BUFFALO — This is not your 2016 Gary Sanchez anymore.
This is not your 2017 Kyle Higashioka anymore.
This is not your 2000 Major League Baseball anymore.
Therefore Aaron Boone shouldn’t lose a wink’s sleep over a decision that he seems to have rendered already: If circumstances allow the playoffs to begin next week, Higashioka should start the opener as Gerrit Cole’s batterymate.
Because Sanchez, as you know, has slipped. Because Higashioka, you may not know, has risen. And because the evolution of roster deployment as well as this year’s unique rules make catching depth essential in 2020.
“Especially if we’re fortunate enough to get through the best-of-three scenario, then you’re talking about a potential five games in a row [in the American League Division Series], followed by a potential seven games in a row [in the AL Championship Series] with no off days,” Boone said Monday, before the Yankees registered their second straight stinker, an 11-2 loss to the Blue Jays at Sahlen Field. “So I think it even adds to that. Your backup catcher needs to play a role in that scenario.”
Boone acknowledged that “probably” Higashioka would catch Cole here Tuesday for the ace’s regular-season finale, the fourth straight pairing of these two. In their first three joint ventures, Cole posted an 0.90 ERA, striking out 27 and walking five over 20 innings, although he lost the first game (Sept. 5 at Baltimore) when he gave up four unearned runs after a Thairo Estrada error.
“I think I can work with pretty much anybody,” said Cole, who has tallied a 3.91 ERA in eight starts throwing to Sanchez. “I think there are some things that have worked out in the last few starts that may lead the manager to lean one way or the other. But ultimately it’s not my call, and I’ll be ready whoever’s back there. I think both backstops that have caught me this year have done a great job, and whoever catches me going forward will continue to do great work.”
Yes, Cole did somewhat subtly acknowledge his success and comfort with Higashioka, who supported Cole in their last outing (Sept. 16 against the Blue Jays) not only with fine receiving, but also with three homers, which gave him a .550 slugging percentage for the season. The former Post guest columnist has earned his share of playing time.
If Higashioka starts Game 1, it’ll end a streak of 27 straight postseason starts for Sanchez — pretty good, and time for a halt even beyond Sanchez’s regression. Imagine having Sanchez, who has picked up his hitting lately, available as a late-inning pinch-hitting option or as designated hitter if Giancarlo Stanton requires a breather. Imagine easing his burden and the potential payoff that brings. Shoot, with the rosters at 28 in this COVID season, it’s worth contemplating whether to pair up rookie pitcher Deivi Garcia with veteran catcher Erik Kratz for the playoffs, although Sanchez actually caught Garcia’s impressive win here on Sept. 9 that sparked the Yankees’ 10-game winning streak.
Legendary Yankees catcher Jorge Posada went through a stretch in which he started 71 straight postseason games behind the plate from 1999 through 2005, an insane workload nowadays. When he finally rested in Game 3 of the ’05 ALDS, Randy Johnson preferring to pitch to John Flaherty, it understandably became big news, and even more so four years later when Posada sat in favor of Jose Molina the five times A.J. Burnett started en route to the Yankees’ most recent title.
Assuming Boone goes with the Cole-Higashioka battery to kick things off, it’ll generate no controversy. It’ll be the right call, sure to generate more applause than anger. Because the individuals and circumstances have changed. Because the game has changed.
Boone will face many tough calls between next week and the end of October. This ain’t one of them. Ending Sanchez’s postseason streak of durability will help the Yankees end their streak of October futility.