DUNEDIN, Fla .— Aaron Boone at one point sounded dead set against the concept of personal catchers, just as Joe Girardi once did.
And, like his predecessor, Boone came around on it when reality consistently reared its head.
Which is certainly has, for a variety reasons, when it comes to Gerrit Cole and Kyle Higashioka.
Now a year-plus in pinstripes, Cole clearly has been better with Higashioka than with Gary Sanchez.
After throwing to Sanchez in the season opener against Toronto — Cole was fine, allowing two runs, five hits and two walks over 5 1/3 innings in which he struck out eight — the ace has been simply electric in two starts since, both with Higashioka behind the plate.
Cole struck out 13 and did not walk a batter over seven scoreless innings April 6 against the Orioles and backed that up by allowing one run – in the first inning – over six innings in which he allowed three hits and a walk with eight strikeouts in a victory Monday night over the Blue Jays.
Cole, after a somewhat rough – rough for him – first two innings Monday, retired the last 15 he faced. Cole, who has never spoken ill of Sanchez, is 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA in three starts, striking out 29 and walking three in 18 1/3 total innings.
Afterward, Boone, though still hedging a bit as not to utter the dreaded "personal catcher" phrase, nonetheless acknowledged the obvious.
"There’s going to be games where Gary [Sanchez] catches (Cole), but as the schedule unfolds, a lot of times it’s going to work out where it makes sense to get Higgy in there and that’s his day, and he can kind of game plan with him throughout the week," Boone said. "I certainly like the combination. You’ll expect to see it a lot. But Gary will get back there at some point too."
Word salad aside, it is a far cry from Boone’s first spring training.
"Bottom line is we’ve got an elite-level catcher [who] we’re not going to sit down and get into the personal [catcher] stuff," he said in March 2018, his first spring after taking over for Girardi. "Gary’s going to do the bulk of the catching [and] I’d prefer to stay away from matching guys up."
Girardi, of course, said similar things early in his 10-year run as manager, which ended after the 2017 season but, like Boone, ultimately didn’t hesitate matching guys up.
Perhaps the most famous example came in the final weeks of the 2009 season when Girardi paired Jose Molina with A.J. Burnett, who favored throwing to the veteran backup over Jorge Posada. That continued in all five of Burnett’s postseason starts as the Yankees captured the most recent of their 27 titles.
"Pitching is what wins ballgames for you," Girardi said during the 2009 ALCS against the Angels. "Obviously, you need a little bit of offense, but the A.J.-and-Molina matchup has been very good for us."
Talking about the effectiveness of the Cole-Higashioka battery late last season - Cole went 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA over his last four regular season starts with Higashioka – Boone indicated his slight change of perspective on the personal catcher topic (Higashioka would go on to catch all three of Cole’s October starts in which the righty went 2-0 with a 2.95 ERA, striking out 30 and walking four in 18 1/3 innings).
"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…I mean, obviously, I've been doing it here with Higgy and Cole," Boone said in late September 2020. "I think over the long haul, maybe you try to avoid it a little bit, but if it's a natural matchup and things are rolling, obviously I'm not against it."