Kyle Higashioka, Austin Romine
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Yankees have a big decision to make regarding their backup catcher. Will it be Austin Romine or Kyle Higashioka?

Allison Case

Brian Cashman has made it clear that Gary Sanchez is part of the solution, not the problem, for the New York Yankees. Who will be suiting up behind Sanchez for the 2020 season?

This offseason, the Yankees have a significant decision to make regarding who will serve as the primary backup catcher. While big free agent names are being tossed around on a daily basis, a huge role that needs filling is that of the backup catcher.

The two internal options for the Yankees currently like in Austin Romine, the backup for the past four seasons, and Kyle Higashioka, a catcher who is all out of minor league options. While many assumed that Austin Romine would be re-signed for the 2020 season, at least, the questions started to come after Cashman made some telling comments following the GM meetings.

Cashman determined that he would be “comfortable” utilizing Higashioka as the primary backup, according to multiple reports. This would mean that Romine would be set free to find greener pastures elsewhere.

But is Higashioka the way to go for the Yankees? After the reliable backup Romine has been for the Yankees for a few years, is it smart to hand over the job to the 29-year-old Higashoika?

While Romine has done a decent job filling for Sanchez, especially with the last two seasons and Gary Sanchez’s injury history, there are also skills he lacks that might improve by having Higashioka take over behind the dish.

Over the four seasons Romine has held the backup job, his biggest flaw has been how easy it is for opponents to run on him. However, in 2019, his caught stealing percentage is above the league average of 27 percent at 30 percent. He has improved as the years went on, with a 26 percent caught stealing percentage in 2018.

Higgy has nowhere near the big-league experience that Romine has but who is to say that he might just have a better chance at holding runners? We don’t know unless he gets more chances to try it out.

According to Statcast, Kyle Higashioka averages a faster exchange from glove to throwing hand than Romine (0.74 to Romine’s 0.81). In Higgy’s shortened major league career, he also has shown that his pop time is on par with some of the league leaders. Higgy averaged a 1.97 pop time to second base, while Romine averaged a 2.06 pop time in his four seasons as a backup.

Small sample numbers, for sure. However, Higgy clearly shows that he has some pretty impressive stats already that he can improve on.

In addition to his arm, Higashioka has shown in his small samples that he’s pretty decent at framing pitches, especially on the outside corners. While he only caught 474 pitches this season, his strike rate was 55.1 percent. The league leader in strike-rate for a catcher was Austin Hedges at 54.1 percent.

Naturally, once again, the numbers are incredibly small. Yet Higashioka has shown he has the ability to frame some nasty pitches and get some great calls. Romine sat at 48.7 percent for his strike rate, according to Statcast.

How about offensively? Higashioka infamously went 0-for-18 in his first stint up in the Bronx before hitting three home runs in four games in 2018. 2019 was a slight improvement, as Higgy found his stroke and became more comfortable facing big-league pitching.

Romine clearly as the advantage here, as he’s only improved steadily as he started getting regular at-bats. With Sanchez succumbing to injuries in both 2018 and 2019, Romine’s regular time at the plate allowed him to boost his batting average from .214 in 2017 to .281 in 2019. He also discovered his power stroke, launching 18 home runs in his last two seasons.

Cashman claims he’s ready to call on Higashioka, but is he really ready to part with Romine? While Higgy is an improvement defensively, it seems that Romine’s offensive capability is something the Yankees would want in their lineup.

Another huge benefit of having Romine is his ability to connect with his pitchers. It’s no secret that he’s developed some incredible relationships with the Yankees’ pitching staff. Keeping that comradery in place will help when Masahiro Tanaka or Luis Severino starts to have a meltdown on the mound.

Time to move on from Romine? There’s no doubt he’ll find a place where he’ll excel, possibly in a greater role than he played in the Bronx. However, it’s tough to imagine him in another uniform when he’s spent the better part of four seasons developing some great relationships amongst these pitchers.

Backups can oftentimes be just as important as starters. Unfortunately, the Yankees have two pretty decent ones. Now, it’s decision time.


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