Higashioka said.
Higashioka’s success, while over an especially limited sample size, has come amid another round of struggles for Gary Sánchez.
Sánchez, after slumping through the entire pandemic-shortened 2020 season, began the new campaign with two home runs in as many days, but he hasn’t hit one since. Instead, he’s slashed .146/.281/.167 since April 4. He’s been even worse (.048/.200/.048) over his last 25 plate appearances. Sánchez’s last start, on Monday, saw him go 0-4 with two strikeouts.
Sánchez entered the season as New York’s No. 1 catcher despite Higashioka taking starts from him in the playoffs last year. But his grim performance and apparent incompatibility with Gerrit Cole—along with his backup’s hot bat—have created more opportunities for Higashioka while relegating Sánchez to co-starter at best.
“We’ll go day by day,” Boone said before Tuesday’s game, referring to the catching situation. “They’re both gonna play a lot.”
Boone said that he spoke to Sánchez about increasing Higashioka’s playing time.
“Obviously, he wants in the lineup,” Boone added. “But I think he certainly understands that Higgy’s earned some more things as well.”
That he has. And until something changes with Higashioka or Sánchez’s performance, Boone shouldn’t think twice about continuing to reward the former with more playing time.
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