When you watch a baseball team day in and day out, you begin to notice the little things that each player does that sets them apart from others. Some are fairly obvious: Orlando Hernández’s leg kick spawned an Adidas commercial alongside David Cone and Luis Sojo in the late 90s. Others are more subtle, such as Andy Pettitte’s intense stare. And every once in a while, it becomes iconic — every fan who grew up in the early 2000s knew Ichiro Suzuki’s pre-at-bat routine like the back of their hands.
As I’ve been watching the Yankees over the first seven weeks of the season, I kept noticing a small quirk in how shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa fields the position: he always seemed to me to be backhanding the ball whenever the ball was hit to his right, regardless of whether or not he had the time to get in front of the ball and field it straight up.
Now, as we all know, anecdotal evidence can lie to you — you’re more likely to remember something that validates your pre-existing beliefs, a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. And so I dove into the MLB Film Room, brought up all plays that had Kiner-Falefa listed as the primary defender so far this season (at time of writing, prior to last night’s game, that was 149 plays), and began collecting data: reports on the general defensive alignment, how IKF approached the ground ball, the batter, and the result of the play. Along the way, I weeded out line drives, pop ups, and hits that had IKF labelled as the primary defender even though he did not have a play on the ball simply because he was the closest defender; this cut the data set almost in half, to 87.
What did this data tell us? Well, for starters, IKF has backhanded the ball 15 times this season heading into last night’s game, or just over 17 percent of the time. Additionally, eight of those backhanded ground balls were plays that I labelled as “unnecessarily backhanded,” denoting the fact that IKF had plenty of time to get in front of the ball and thus made an active choice to backhand it. Now, are these numbers more or less than the league average? Truth be told, I can’t say for certain: “What is the percentage of ground balls backhanded by the shortstop?” is not a question people normally ask, which means the data isn’t easily-found, and I unfortunately lack the time to watch every single ground ball hit to a shortstop this year.
Even so, just by looking at IKF’s plays, we can get a sense of how he mans the position. Let’s look at some of the tape. Here’s an AJ Pollock ground out from the May 14th matchup against the White Sox:
Kiner-Falefa could very easily get in front of the grounder here. Instead, he gets next to where the ball is going to be, rotates his body so that it passes directly in front of him, and backhands it. While, hypothetically, he could be using this position to get the ball out quickly — while not a speedster anymore, Pollock’s 27.2 ft/sec sprint speed is in the upper half of the league — that can’t be the case here. His feet are not lined up to throw to first base, his first move is in the vague direction of third base, and he does a mini crow hop before throwing to first. This is, plain and simply, not how most infielders play shortstop.
But you know where you do see these mechanics? The hot corner. Let’s take a look at this play by DJ LeMahieu, fielding a sharp ground ball by José Abreu on May 21st.
While the ball is hit so hard that the YES Network camera is not able to capture the full play, we can see that when he gets the ball, LeMahieu’s body is pointed towards the third base line. For a third baseman, this is a fairly standard play — and it’s exactly how IKF plays shortstop.
Knowing his history, this should not be a surprise. Although Kiner-Falefa came up as a shortstop and has played multiple positions at the professional level (between the majors and minors, he has spent at least one inning at every non-pitcher position besides right field), he has been most successful defensively as a third baseman. And even though he is not playing that position for the Yankees, he nonetheless still fields the position like one — particularly when he’s moving to the right.
So long as he continues to find success doing that — as Peter and Esteban noted in the Pinstripe Alley Slack last night, he fields the ball and transfers the ball more cleanly when he backhands it than when he fields it any other way — then by all means, Kiner-Falefa should keep doing what he’s doing.