TAMPA, Fla. – By the end of last season, Kyle Higashioka had morphed from backup to Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher.
Higashioka caught Cole’s last four regular-season starts – Cole went 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in those outings – then started five of the Yankees’ seven postseason games, including all three pitched by the ace righthander.
Though general manager Brian Cashman indicated all winter the everyday job remains Gary Sanchez’s to lose, his endorsements of the catcher, the most polarizing player on the roster among Yankees’ fans by far, were not nearly as absolute as in previous years, lending added drama to spring training and the starting job.
And now a third catcher is in the mix.
And though veteran Robinson Chirinos, signed to a minor league deal late Monday night, isn’t a threat for the starter’s job, his past – a highly successful past – with Cole adds further intrigue to one of the more interesting position battles of camp, which officially starts for the Yankees Thursday at the minor league complex here when pitchers and catchers have their first workout.
Chirinos, a strong defensive catcher who hit .219 with one homer in 12 games with the Mets in 2020 after they acquired him from the Rangers at the trade deadline, has caught Cole 16 times in his career.
All occurred in 2019 when both were with the Astros, with the pitcher posting a 2.46 ERA and striking out 152 with 25 walks in 102 1/3 innings in those games.
"Communication is key," Chirinos said in an interview with ESPN late last September in a story about Gary Sanchez and past catchers of Cole’s offering advice. "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."
Cole, though he never disparaged Sanchez or came close to doing so in 2020 and, whenever asked, always praised the catcher, clearly established a connection with Higashioka, which started in spring training.
"Probably because we're both from Southern California," Cole said with a slight smile on the eve of Game 1 of the Yankees’ wild-card series vs. Cleveland in which Higashioka got the start. "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."
What Chirinos’ signing means for Higashioka isn’t immediately clear, though it should be pointed out the latter has long been an organizational favorite and continues to be, especially among those in the influential analytics department.
Or, for that matter, it’s not clear what the signing could mean for Sanchez.
"I think going into spring training, I would think he would be the heir apparent even though the season ended the way it did," Cashman said in December of Sanchez, who went through a miserable 2020, slashing .147/.253/.365 with 10 homers and 24 RBIs in 49 games, all while experiencing some of the same defensive issues behind the plate that have been so much a part of his career in pinstripes.
Cashman added later of the two-time All-Star who is still just 28: "We’re going to certainly bet on him returning to form, the All-Star caliber player he was prior to the 2020 season," he said. "I know some people might take that as an excuse, but we’re just making what we believe is a safe bet. But there is, at the same time, risk to it because Gary’s going to have to prove that 2020 was an aberration."