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Isiah Kiner-Falefa is making great strides to win over skeptics

The Yankees’ shortstop hasn’t suddenly become a hitting star, but is inflicting more damage than ever with the bat and deserves credit for that.

MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

When the Yankees traded for Isiah Kiner-Falefa, I was doubtful that he would become an above-average offensive player. I loved the versatility (he can play third base and catcher besides the shortstop position), but I advocated for a utility role rather than the starting shortstop. I certainly didn’t see him as much of an offensive threat.

Fast-forward a month, and I’m glad to see that Kiner-Falefa is doing his part to prove me — and many people — wrong. I’m actually really glad he did, because as long as IKF remains competent at bat, his good defense at short will make him a starting-caliber player, and as long as that’s the case, shortstop prospects Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe can develop at their own pace.

We should warn you, however, that the sample size is still small. We are just starting the second month of the regular season, after all. But there is no denying that there has been at least some growth in Kiner-Falefa’s offensive profile. He’s hitting .295/.329/.372 with no homers, 15 runs scored, seven RBI, and a couple of steals. More notably, his .312 wOBA isn’tt really that special, but there is a key stat: his 107 wRC+.

Judging by wRC+, Kiner-Falefa has been seven percent better than the league average offensively. He may not have much power, but he has shown a good feel for contact and, most importantly, the ability to get on base. Kiner-Falefa has never before managed to reach or surpass the 100 wRC+ threshold in any of his previous four seasons. In fact, he’d only done that over the course of a single month twice before as a regular, and his high-water season mark of 94 came in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign (just over two months of play). If we eliminate that, his 85 wRC+ in 677 trips to the plate from 2021 would be a career-best.

Of course, he has a .354 BABIP, which would easily be a career-high. However, there are reasons to explain such a high mark that go beyond good luck. Yes, the gods of fortune have been on his side, but he is also very fast (88th percentile sprint speed) and, more importantly, sported a career-high 39.3 percent hard-hit rate entering play on Wednesday. So almost 40 percent of his batted-ball events have been at 95 mph or higher, and that’s certainly not insignificant.

Kiner-Falefa is applying some mechanical changes explained here by our own Mason Boyd, most of which have to do with timing mechanisms, i.e., a leg kick and a toe tap. He is hitting the ball hard more frequently as a result: as they often say, a lot of a hitter’s power comes from his lower body. The gains has made offensively are undeniable, as he would currently be setting career-highs in wRC+, batting average, OBP, slugging, wOBA, xwOBA, and hard-hit rate. He is also inflicting more damage on contact than ever, with a .360 xwOBAcon through Tuesday.

The changes in IKF’s Statcast profile from 2021 to 2022 aren’t that remarkable, but some of them, like his hard-hit rate and xwOBA, are worth mentioning because they mean he has improved a lot.

Here is his 2021 Statcast profile:

And his 2022 percentile rankings:

All things considered, Kiner-Falefa hasn’t suddenly morphed into a power hitter, but he is hitting the ball with much more authority even if his average (87.1 mph) and max exit velocity (105.4 mph) don’t necessarily agree. For him, more than the raw power per se, the most important thing is hitting the ball hard frequently. And while he has a long way to go to prove his worth over the course of a full season, he is doing a commendable job on that front.