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Is Isiah Kiner-Falefa really the best starting shortstop on the active roster?

Figuring out how to get the most value out of the shortstop position

Chicago Cubs v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

When I watch Isiah Kiner-Falefa play shortstop, I’m reminded of Edwin Starr’s No. 1 hit cover from 1970. You know, the one that goes:

War IKF. Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”

Am I being unkind? Maybe. But no more unkind than the Yankees subjecting their viewers to IKF’s daily blunders at the plate and in the field.

In all seriousness, with each passing day it becomes harder and harder to justify rolling out IKF as the everyday shortstop when the Yankees have a better option on the active roster. That’s right, I’m talking about Marwin Gonzalez.

There’s really no two ways around it, IKF is one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball. His -5 Outs Above Average (OAA) ranks him tied 64th out of 68 players with at least 25 attempts at shortstop. His footwork moving to his right is deficient causing him to stab backhand at groundballs he really should be rounding and moments of indecision have caused him to be eaten up by more than a few grounders.

Gonzalez meanwhile has acquitted himself quite well at shortstop, albeit in limited opportunities. His +1 OAA at the position ties him for 19th best among shortstops with at least 25 attempts. The trio of widely accepted defensive metrics almost universally agree that Gonzalez has been a better defender at short than IKF — IKF grades out at zero DRS, 4.7 UZR/150 and -5 OAA while Gonzalez sits at -1 DRS, 7.2 UZR/150, and +1 OAA.

It doesn’t get any prettier for IKF on the offensive side. He sports some of the worst quality of contact of any hitter in baseball — first percentile barrel rate, seventh percentile average exit velocity, seventh percentile hard hit rate — so it’s no surprise that he has yet to hit a home run and is dead last in ISO (.049) in the league.

As unsurprising as IKF’s offensive impotence has been, Gonzalez’s production at the plate has been equally surprising. He’s hitting the ball four mph harder than IKF, has a hard hit rate 20 points higher than his teammate, and has been overall above average at a 115 wRC+ compared to IKF’s 81. This offensive production alone explains how Gonzalez has produced more value than IKF (0.8 fWAR vs. 0.5 fWAR) despite IKF logging almost three times as many plate appearances.

At this point, it’s hard to find what if anything IKF does better than Gonzalez. I suppose the two things you could point to are speed and contact, and to his credit IKF does excel in these departments. He leads the team with 11 stolen bases thanks to his 85th percentile sprint speed and he places in the top-five in MLB in Run Scoring rate (46 percent) and Extra Bases Taken rate (70 percent).

On the contact side, IKF sits in the 98th percentile in whiff rate and 86th percentile in strikeout rate, though as we know contact for contact’s sake does not always help your team — he owns the 17th-highest groundball rate (50.3 percent) of any qualified hitter this year. However, I’d argue that run creation with the bat and run prevention with the glove is far more important from the shortstop position, and it’s clear that Gonzalez holds the upper hand in those areas.

All of this comes with the massive caveat that the Yankees will likely never give thought to moving Gonzalez ahead of IKF on the depth chart. For starters, Gonzalez is quite valuable to the Yankees in his current Swiss Army knife utilityman role off the bench. The ability to give his teammates a day off thanks to his positional versatility might in itself be more valuable than whatever upgrade he could provide over IKF as starting shortstop. Additionally, I find it very hard to believe that Brian Cashman took on all of Josh Donaldson’s contract just to have IKF come off the bench.

And for all the hubbub over the offseason of how the Yankees wanted to improve their defense at shortstop, I can’t recall ever hearing the organization explicitly prioritize a glove-first stopgap. Rather, we learned about the stopgap plan and I think a lot of us assumed said player would good-to-great defensively.

So in that sense, I think the Yankees are getting exactly what they were expecting and even hoping to get from IKF — a pure stopgap on an affordable, short-term contract that allowed the team to maintain payroll flexibility while giving the likes of Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza time to develop. As long as IKF keeps fulfilling those expectations — slappy singles hitter with decent speed and defense not quite bad enough to torpedo his team’s chances of winning games — the Yankees will keep on giving him the starting nod.