Higgy's power surge inspired by Donaldson

Marwin notches 3 more hits in Opening Day push; Schmidt strong again

March 29th, 2022

TAMPA, Fla. -- It's not unusual for a hitter to credit an offseason adjustment for a hot start in Spring Training -- and that’s exactly what Kyle Higashioka did after hitting his fourth home run in the last three games in Tuesday afternoon’s 14-2 win over the Phillies at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

The offseason change? The Yankees acquiring Josh Donaldson.

As it turns out, Higashioka revamped his entire swing while slogging his way through the lower levels of the Minor Leagues in 2015. And the player he modeled his swing after was, you guessed it, Donaldson. After all, Donaldson was in the midst of an MVP season in which he hit 41 homers with 123 RBIs and a .939 OPS.

“I realized I couldn't do the huge leg lift and all that stuff,” Higashioka said. “But the underlying principles were all the same. Mechanically speaking, he kind of speaks the same language as me.”

So from the moment the Yankees acquired Donaldson in a March 13 blockbuster trade with the Twins, Higashioka made it a point to seek out the three-time All-Star. Those conversations, along with help from the coaching staff and Higashioka’s own work this offseason, have paid immediate dividends.

“I’m just trying to refine my approach a little bit and keep my swing in order,” Higashioka said. “I'm having early success, but just hoping to carry it through into the season.”

Higashioka hit just .181 with a .389 slugging percentage in 67 games last season, though he did club 10 home runs -- and the metrics suggest he may have been a bit unlucky. Higashioka's xSLG was .504 -- a difference of 115 points from his actual slugging percentage. That gap was the third-largest among all players with at least 100 batted balls.

“He's got power,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He works hard at his hitting, and he doesn't want to just be known as a great defensive catcher, but he wants to do his thing offensively, too.

“That power is in there. It's just about being a little more consistent. That's where, we'll see. ... He's going to have more opportunities now to prove himself on a consistent basis. I know he's relishing that opportunity.”

Setting the rotation
Though Boone said nothing is set at this point, the tentative plan for the starting rotation to open the season would involve handing the ball to Gerrit Cole on Opening Day, followed respectively by Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon and Nestor Cortes. Of course, with an off-day following the April 7 season opener and Severino’s status potentially in question, that order is subject to change.

Marwin making push
Starting at first base on Tuesday, Marwin Gonzalez continued his impressive run at the plate, going 3-for-3 with a home run and four RBIs. The veteran utility player is 6-for-11 (.545) with three home runs in four games since joining the Yankees on a Minor League contract.

Gonzalez has looked far more like the player who hit .303 with a .907 OPS for the Astros in 2017 than the one who has slashed just .238/.308/.378 with a .686 OPS in the four seasons since, including hitting just .199 last season across 91 games with Houston and Boston.

“Seeing him right now, and seeing what we're seeing physically from him, it makes you think that last year was just a blip,” Boone said. “That last year was a bad year.”

Given Gonzalez’s success at the plate, coupled with his ability to play anywhere across the infield or corner outfield spots, he is making it tough for the Yankees to leave him off the Opening Day roster.

“He's certainly injected himself right into the conversation,” Boone said.

Schmidt flashes potential
Clarke Schmidt, the Yankees' No. 7 prospect per MLB Pipeline, came out firing Tuesday against the Phillies. The right-hander struck out Kyle Schwarber looking and Jean Segura swinging before getting Didi Gregorius to ground out to end the first inning.

Schmidt started the second by yielding a base hit to Nick Castellanos followed by a walk to Alec Bohm, but he responded by getting four consecutive ground balls. Unfortunately for Schmidt, the Yankees couldn't turn any into a double play, with two going for fielder's choices and another finding its way through the right side for a base hit.

Schmidt struck out Schwarber again as part of a 1-2-3 third inning.

“That's one of the better times I've seen him. With Clarke, you see the flashes almost every time he pitches,” Boone said. “You see glimpses in there when it looks like, 'Man, this guy's going to be a great starter, he's got everything there,' but it's just finding that consistency, where if he throws 100 pitches, that most of them are competitive.”

Schmidt added that he feels 100 percent healthy. He was limited to just 44 1/3 innings across five levels last season (including 6 1/3 innings with the Yankees) after getting a late start due to a extensor strain near his right elbow. Schmidt also missed nearly a month in 2019 with a right forearm issue, and he spent the majority of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season at the alternate training site.

“Just mechanically, I feel really, really good right now,” Schmidt said. “Everything is in sync and I'm around the zone, and my stuff just feels very sharp."

Donaldson hits the court
Looking to improve his athleticism, Donaldson turned his attention to ... the hardwood?

"I just tried to get more athletic. I know it's kind of taboo for me to say, but I tried to play a lot of basketball this offseason," Donaldson told MLB Network Radio. "Tried to get more athletic. Getting maybe a little more experienced in baseball and the further you get removed from doing kind of those athletic movements -- most offseasons I've tried to stay in the weight room, get stronger and things like that. But I feel like now, as my career evolves, [I’m] just trying to get more athletic."

The 36-year-old Donaldson racked up a career-high 15 Defensive Runs Saved at third base in 2014 for the A's, but then accounted for negative DRS each season from 2015-18. He bounced back with 10 DRS in '19, but played to an even 0 DRS in 2020-21.