The Yankees know that they have to mull over their catching situation this offseason after what transpired during the shortened 2020 season.
In the postseason, it wasn’t Gary Sanchez situated behind the plate like in years past. Kyle Higashioka earned the starting role with his defensive skills, and to everyone’s surprise, his good at-bats as well.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday via Zoom, GM Brian Cashman was very frank in his answer about his catchers and what to expect heading into next season.
“I think it’s certainly a fair question obviously the way Gary Sanchez’ season transpired, and then the way it ended with Higashioka actually starting in the postseason as many games as he did,” he said. “I think it’s one of the discussion points we’re going to have to focus on.”
Sanchez truly labored this season right from the start going 0-for-15 in the five July games the Yankees played. He, then, posted a .155 average in August and .171 in Sept. and Oct. to bring it to .147 on the season.
“It was a struggle for him the first month of the season, just timing was off, chasing a lot, leaving the zone,” manager Aaron Boone said.
Boone added, though, that “it didn’t necessarily show up in the numbers” where Sanchez improved in front of his coaches. The Yankees believed he was putting together better at-bats and just not having luck on his side.
Because of that, the Yankees had to make a change to Higashioka, and he made the most out of it. It was a breakout season for him, slashing .250/.250/.521 with four homers and 10 RBI over 16 games. He also became Gerrit Cole’s preferred option behind the dish, and given Cole’s status, the Yankees weren’t about to change that chemistry.
But that isn’t the main reason why Higashioka was behind the dish whenever Cole pitched in the postseason. It’s because Sanchez just wasn’t producing at the dish. Higashioka went 1-for-5 in Game 1 of the Wild Card Round, but broke out in the ALDS with a .308 average (4-for-13) with a homer in Game 1 off Blake Snell and two RBI.
“The loss of playing time [for Sanchez] to a large degree there at the end was more a result of what Higgy was doing,” Boone explained. “Higgy kept earning more and more opportunities with the way he was swinging the bat and obviously what he brings behind the plate.
“So, right now, in what we have with Gary and Higgy is two quality major league catchers and I do still feel like, in Gary’s case, I do feel like his ceiling is really, really special.”
Also, in Sanchez’ case is the fact that he is due for an extension very soon. He is under team control until 2022 before becoming an unrestricted free agent before the 2023 season. The Yankees wouldn’t let things go that far if they wanted to keep the first of their “Baby Bombers” in pinstripes for the foreseeable future.
But when you have a franchise-type catcher like J.T. Realmuto on the market this offseason, the conversation of whether or not Sanchez is the long-term option at the position for the Yankees is very serious.
Cashman said that the Yankees must determine if this shortened season was the reason Sanchez struggled, or there is more behind the curtain.
“Obviously this COVID season was unique, you saw a lot of unexpected performances throughout both leagues from players that obviously are capable of more,” he said. “We have to determine whether this was a byproduct of unique circumstances or more a reflection of what to be expected moving forward.
“I know Gary Sanchez is an extremely talented player. I know in the offensive side there was – I guess I would describe it as he swung the bat better than those numbers looked. On the defensive side, I know he was fully committed to [catching coordinator] Tanner Swanson and adjusting to Tanner Swanson’s mechanical adjustments that would improve his receiving skills, which I think that did happen. But ultimately the end result was the performance wasn’t Gary Sanchez-caliber.”
It’s something Cashman and the Yankees – or anyone for that matter – didn’t see coming. Sanchez is supposed to be a pillar for team success for years next to Aaron Judge, Luis Severino and the others. But now, with Higashioka having this season and looking to improve upon that, Sanchez’ future with the team isn’t so certain.
“We’ll evaluate that particular position because we’re forced to now,” Cashman said.