CLEVELAND — You will never be able to outwork Gerrit Cole, but you have to try. That is the advice that Cole’s former catchers with the Astros have for Kyle Higashioka, the New York Yankees backup who has earned the job as Cole’s latest personal receiver.
Cole has publicly stood by Gary Sanchez, the Yankees’ starting catcher, praising him for executing their chosen plan of attack and understanding the nuances of the Yankees’ diverse pitching staff. But Higashioka has earned the job of catching Cole in Game 1 of the wild-card series by virtue of pure results. And, as manager Aaron Boone said heading into the MLB playoffs, “Performance matters; results matter.”
Cole finished his first regular season with the Yankees 7-3 with a solid 2.84 ERA overall, but was 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in his last four starts — with 34 strikeouts in 24 innings — all with the backup Higashioka behind the dish.
In February 2018, during his first spring training as Yankees manager, Boone said he was against the concept of a “personal catcher.” But that was then. Now, Higashioka will be paired with Cole for his first postseason start in pinstripes.
“I don’t necessarily love it; that said, I don’t mind it,” Boone said in explaining his inclination to pair Cole with “Higgy” before Monday’s announcement. “If you have a guy that is the clear backup that’s only playing once every four days or once every five days and they get in a good rhythm with a pitcher … Obviously, I’ve been doing it here with Higgy and Cole. Over the long haul maybe you try to avoid it a little bit, but if things are rolling, I’m not against it.”
It would be overly simplistic to say that a partnership with Sánchez will not ultimately work for Cole. Cole went 4-2 with a 3.91 ERA in eight games with Sánchez behind the plate, with 60 strikeouts in 46 innings, good numbers — but not as good as those with Higashioka.
On Monday, Cole explained why he thinks he’s clicking while pitching to Higashioka: “Probably because we’re both from Southern California. I mean, we have a lot of the same interests, and Kyle’s ability to communicate, be a really creative thinker, good pitch framer, good pitch caller. So we’ve worked out well together. That’s what I have to say about that.”
Higashioka addressed what many Yankees fans are probably wondering about in the wake of the announcement — where does this leave Sánchez? — saying, “I know Gary and I know he’s extremely mentally tough so if anything, it’s gonna just spur him on to performing even better, get back to his normal self.”
Veteran Robinson Chirinos had a comparable experience when Martin Maldonado arrived via trade in Houston, and Cole started partnering with him on a regular basis, although the Astros manager then, AJ Hinch, a former catcher himself, would split the catching workload. Chirinos admits that it can be hurtful to realize that your ace performs better or feels more comfortable with someone else behind the plate, but hopes it will be a good lesson for Sánchez that helps him mature and gain the necessary experience and knowledge to be successful in catching an ace like Cole.
“Gary is a very talented young man who doesn’t have a lot of experience catching Cole yet, so communication is key,” Chirinos said in a phone conversation with ESPN. “Gerrit is very smart. He knows what he has to do, and the only way that a catcher can do a good job is to learn how Cole thinks and what he likes and wants. You have to be there for him. My advice would be to keep up the communication. It’s about doing your job to be prepared every time he takes the mound, and he will always give you a chance to win.”
When catching someone as cerebral as Cole, Chirinos believes the best course of action is to develop an intimate knowledge of his capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, in particular when it comes to locating pitches or throwing a certain pitch for a strike.
“For example, when I started catching Cole, he told me that I needed to set up deeper inside, set up more consistently inside. He believed that I did not do a good job of commanding the inside part of the plate. And I agreed,” Chirinos said. “With the stuff that Gerrit has, and catching him where he wanted consistently, it made it much more difficult for batters inside. That was what made the hitters feel more uncomfortable, and from there on we developed a great connection.”
Sánchez’s biggest upside has always been what his bat adds to the lineup. The Yankees learned to bear with his defensive lapses in exchange for getting a generational talent at the plate. In his 2017 breakout season, Sánchez had 16 passed balls, tied for the major league lead, but more than made up for it with his bat, hitting .278 with 33 home runs.
After leading the majors once again in 2018 with 18 passed balls over 89 games, the most in baseball, Sánchez was widely disparaged for his blocking skills. While dealing with a groin injury, Sánchez finished the 2018 season batting just .186 with 18 homers. His defense was considered much improved last season, during which he was the American League’s starting catcher in the 2019 All-Star Game. Sánchez finished the season hitting .232 with 34 home runs — but his 15 fielding errors were most among catchers.
The difference this 2020 season is that Sánchez’s bat has not offset his defensive woes. Sánchez’s five passed balls are second most in baseball. Among advanced metrics, Statcast places him 54th among 61 MLB catchers in runs gained from framing, costing the Yankees three runs’ worth of strikes over the season. But worse yet, at the plate Sánchez has slashed just .147/.253/.365 with 10 home runs.
Sánchez’s struggles at the plate eventually led Boone to bench him in an effort to help him regain his stroke. He has also been working with catching coordinator Tanner Swanson on a new one-knee catching technique to improve his framing for low pitches.
One of the hardest things to do in baseball is to call a game and do it well. And so far Higashioka seems to better fit the bill for the job of catching Cole. While catchers always try to learn as much about as possible about a pitching staff, when it comes to Cole, his former catchers, Maldonado and Chirinos, said that you learn to devote as much time as he does into assessing and delivering pitches.
“Communication is key. This is the time to ask where to set the mitt for fastballs inside. That’s just an example of something that he had to tell me several times, and the only way to learn is by asking,” Chirinos said.
“Gerrit is always talking about previous games, what we should have called or shouldn’t have called,” Maldonado observed. “And Gerrit is very smart. If you talk to him about a game, he will remember every pitch he threw. So he’s not only a pitcher with plus stuff, he’s very intelligent and someone who prepares to the max. And you have to do the same.”
That’s for the future, but it’s crunch time, and the Yankees had an important decision to make ahead of the wild-card series in Cleveland: Who’s catching Cole in Game 1? Boone made his decision public Monday when he announced that Higashioka would be behind the plate. It probably didn’t help Sanchez’s case that he also hasn’t hit well at Progressive Field in his career, 3-for-19 with nine strikeouts and a lone home run.
“I hope our clubhouse always understands that ultimately the team and our success as a team come first,” Boone said before he’d made his choice. “We care about who they are and their careers. You’re constantly trying to strike that balance. Along the way come difficult decisions, decisions that players are certainly going to disagree with, and that’s okay. Hopefully, we always strike that balance … the team comes first, no matter what decisions we have to make.”