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Isiah Kiner-Falefa has been a plus defender in the outfield

The former starting shortstop has not only owned the utility role; he’s been a real asset defensively.

MLB: New York Yankees at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Isiah Kiner-Falefa had a rough first year in pinstripes. A lightning rod for criticism and the the fanbase’s primary hate vessel, IKF garnered the ire of fans because of a laundry list of honestly unfair reasons. First, the Yankees opted for a stopgap shortstop instead of signing one of the numerous elite free agents available at the position that winter. Then, the Yankees acquired IKF by trading the popular Gio Urshela and the divisive-but-homegrown Gary Sánchez (oh, and they also brought in the divisive-and-expensive Josh Donaldson too). Then they continued to play him despite his performance suffering and a top prospect, Oswald Peraza, knocking on the door late in the season. And lastly, IKF was benched in October due to numerous defensive miscues.

Mind you, aside from the botched defensive plays in October, very little of this was his fault, but even so, the fanbase hated him for it. So when manager Aaron Boone mentioned that IKF would begin taking reps in the outfield during spring training, instead of celebrating that Peraza or Anthony Volpe would win the starting job, the fanbase collectively groaned. Some fans thought the team was being cheap, finding a role for him simply because they were already paying him $6 million. Others thought he was an example of the front office’s arrogance, saying that the team invested in him and would do whatever it took to make the decision to trade for him look smart. Pretty much everyone worried whether or not he’d actually be able to play the outfield, perhaps drawing comparisons to former Red Sox masher Hanley Ramirez, who played a solid third base, a passable shortstop, and an absolutely atrocious left field.

We’re now about two months into the Isiah Kiner-Falefa, utilityman experience. Although he’s played a handful of times at third base this year, plus one appearance back at short, IKF has predominantly been an outfielder for the Yankees (he’s made 29 starts in the outfield, compared to five at the hot corner), with roughly 60 percent of that time in center. In that time, the eye test has suggested that Kiner-Falefa has been a capable outfielder, even if he’s not quite as aesthetically pleasing to watch out there as Harrison Bader or Aaron Judge. While we’re still firmly in “beware the small sample size” territory, we have finally reached the threshold where we can start looking at the advanced metrics and see whether they match up with the eye test.

The early returns are extremely encouraging, particularly when we hone in on his 149 innings in center field. No matter which metrics you use, IKF has shown that he can be an above-average defender out there. His 2 Defensive Runs Saved in center are tied for 11th among outfielders with at least 140 innings; the three players tied with him (Alek Thomas, Trent Grisham, Myles Straw) have 100-300 more innings out there than him. His 9.3 UZR/150 ranks 10th, ahead of 2019 Gold Glove recipient Cody Bellinger. Only Outs Above Average thinks “lowly” of him in center, as his 1 OAA is tied with several others for 24th out of 40 eligible outfielders, but even then, OAA only gives a negative score to three center fielders (it is likely that any others who would be that bad are simply not given enough playing time to meet the threshold).

As a quick aside, I do want to point out that I have been specifically talking about IKF’s performance in center field so far, and not his performance in the outfield as a whole. There is a reason for this: his play in left field has been quite a bit more inconsistent, as he’s been worth -2 DRS and -18.1 UZR/150, but still 1 OAA in just under 100 innings. While I do not want to just throw this data out, he’s been playing better in the more difficult position. On top of that, after spring training, he did not even practice in left field until he was penciled into the lineup there on May 3rd; not surprisingly, his early days out there involved numerous misplays and miscommunications. His performance in center field gives reason to hope that he will settle into the corner outfield spot in time.

IKF’s Statcast data is even more encouraging. While his burst and route runner leave a bit to be desired, his reaction time tops the charts. Because of this, he’s covered, on average, roughly 36.3 feet per attempt; this ranks 12th among the 94 outfielders on this list. He has demonstrated the range required to be at least an above-average defender out there, with the potential for greater.

Somewhat surprisingly, being in the outfield has also allowed IKF to unleash a weapon that none of us could have seen coming: his arm strength. One of the biggest knocks about the decision to try Kiner-Falefa in the outfield was the fact that he never had a big arm in the infield: from 2020-22 (the first three seasons Statcast has data on arm strength), he averaged between 80.8 and 82.5 mph on his throws, and maxed out at 86.9; percentile-wise, this put him firmly in the bottom third.

This year, however, IKF has averaged 86.4 mph and has maxed out at 91 mph. While it would not be accurate to describe his arm as a cannon, he’s been decidedly above-average: an 86.4-mph average puts him at 77th out of 229 defenders (he does not have enough innings in the outfield to appear on the position-specific list, but it would be tied for 48th with Myles Straw there). That plays nicely.

Looking at the big picture, it’s obvious in hindsight that Isiah Kiner-Falefa was tailor-made for the outfield. In the Pinstripe Alley Slack channel, Esteban Rivera — who has written quite a bit recently about outfield defense — pointed out that “IKF’s positive traits that he had in the infield (range and athleticism) play up more in the outfield ... Catching a fly ball ugly doesn’t really matter if you can get there consistently.”

Very few complaints about IKF’s defense last year centered on his range; it was the plays that he got to, but didn’t field cleanly, that were the problem (contrast to late career Derek Jeter, who had limited range but had a reliable glove if he got to it). Because the aesthetics of the catch matter much less than in the infield, where an unclean catch can turn a groundout into an infield single, the very thing that Kiner-Falefa struggled with last year has largely become a nonissue.

Hey, I guess the Yankees were onto something after all.