When you hear the phrase “elite defensive third baseman,” whose face pops into your head? If you’re most baseball fans, it’s probably either Matt Chapman or Nolan Arenado, perhaps with some passing thoughts about Manny Machado or even Anthony Rendon. I don’t think I would be remiss to say that very few, if any, baseball fans would think of Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
Despite winning the AL Gold Glove at third base in 2020 for the Texas Rangers, Kiner-Falefa never seems to come up in conversations about elite defensive baseball players. Maybe this is because he’s played far less than those listed above? Since 2018, Chapman, Arenado, Rendon, and Machado have accumulated over 11,200 total innings, averaging about 2,807 innings each over that span (this number would be even higher if you excluded Machado, who notched the fewest of these four at 1,852). Kiner-Falefa, on the other hand, has played only 925 innings at the hot corner. In that same span, Chapman and Arenado have been the league leaders in defensive runs saved (DRS) at 3B, with 52 and 51 DRS respectively. Rendon ranks 10th with seven, Machado 4th with 15, and IKF comes in at number three, with 16 DRS. In UZR/150, a statistic that measures defensive contributions on a rate basis, Kiner-Falefa again scores very well as compared to the rest of the league, ranking fifth behind only the aforementioned Chapman and Arenado, Twitter legend David Fletcher, and Yoan Moncada.
While his defensive feats at 3B are impressive, it is no longer even his primary position. With the Rangers’ offloading of Elvis Andrus to Oakland during this past offseason, Kiner-Falefa has transitioned to being a shortstop, the position that he claims he has always wanted to play in the big leagues. Since the beginning of the 2020 season, Kiner-Falefa’s first at his new position, he is tied for fourth in DRS with Trevor Story, behind only Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson, and Gold Glover J.P. Crawford, among players with 300 or more innings played at shortstop. Again, Kiner-Falefa does this despite far fewer innings played than his peers. In UZR/150, he ties for third, alongside another Gold Glover in Francisco Lindor.
Interestingly, there is yet another position that Kiner-Falefa has played significantly in the majors. When he first broke into MLB in 2018, the Rangers used him as their backup catcher in addition to a utility infielder. While he wasn’t particularly good as a catcher defensively (in fact, he was the worst over that span according to FanGraphs defensive value calculations), he was on a team that featured noted Good Catcher Jeff Mathis, and provided the team with positional flexibility. Additionally, this chapter of his career just adds to the intrigue of IKF.
With all of this in mind, you may be wondering, “How have I never heard of Isiah Kiner-Falefa?” The answer is likely multi-faceted. Perhaps the strongest reason is that he plays for a team that is not very good and that has not been very good for his entire career. The Texas Rangers don’t get a ton of national media coverage, and, frankly, there are few bright spots on the team at this point in their competitive cycle. The other reason is the one that I would believe to be the most important: Isiah Kiner-Falefa has struggled at the plate during his big league career.
IKF’s most successful season at the plate has been 2020, when he was actually the best hitter on the Rangers by wRC+, with a mark of 93. He floundered to a 57 wRC+ and 22.1 K% in 2019 but was decent in 2018 with a 79 wRC+. By looking at his peripheral stats on Baseball Savant, however, we can see that he has been improving each year.
Like many middle infielders, Kiner-Falefa has an offensive playstyle oriented around making contact. He not does rely on power, or even extra-base hits, to garner offensive production. This profile is largely due to the fact that he has trouble making hard, solid contact. Barrel% uses a combination of launch angle and exit velocity to categorize some balls as well-hit (“barrels”). Over the course of his career, Kiner-Falefa has a Barrel% of 1.4%, well below the MLB average of 6.4% over that span. He has, however, been improving each year, and is currently sitting at 2.5% in 2021. In the same vein, his career HardHit%, which is simply the percentage of all batted balls hit over 95 mph, sits at 29.1%, also well below the MLB average of 35.2%. In this measurement too, he has improved every year, with a small step back in 2020, but now sits right around 36% for 2021.
This chart shows another interesting trend in Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s offensive performance. He hits the best against fastballs, with an xwOBA approaching .360 (league average across the board is usually around .320). Luckily for him, he sees fastballs about 60% of the time. The problems come when he is thrown anything other than a fastball. Even when he peaked in 2020 in a small sample size, his xwOBA on offspeed pitches (change-ups) was just barely approaching the league average. On breaking pitches, Kiner-Falefa has struggled the most. These xwOBA metrics correspond, perhaps unsurprisingly, in an exact inverse pattern with his Swing and Miss%. This makes sense – it is impossible to get a good result from a pitch you don’t put in play. When expanded from the individual pitch level to an aggregated pitch family pattern, it tracks that he would struggle to get results from pitch types that he consistently fails to put into play. To be fair, it should also be noted that Kiner-Falefa generally does not swing and miss very often, ranking in the 94th percentile of all qualified hitters, and the 91st so far in 2021.
As previously noted, Kiner-Falefa does appear to be improving at the plate. In addition to simply gaining more experience seeing big league pitching, this also could be in part due to a new batting stance he adopted prior to the 2020 season.
As you can see, he has adopted a much more upright stance. Generally, this has a number of effects on hitters. Perhaps most importantly for Kiner-Falefa, it probably prevents his head from moving as much when moving from his stance to his load and his subsequent swing. When a hitter’s head is more still, it allows them to better see the baseball out of the pitcher’s hand and can lead to better pitch recognition and swing decisions. For Kiner-Falefa, the former of these is more important. Since he already has a very low Swing and Miss%, it is more important for him to create better quality of contact on the non-fastballs that he is struggling with. This appears to have made a difference for 2020, where we see the marked increase in xwOBA on offspeed pitches in a small sample size. In an even smaller sample size in 2021, this figure has unfortunately decreased again. But this new stance and the benefits that come with it give reason to believe Kiner-Falefa could make this a permanent change.
If Kiner-Falefa can sustain his positive offensive changes and become even a slightly-above-average hitter, his elite defense will place him into the upper echelons of MLB middle-infielders. I would expect multiple All-Star appearances and many more Gold Gloves from Isiah Kiner-Falefa. 2021 could be the beginning of his meteoric rise – as of the publication of this article, Kiner-Falefa ranked third in the American League in Baseball Reference defensive WAR and tied for third in singles (remember, he isn’t much of a power guy). Isiah Kiner-Falefa is my newest favorite player to watch, and I hope that others catch on to just how much fun and just how good he really is, and how much better he can be.
Featured Image: Will Arvin (@TheWillArvin on Twitter); Images of Isiah Kiner-Falefa batting via screen capture from baseballsavant.mlb.com
All stats current as of 4/28/2021