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BALTIMORE — Less than a month into a season in which the Yankees said they were giving Gary Sanchez a second chance, Kyle Higashioka is already pushing the issue for more playing time. With the Yankees entering play in last place on Tuesday and Sanchez struggling at the plate, Higashioka, Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher, is branching out, and he caught Corey Kluber against the Orioles Tuesday.
“He’s just earned more playing time. I mean, simple as that,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said before the game Tuesday. “Obviously, he’s done a great job.
“I think the way he’s played here at the onset of the season, it has earned him some more opportunities.”
Last year, Sanchez lost his everyday job to Higashioka, who started five of the seven playoff games. The Yankees didn’t put much stock in the 60-game Covid-19 season and said Sanchez would get a second chance this year. He played winter ball, reworked his swing and has made defensive improvements.
Sanchez’s upgrades behind the plate don’t mean much when he is hitting .182/.308/.309 with two home runs in 55 at-bats. Especially when the Yankees’ offense overall is sputtering.
Higashioka has provided a spark with the Yankees at times with power. He’s slashing .286/.400/.810 with three home runs in 21 at-bats.
“Confidence is the key,” Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thamas said about Higashioka’s start being the best offense of his career. “I just think that he’s putting in his homework. He’s confident and he’s having fun.”
Higashioka has always been seen as a better catcher than Sanchez. He is among the best framers in the game, ranking in the top two percent in MLB right now at creating strikes.
“I think he just has really elite glove skills. I think his hands work really well. They’re quiet. He’s got really strong pocket accuracy, meaning he knows where his hand is in space and he knows how to get his (glove) pocket to the baseball regardless of the where the pitch is or the movement or the velocity, and to be able to suddenly manipulate pitches back to the strike zone,” Yankees catching coordinator Tanner Swanson said. “I just think he’s really refined the art of that skill.”
Swanson said that he sees the connection between Cole and Higashioka, which began last September when the ace made it clear he preferred the then back-up catcher, as a matter of those elite skills and also trust, perhaps from knowing each other as teenagers in California.
“I think they’re just in a good rhythm, and I think there’s a trust factor there that exists,” Swanson said of Higashioka and Cole.
With Higashioka behind the plate, the Yankees pitchers have a 2.43 ERA and .202 batting average against in 63 innings pitched over 10 games. That is a little skewed because Higashioka catches Cole, the best of the Yankees pitchers, most of the time while Sanchez has had to work with the rest of the struggling rotation. The Yankees pitchers have a 3.92 with a .223 BAA with Sanchez catching 133 innings over 16 games.
Boone said he has talked to Sanchez about losing playing time.
“He understood the situation,” Boone said. “Obviously, he wants to be in the lineup, but I think, certainly understands that Higgy’s earned some more time as well.”