The Yankees pitching staff has now become elite thanks to a new take on catching

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said there wasn’t a single moment prior to this season that made him change the look of the team behind the plate.

“We didn’t have a new revelation,” Cashman said recently of shifting from an offense-first mentality behind the plate to a defensive approach. “We have always valued that [defensive] Capability. But if there is no improvement available in the market, you stick with what you have.”

That was the case prior to the 2021 season when Cashman considered adding a catcher to replace Gary Sanchez.

After another season in which the Yankees’ catching was underperforming — and the Yankees were trying to get Isiah Kiner-Falefa to play shortstop, first from Texas, then from Minnesota — the 2022 roster began to rebuild with a new look.

Kiner-Falefa, Josh Donaldson and catcher Ben Rortvedt came from the Twins while Sanchez and Gio Urshela headed to Minnesota.

Brian Cashman
Brian Cashman
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Later that spring, with Rortvedt still recovering from an oblique injury, the Yankees switched to Jose Trevino and sent right-hander Albert Abreu to the Rangers.

That move certainly didn’t make the waves the first trade did, but it did create a big difference with the Yankees — and it’s a big reason they currently have the best records among the majors, like Trevino and Kyle Higashioka have helped What was an excellent pitching staff and turns it into an elite staff?

“As a group, the overall focus and passion for playing defense inspires us as pitchers to be more creative and confident when it comes to going for the throat,” said Gerrit Cole of the new catching tandem. “Or if you find yourself in a situation where you don’t trust yourself, you can put the blame on the guy who you know is doing the work behind the scenes.”

Cashman and Tanner Swanson, the Yankees’ quality control coaches and catch coordinators, pointed to overall improvements on the defensive end.

“Tanner took his chance to improve Gary — and he improved Gary because Gary worked his dick off,” Cashman said. “It’s just about how we can get the best out of everyone and be flexible with our roster. Catching was really good for our pitching staff and they did a great job putting in great energy and caring about the pitching.”

The most important part of what Trevino (especially) and Higashioka have done is make pitchers better strike throwers.

“The more we can encourage these guys into the hitting zone the better,” said Swanson, who is in his third season with the Yankees after two years with the Twins. “We want to be able to lead pitchers more into the zone to increase their strike rate. Second, we want to put ourselves in a good position to place pitches that aren’t swung to be leveraged with our pitch framing skills that both of our catchers possess.”

Jose Trevino, left, celebrates with Michael King.
Jose Trevino, left, celebrates with Michael King.

The results were eye-opening.

They entered Friday’s majors with the second-best team ERA (2.86, just behind the Dodgers’ 2.85). Last year they were sixth in the majors and the previous two seasons they were 14th.

Most of the credit goes to pitching coach Matt Blake, but he and the pitchers are quick to acknowledge the lead behind the plate.

“Our process has become tighter and tighter as a group,” Blake said. “We have confidence in them to set the stage for a series and know they won’t be caught by surprise. They worked really well together.”

In addition, their advanced numbers are excellent.

According to Statcast, Trevino caught the highest percentage of strikes of any catcher in the majors at 54.7 percent. Ryan Jeffers of the Twins, where Swanson previously worked, and Trevino’s former Rangers teammate Jonah Heim follow with 51.1 percent.

Higashioka is in the middle with 46.6 percent. Sanchez is 12th in the majors with 49.6.

Another advanced metric that shows the difference Trevino can make is catcher framing runs, which measure how often a pitch is called a strike or ball based on where it is relative to the strike zone.

Trevino finished third in that category a year ago at eight, while Higashioka was 12th at three and Sanchez nearly finished bottom of the league at minus 6.

And while the numbers are good, there’s also a mentality that catchers want that’s just as important for the pitching team.

Jose Trevino
Jose Trevino
Getty Images

It’s also why the Yankees, for now at least, are willing to take so little offense at the catcher duo, both of whom have sub-.600 OPS. For now, at least, the Yankees are confident they have enough firepower in much of the rest of the lineup while anticipating an uptick at the plate from both catchers. Rortvedt, meanwhile, remains sidelined and is now recovering from left knee surgery that will keep him out for another two months.

“Our main job is to help the pitchers,” Higashioka said. “And in recent years receiving has become the most effective way to help them.”

But game planning is almost as important.

“It’s just as important, if not more important, than the tactical things we want to do on the field,” Swanson said. “The level of preparation has evolved and gotten better. Trevino has allowed us to take another step in this regard. He and Kyle have a really good partnership. They take this part really seriously and make the work public so the pitchers can see it and see how they are committed to it.

“Anytime you can take the burden off pitchers of thinking about game planning and let them know we’ve got them, it improves their performance,” Higashioka said. “They should only have to focus on executing pitches. I should be prepared so that I know the tendencies of the hitter, the pitcher’s strengths and know when to deviate from the script. I don’t want them to have to ask themselves, ‘Is he calling the right pitch?’ ”

Kyle Highashioka
Kyle Highashioka

Several Yankees pitchers, particularly in the bullpen, rely on a pitch to either build in an at-bat or smash away a hitter — from Clay Holmes’ sinker to Michael King’s “kluberball,” the move he received from Corey Kluber has learned. to the cutter Cole brought back to his arsenal from his college days at UCLA.

All of them are good pitches because they’re not straight, and the way they move varies considerably from pitcher to pitcher and from pitch to pitch.

“Many of our pitchers have unique skills or a unique pitch,” Swanson said. “From the receiver’s perspective, you want to use data to understand hit probabilities and understand which pitches we’re converting in our favor and which aren’t.”

They also take into account a particular hitter’s weakness and the strength of each backstop — for example, the catcher’s ability to frame a particular pitch at a particular spot, or his positioning behind the plate.

Trevino has adopted the knee stance Swanson preached, while Higashioka has the ability to stay in a traditional stance and go lower than most other backstops.

“It’s all about getting as close to the ground as possible,” Swanson said. “Declared strikes generally come at the bottom of the strike zone. Being able to extend the strike zone down is more important than ever.”

“If you had told me five years ago that I would get on one knee, I would say, ‘No way,'” Trevino said. “But it opened doors for me in my career.”

Tanner Swanson
Tanner Swanson
MLB photos via Getty Images

In a nutshell, Trevino said he’s been using the new stance for “about two or three years.”

In 2019, before the move, he was analytically rated as just an average catcher.

Still, Trevino and the pitchers emphasized that as much as technology – including PitchCom – has helped, both catchers have an old-school element.

“I just want to be prepared and know the pitchers — everyone,” Trevino said. “Getting to know their strengths, learning about things they aren’t so comfortable with and trying to make them feel more comfortable. Whether it’s framing, bouncing a ball and trusting me to be there to block or pick. The iPads and the video are important, but I like to go back there and see the ball moving out of their hands and talk to them about the goal being in a certain place, setup or something.”

According to the employees, the work paid off.

“When we’re out there in big situations, we can rest assured that everyone’s done their homework and research and game planning,” said Chad Green. “It’s not just about looking at a bracelet and, ‘Let’s just throw this pitch.’ You know he watched it on the iPad and saw what works and doesn’t puzzle. Seeing the work increases your confidence and engagement with every pitch.”

Or as Cole put it, “You know you’re making the right shot at the right time, and not without reason.”

“Someone told me the best thing to do as a catcher is to not get noticed,” Higashioka said. “That means doing the job.”

And it could pay off for the Yankees this season.

But all that work that goes into pitch framing and reception could be severely devalued if robotic umps are introduced soon.

When asked if he was worried about that possibility, Swanson laughed and said, “I’ve been worried about this for five years. If it happens, we’ll find out and see what the next benefit is.” The Yankees pitching staff has now become elite thanks to a new take on catching


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