I’m probably going to get roasted by Yankees fans for writing this, but that’s fine.
I’m here to explain why, at least by Defensive Runs Saved standards, Isiah Kiner-Falefa is a good defensive shortstop.
Realize that I’m working at a disadvantage here. The court of Yankee fan public opinion is vocally against me. And the other oft-consulted stat for defensive metrics (OAA/Runs Prevented) rates IKF below-average. That’s fine. They might be right. We might be right too (we were heartened that a newly-developed metric views IKF positively). So let’s present the case for why Defensive Runs Saved rates Kiner-Falefa as it does.
Establishing where IKF stands
Kiner-Falefa has totaled 10 Runs Saved at shortstop in each of the last two seasons. He’s done that while playing the fourth-most innings at the position in that time.
So in the aggregate, he’s tied for the third-most Runs Saved there the last two seasons. Being available as much as he has been is meaningful.
Most Defensive Runs Saved – Shortstops, Last 2 Seasons
But if we look at Runs Saved per 1,000 Innings for the 35 shortstops that have played the most the last two seasons, Kiner-Falefa slips to 10th. So he’s in the top-third of those shortstops results wise.
What we’re saying here is that availability is part of the Kiner-Falefa story. His skill level becomes more important because it’s maintained over time. He’s a top-third defensive shortstop by skill, a better one knowing that he plays as often as he does.
What may have left a bad feeling about Kiner-Falefa was how he finished the season. After totaling 7 Runs Saved in August, he dipped to -1 in September and October and was benched in the postseason. He’s also not anywhere near the hitter that any of the prominent free agent shortstops are, which probably – at least subtly – impacts how his defense is viewed.
There’s been good defense if you’ve watched closely
To trash Kiner-Falefa for his defense last season is to have a selective memory. You’re omitting some of the good things he did.
Let’s start with this play, one worth 0.7 Runs Saved.
And this one, which was worth another 0.6 Runs Saved.
And these two plays (against Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani!) worth 0.6 and 0.5 Runs Saved, respectively.
And this one, which was worth a half-run.
and these three plays, which ranked at the bottom of his 20 most valuable ones, also worth about a half-run.
I’d also point out that TV doesn’t always tell the whole story when it comes to shortstop defense.
This play by Kiner-Falefa was worth 0.7 Runs Saved.
By the time the YES camera switches to him, he’d moved a considerable distance from his initial position. This play was a lot more impressive if you were watching it in the stands rather than watching on TV.
In all, Kiner-Falefa made 20 plays worth a half-run or more on his defensive ledger, and was demerited a half-run or more on 30.
For what it’s worth, there are shortstops with better ratios than 20 vs 30, but it’s worth noting that the two Gold Glovers were not among them – Dansby Swanson was 12 vs 29. Jeremy Peña was 10 vs 31.
By our plus-minus system (a predecessor of and similar to Outs Above Average), Kiner-Falefa made 11 more plays than the average shortstop in both 2021 and 2022.
In 2021, he excelled on balls hit to his left. In 2022, he did likewise on balls hit to his right (punch his name in here and you’ll see).
The Yankees positioned him a little differently than the Rangers did, which might account for the change*.
* Specifically, they did two things – they played him closer to second base than the Rangers did against right-handed batters who weren’t shifted, and they played him across second base moreso than the Rangers did when left-handed batters were shifted. Head over to Baseball Savant to run through all this.
Regardless, the bottom line was that he and his teammates got results. The Yankees infield converted 77.2% of batted balls into outs, the second-highest rate in MLB (Cardinals, 77.3%). Our data shows that Kiner-Falefa was an important part of that, even with all his misplays.
I’ll close with a chart – one that compares how the Yankees fared on ground balls hit past the mound in the area ranging from the second base bag to approximately halfway to third base. Let it be a reminder to Yankees fans how much better Kiner-Falefa fared than their shortstops in 2021.
Versus Ground Balls Hit From 2B Bag to ~Halfway to 3B
|Grounder Out Rate
|2022 Yankees w/ IKF*
|2022 MLB Average
I’m not hiding from this point: Kiner-Falefa makes a fair number of mistakes. In addition to tracking errors, SIS tallies Defensive Misplays, an advanced scorekeeping notation to denote plays with a negative consequence that weren’t errors.
Kiner-Falefa has 83 Defensive Misplays and Errors the last two seasons, second-most in MLB (again with a reminder that he ranked fourth in innings played, so lots of chances to make them). To his credit, he’s actually cut down on those considerably – from 53 in 2021 to 30 in 2022.
Over the last two seasons, he has the sixth-most Misplays & Errors per 1,000 innings among those 35 shortstops referenced earlier. The top of that list has some players that have had mixed success through our numbers. But you know who ranks seventh? The 2022 AL Gold Glove winner, Peña.
And if we only look at 2022, Kiner-Falefa sits right in the middle-of-the-pack, the 17th-highest Misplay and Error Per 1,000 Innings rate among the 35 shortstops who played the most. He was at 25 per 1,000 innings to Peña’s 32.
So admittedly, he’s not necessarily great. But he’s also not necessarily bad.
Aaron Boone’s past positive comments about Kiner-Falefa’s defense aren’t just empty rhetoric. There are numbers that do in fact back him up.
The Yankees will have an intense battle at shortstop in spring training with Kiner-Falefa, second-year infielder Oswald Peraza and top prospect Anthony Volpe all in the mix. But we suspect there are other teams that have seen Kiner-Falefa’s defensive track record that will find a spot for him.