TRENTON, NJ – For the first several years of his career, catcher Kyle Higashioka was labeled a light-hitting, good defensive catcher.
Having been taken by the Yankees in the seventh round of the 2008 draft from Edison High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., the now 26-year-old was a backstop who called a game well, handled pitchers well, hit an occasional home run and might bat in the .230 area or so.
He was also in the Yankees system with other formidable catching prospects such as Austin Romine, Jesus Montero, John Ryan Murphy and Gary Sanchez. As a result, he spent some time in the lower minors while battling some injuries. He reached Double-A Trenton briefly in 2012 and 2013, but found himself starting 2015 in Tampa, where he hit .254 (78-for-307) with 18 doubles and 36 RBIs in 88 games. He also got a taste of Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, batting .176 (3-for-17) in five games.
However, the healthy player who reported to Trenton to start 2016 was not the same one who ended 2015. There were signs of what was to come in Tampa last season, but between then and now, Higashioka made himself into a complete performer, one who quite capably occupies and contributes from the Trenton cleanup spot.
What did he do Sunday afternoon? Drive in seven runs with a pair of homers and a double in Trenton’s (47-39) 12-2 win at Akron. The Thunder return home to open a four-game series with the Portland Sea Dogs Monday evening. He was named Eastern League Player of the Week Monday, having batted .467 with four home runs, 12 RBIs and six runs scored last week.
This season with the Thunder, Higashioka, entering Sunday play, is batting .289 (37-for-128) in 37 games. He has 10 doubles, four honers and 26 RBIs. His OPS is an excellent .810, but those numbers are not his biggest 2016 accomplishment.
Filling in for the injured Sanchez for 13 games with the Triple-A RailRiders, he batted .412 (21-for-51), with six doubles, five homers and 17 RBIs, and was named International League Batter of the Week for the week of June 6-12 – going 12-for-22 in five games, recording four doubles, three homers and 13 RBIs.
“Kyle learned how to hit,” said a scout from a National League East team who knows how well. “Last year, he started to figure it out. What he did in the International League was the result of his maturation as a hitter. Sometimes it takes awhile.
“He’ll play in the major leagues now. No doubt about it.”
It can happen. All-Star shortstop Dave Concepcion scuffled his first few seasons with Cincinnati before breaking out in 1973.
So far in 2016, with the Thunder and RailRiders combined, Higashioka is batting .324 (58-for-201), with 16 doubles, a career-high nine home runs and 43 RBIs. His OPS is a sizzling .942. When Sanchez returned, Higashioka was sent back to the Thunder, where he has been a key contributor.
“I felt really good at the plate when I was with Scranton, just like I have here,” said Higashioka. “Coming back to Trenton is no problem. I just want to show what I can do and help whatever team I’m on.
“The Triple-A pitchers, with more experience, may have a few more ways to get you out, but I felt good going against them. All I want to do is contribute wherever I’m at.”
Thunder manager Bobby Mitchell has only seen the present Higashioka, and certainly values and appreciates his contributions.
“Kyle handles the pitching staff well, and he has gotten plenty of hits in big spots for us,” said Mitchell. “He’s certainly been one of our top players. I was happy for him for what he did in the International League, and I’m certainly glad to have him back with us for as long as it is.”
Watching Higashioka now, one has to agree he’ll play in the majors. It may or may not be with the Yankees, but he deserves credit for making himself a compete player and earning that chance.