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Isiah Kiner-Falefa will find his footing on the field

Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s defense has looked a little suspect to begin the year, but we should give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Isiah Kiner-Falefa hasn’t exactly gotten off to a great start in the field so far. Despite being labelled a defensive whiz after he was dealt to New York from the Twins, he has appeared shaky at short in his first games as a Yankee. Yesterday, Jake took a look at a few of his defensive miscues in the first series of the season, including a throwing error and a booted ball up the middle. He covered all of the major issues that have cropped up this season, so I’m not going to spend any time doing that here. What I will do, however, is tell you why we should try to be patient as Isiah Kiner-Falefa finds his footing on the field.

Now, before we get into it, you might find this article a bit of a weird one coming from me, as I spent a large portion of the offseason criticizing the team trading for Kiner-Falefa. While I still think going with a defense-first stopgap was the wrong choice for this team, the fact of the matter is Isiah Kiner-Falefa is the only capable (defensively, at least) shortstop the Yankees have at the major league level right now, so we have no choice but to ride with him until the organization gives us a reason to do otherwise.

The first thing to note about Kiner-Falefa, which Jake mentioned in passing in his article yesterday, is that the metrics don’t really agree on his defense at shortstop. In 2021, he played 1360 innings at short. In that time, he posted a 10 DRS, which is quite good. In fact, for qualified shortstops, he had the third best DRS in the entire league last year.

When you hop on over to Statcast’s OAA, though, it paints a bit of a different portrait. In 2021, he posted a -7 OAA in 666 attempts at shortstop. While he was fine moving side-to-side (5 OAA towards third base, 3 OAA towards second), he was noticeably bad charging the ball, posting a -14 OAA when made to come in. When going back on the ball, he was just slightly below average at -1. The difference between Kiner-Falefa’s DRS and OAA is confounding to say the least. In fact, it’s even confused Statcast maestro Mike Petriello. I don’t really know what to make of it, but it’s important to at least start with a base to know what we’re dealing with and go from there.

So, why should we have patience? Well, there are a few reasons.

First, it’s important to remember that this is the first time he has been on a different team in his professional career. He was drafted by the Rangers in 2013 and, prior to this season, played all 392 professional games with some really bad Texas Rangers teams. Becoming the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees, a team looking to win a championship, is a different beast altogether than playing shortstop for a team that finished last in the AL West in three of the four seasons he played there. Obviously I can’t quantify this in any meaningful way, but dealing with the pressure in New York is surely a factor in any new player’s career.

Secondly, of the 392 games he played with the Rangers, less than half (173) have come as a shortstop. In fact, the only reason he has logged so many games as a shortstop is because he was converted to a starter there last year. Prior to 2021, he had played just 17 games at the position. So, at least in professional terms (he was, after all, drafted as a shortstop out of high school), he’s still just getting his feet wet as a shortstop at the major league level. Shortstop is probably the trickiest position on the diamond to field (catcher notwithstanding), so let’s give him some time out there.

Thirdly, some of the miscues that are being held against Kiner-Falefa were actually pretty tough plays. I’ll admit that he absolutely botched the throwing error and booted grounder that Jake highlighted in his article, but some of the plays that he has been criticized for online—in particular, Bobby Dalbec’s broken bat grounder in the 11th inning on Friday and the 93 MPH rocket that J.D. Martinez hit off of Jonathan Loáisiga in the eighth inning on Sunday night that also took a horrible bounce—were genuinely hard plays for a converted shortstop to make. Of course, these “hold your breath” moments are put under the microscope after a couple truly botched plays, but we have to remember that not every play is as routine as it looks on television out there.

Finally, and this might be the most obvious point I will ever make as a writer at Pinstripe Alley, it’s only been four games. There is absolutely a time and a place to criticize players who are not playing up to the standards expected of them, but one bad series in the field does not a bad fielder make. Kiner-Falefa, for better or worse, is integral to everything that the Yankees want to do this season. Having a steady defender at short allows the team to move DJ LeMahieu around the infield and get Josh Donaldson off his feet, which is key to getting this offense going. For a player like that, we have to have a longer leash, because calling for a guy to be benched after just four games when the organization likely has a long leash on him will make you very mad, very quickly.

I have faith that Kiner-Falefa is going to get himself sorted on the field. He’s too good of an athlete not to. And, to be honest, his spot on the team might depend on it, should Oswald Peraza continue the tear he’s been on to start the season.