Kyle Higashioka (Photo by Cheryl Purcell)

2016 Season in Review: Kyle Higashioka

The Yankees 2016 prospect season saw the rise and acquisition of many new faces. Half of top-10 Yankees prospect weren’t even in the organization at this point last year. But this past season wasn’t just about the Yankees getting new and better prospects, another theme that developed was the reemergence of some injured or forgotten prospects. Kyle Higashioka certainly falls both these categories.

Higashioka has always been known as a good defensive catcher, and for a while there was hope, he would improve his offensive game. However, due to injuries and an overall lack of playing time, he has never been able to show much potential on offense. That is until this past season, where he broke-out and showed a completely unexpected offensive output.

Kyle began his season of redemption with the AA Trenton Thunder, where he played 63 games. In those 63 games, he put up the following offensive stats: .355 OBP, .509 SLG, .216 ISO, .380 wOBA, and a 136 wRC+. His dominating season came out of nowhere, and I don’t think many fans thought Higashioka could keep playing at this elevated level of performance.

However, Higashioka was able to prove his doubters wrong by playing just as well after his promotion to AAA. In 39 games in AAA Kyle put up the following numbers: .306 OBP, .514 SLG, .264 ISO, .361 wOBA, and a 131 wRC+.

Overall, Higashioka had one of the best seasons of any Yankee prospect; his 21 homers tied him for first in the Yankees system, and his .847 OPS would’ve ranked 5th in the system for players playing above A-ball.

Higashioka’s dominating season help jump-start his career earned him a spot on
the Yankees 40-man roster, which is impressive when you realize that no other team in baseball seemed to want him last season. He was eligible to be taken in last season’s Rule-5 draft and wasn’t even mentioned as a guy that teams should think about taken. Now just one year later Kyle has played himself onto the Yankees roster and potentially could see the majors in 2017.

Of course, there still is the possibility that Higashioka’s season was a mirage, but I think it’s worth noting that there are reasons to believe in him as a prospect. Perhaps the biggest reason to believe in Higashioka is that he has always looked like a major league caliber player. Sure he never had this great of an offensive season, but he always was considered a great defensive catcher, and great defensive catchers always have a chance to make the majors.

So at the end of the day, his floor might be that of a major league backup, which is certainly valuable. With that said there are two big reasons to believe his offensive showing this year was no fluke. The first reason is that he was always considered to have decent power.

This is what Baseball America had to say about Higashioka all the way back in 2008: “His righthanded uppercut impressed scouts at the 2007 Area Code Games, and he has interesting power potential, though it’s just pull power right now.” And that scouting report has been accurate; he had put up strong power numbers since 2011 when he had a .134 ISO as 21-year-old in Hi-A.

Mike Axia from broke down Kyle’s power progression over the course of his minor year career, and that breakdown is shown below.
2009: .079 ISO in 247 PA with Short Season Staten Island
2010: .113 ISO in 359 PA with Low-A Charleston
2011: .136 ISO in 324 PA between Charleston and High-A Tampa
2012: .157 ISO in 164 PA between Tampa and Double-A Trenton
2013-14: .198 ISO in 109 PA around Tommy John surgery
2015: .117 ISO in 348 PA between Tampa and Triple-A Scranton
2016: .255 ISO in 326 PA between Trenton and Scranton

As you can see Higashioka clearly had his best season last year, but he has always shown decent power for his position.

The second reason to believe in his offensive potential is that he truly worked on changing his swing over the past two seasons. According to an interview done by Brendan Kuty of Higashioka and John Elliott—his longtime coach— “focus on swing plane” … in order to “give Higashioka’s cut more incline it produces less grounders.” Additionally, Kuty reported that “Higashioka has also added a reverse toe tap and a leg kick to aid his timing.”

Lastly, it’s important to note that Higashioka hasn’t been this healthy in years, he played just 24 games between 2013-2014, and battled a thumb injury in 2015. So it’s not a big deal that at 26 he’s old for a prospect. It’s not like he had much developmental time.

Higashioka will most probably begin the 2017 season in AAA, and, I feel that Higashioka development will be one of the most interesting stories to follow next season. If he proves that 2016 wasn’t a fluke, it would give the Yankees a pretty good insurance option for Gary Sanchez, and could even give them a valuable trade chip.

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