Gary Sánchez appears to have lost his grasp on the starting catcher job, as Yankees manager Aaron Boone stated on Tuesday that backup Kyle Higashioka will receive more opportunities behind the plate in the near term.
The 31-year-old Higashioka got the nod at catcher on Tuesday at Camden Yards, having played well on both sides of the ball this season, and it paid off. He went 2-for-4 with a homer in the Yankees' 5-1 win over the O's. Sánchez’s 2020 offensive woes have carried over into the new year, seeing the 28-year-old go 10-for-55 (.182) with two homers and four RBIs in 17 games.
“He’s just earned more playing time -- simple as that,” Boone said of Higashioka. “He’s done a great job. His improvements over the last couple of years on both sides of the ball have been strong. I think the way he’s played here at the onset of the season have earned him some more opportunities.”
Higashioka already seemed to be entrenched with ace right-hander Gerrit Cole, with whom he was paired for four of five starts this season.
Now Higashioka will have the opportunity to show how his early performance holds up over a larger sample size, having gone 8-for-25 (.320) with four homers and six RBIs in 11 games while earning the trust of the pitching staff.
“[Higashioka] just has really elite glove skill,” said catching coach Tanner Swanson. “I think his hands work extremely well. They're smooth, quiet. He's got really strong pocket accuracy and subtly manipulates pitches back to the strike zone. He's refined the art of that skill and is really, really consistent doing so.”
The Yankees tendered Sánchez a $6.35 million, one-year contract this past December, essentially wagering that his recent below-average performance was an aberration. Sánchez’s 12-game drought without an extra-base hit is the longest of his career, and his .156 batting average since the beginning of 2020 is the Majors’ worst (minimum 200 plate appearances).
As the club searches for remedies, Boone said that he spoke to Sánchez about the potential reduction in his playing time.
“They're obviously both going to play a lot, but it'll be kind of a day-by-day thing that I’ll try and communicate as best I can,” Boone said. “[Sánchez] understood the situation. He wants [to be] in the lineup, but I think he certainly understands that Higgy has earned some more things as well.”
Words of wisdom
Brett Gardner’s usual response when things aren’t going well -- either personally or as a team -- has been to work harder. The longest-tenured Yankee is revising that stance, suggesting that his teammates must focus on working smarter.
“We just need to make sure we’re getting our work in that we’re supposed to do,” Gardner said on Tuesday. “We come to the field every day prepared, knowing that this game is a long season and you have your ups and downs. The first few weeks haven’t gone as we planned or hoped for, so we just have to slow things down.”
Gardner said that he understands the advice sounds simple, just like having confidence that things will turn around, but he has been through enough Yankees dry spells to know that they eventually end. Gardner’s in-house mantra can be summed up as: one day at a time, one at-bat at a time.
“I don’t like to get into too much what happens in the clubhouse, but we meet as a group of hitters on a daily basis and go over our approach,” Gardner said. “We talk daily amongst ourselves, whether it be just me and one other guy or a small group of guys. For the most part, guys are obviously not happy with how we’ve played.”
The Yankees entered play on Tuesday with a .203 team batting average, lowest in the Majors, and have averaged 3.5 runs per game – the fourth-lowest mark in the big leagues, ahead of only the Tigers (3.0), Nationals (3.3) and Mets (3.3).
“Everybody has a little chip on their shoulder when they get to the field,” Gardner said. “We’re doing a good job of getting our work in. I feel like these guys have been pretty focused in that department. You’ve just got to learn from the past and at some point, turn the page to start a winning streak.”
One day later
Boone said that he spoke Tuesday with Michael Hill, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of on-field operations, regarding his eighth-inning ejection in Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Orioles. Crew chief Greg Gibson tossed Boone after telling the skipper that his allotted 20 seconds to challenge a call had expired.
“It was a little bit of a unique play; it's not your normal challenge,” Boone said. “Because it's a two-pronged play, you're not going to have your normal time to drink all that in from a video standpoint. The bottom line is, at that point in the game in the eighth inning, I shouldn't have let it get down to that point. I probably should have done it almost immediately.”
Boone said that if he had been able to challenge, he would have wanted the replay official to look at the timing of DJ LeMahieu crossing the plate, believing he had a better chance to overturn that than Aaron Judge’s slide into third base.
The Yankees recalled right-hander Michael King from the club’s alternate training site on Tuesday. King has not allowed a run in nine innings this season.
This date in Yankees history
April 27, 1947: "Babe Ruth Day" was celebrated at Yankee Stadium and throughout the Major Leagues. Dressed in a topcoat and hat, Ruth thanked fans in an on-field ceremony in The Bronx. It would be his final appearance at the "House that Ruth Built."