He hit just .250 with five home runs a year ago in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery after amassing a mere 74 combined at-bats the previous two seasons. Completely healthy now though, he has put together his finest season to date, finishing the year with a combined .276 average and setting career highs in nearly every category, including doubles , runs scored , RBIs , and home runs .
“It’s been a good year offensively and defensively,” Higashioka said. “I worked pretty hard in the offseason . It’s good to see everything come together.”
It has all come together for Higashioka this year and Scranton manager Al Pedrigue has noticed the hard work put in by the California native.
“It’s the hard work,” Pedrique said before the playoffs, "the time that he has put into his game, the preparation and his conditioning. He’s more consistent and feeling good about himself and having a good start was very important.
"I had him last year he had some healthy issues. He struggled offensively. Now he’s healthy again and he’s really enjoying the game and having fun.”
Higashioka had to get Tommy John surgery back in 2013 and missed most of the 2013-2014 seasons as a result, and he has been battling back from the injury ever since.
“I would say this was the first offseason I went into 100 healthy,” Higashioka said in full catching gear following a bullpen session. “The previous offseason I was healthy but still recovering from the surgery.”
Last offseason was perhaps the biggest reason for Higashioka’s turn around year because he was able to train and not spend any time rehabbing in preparation for the season, and he insists that was huge in his breakout season this year.
“I knew I didn’t have limitations in to what I can do physically in the weight room and stuff,” the seventh round pick said. “So it just helped me overall and [I'm in] a little bit better shape. I don’t have to worry about it [my elbow] right now.”
The results of the offseason have been outstanding for Higashioka. In Double-A he slashed .293/.355/.509 with eleven home-runs in 222 at-bats and followed it up with a .250 showing in Triple-A. He had a higher home run rate too at the highest level, clubbing ten bombs in just 39 games. Based on the numbers at both levels one would think that Higashioka hasn’t seen a difference in competition but he has seen a difference.
“Triple-A is definitely a lot more guys with Major League experience,” Higashioka said, "so it’s like a totally different atmosphere; more experienced guys and the bullpens are better.”
It's not like Higashioka came out of nowhere either. There was a time in his younger, healthier days where he was considered a potential up and coming top prospect but Bbefore this breakout season Higashioka never lived up to the potential the organization saw in him. He never had a great season in the minors in previous seasons and the Tommy John injury then began to put doubt in Higashioka’s mind.
“Yeah, right after I had surgery I was taking classes at junior college,” Higashioka responded to on whether doubt crept into his mind. “I was like 'uh okay, might as well get a head start on plan B just in case'. It definitely went through my mind that this possibly wasn’t gonna work out and after I played well in the [Arizona] Fall League it kind of gave me that boost I needed to know that I can still get it done.”
The bounce back from subpar seasons and injuries have made an impression on Pedrigue too.
“It’s one thing I always tell the guys, you’re gonna have ups and downs in this game and when you have those downs that’s when you have to be mentally tough,” Pedrique said. “It’s part of life. If you aren’t a baseball player it can happen somewhere else and for him to hang in there and keep trying and believing on his physical ability it’s fun to watch and I give him a lot of credit.”
It’s not only the offense that has been impressive about Higashioka’s season so far, it’s also his defense and his ability to call a game. Higashioka has caught under 40 games this year with the Railriders and he has managed to catch 10 shutouts.
“He does a good job communicating with the pitching staff,” manager Al Pedrique said postgame following a shutout performance caught by Higashioka. “He does a good job keeping the game plan and that’s what a catcher should do, to let your starter get deep into the game and when the bullpen comes in keep the game plan and he does real well calling the game. The pitching staff feels comfortable throwing to him. It happens for Higgy that the guys are throwing the ball well.”
Higashioka deflected any credit headed his way and said it’s all about the pitching the staff. With the way this year has gone the 26-year-old catcher, perhaps a mere afterthought entering the seasons, has now seriously pushed his way onto the Yankee’s radar with his combination of defense and offense.
“We’ll see hopefully that’s the case but it still remains to be seen. Sttill a lot that can happen,” Higashioka said.
This is perhaps the most surprising season of any player in the Yankees minor league system and in some sense it has even surprised Higashioka himself.
“I’ve known I’m capable of this but it just hasn’t come together over the course of an entire season,” Higashioka said. “I’ve known it’s just all about me being more consistent, consistently playing at my highest level. It definitely makes me very happy to be able to play consistently at my best level.”