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Isiah Kiner-Falefa is lifting off

IKF has found his power stroke and is riding it to better offensive results than ever, especially against the heater.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

When the Yankees traded for Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the book on him was well-established: elite utility defense, slaps singles at a fairly high rate, but not much else. 2022 brought constant chatter about replacing him as the starting shortstop, which happened when Anthony Volpe debuted in the 2023 opener.

Upon losing his everyday spot to Volpe, Kiner-Falefa didn’t sulk — instead, he worked. He finally found the right combination of tweaks and, starting in May, he’s looked like a different hitter with power he hadn’t shown until now. Over the past month in particular, IKF has enjoyed the best offensive performance in his Yankees career. In what is now established as true IKF fashion, he admirably kept his head down and focused on improvement in the face of failure, vitriol, and a demotion.

Andrés wrote about the mechanical changes in-depth when we first noticed them about a month ago, and we now have a month’s worth of at-bats to compare. From June 1st to July 4th, he racked up 24 hits in 68 plate appearances. This is worth mentioning but isn’t necessarily the surprising part: hitting above .300 is exceptionally difficult but part of IKF’s known skill set, and in June he hit .308 after a .202 mark in April and May.

Kiner-Falefa improved his xBA from .247 through the end of May to .289 in June, a telltale sign of better contact manifesting into hits. xBA is more precise than batting average to determine contact results, but both showed significant improvement.

His jump in hard contact this year is staggering even factoring in his early-season struggles. In 2021, he rated in the fourth percentile for average exit velocity. 2022 saw him double that number to the still-atrocious eighth percentile. In 2023, he’s made the seismic jump to the 40th percentile. Hitters don’t often improve on such a vital stat so suddenly — this indicates Kiner-Falefa figured something major out with the help of the Yankees’ coaching staff.

Even before his hot month of June, his new approach started to pay dividends against fastballs. The power stroke has improved all year on the pitch — Kiner-Falefa has a .451 xSLG on fastballs this year even with a slow start, far and away the highest of his career. He’s also driving fastballs 88.3 mph off the bat. Last year, that number was 85.1 mph.

Predictably, his whiff rate on fastball was 7.7 percent, and that has ticked up to 12.7 percent this year. In the grand scheme of things, this trade-off is a no-brainer if it improves IKF’s slugging ability this much. His xSLG and xBA are showing a level of improvement that renders the five-percent uptick in whiff rate negligible. He’s in the 86th percentile overall in whiff rate after being in the 99th last year. Yankees fans will certainly live with that.

Andrés looked specifically at the load and the momentum IKF generates toward contact. The toe-tap timing mechanism is much more pronounced in order to emphasize that load, and the results have been there. IKF is lifting fastballs with an authority he hasn’t shown thus far in his career.

He only hit one home run on a fastball in all of 2022, and already has four bombs this year against the hard stuff. Here’s the most impressive of those on a fastball at the top of the strike zone. Notice the more elaborate load and pronounced unleashing of the hips at the point of contact:

Here’s a similarly hittable pitch from Brocke Burke of the Rangers from April 30th:

Here, IKF tries and fails to lean on his ability to inside-out the pitch with a quick swing. Instead, he works under the ball and pops it up, the simplicity of that swing robbing any chance of a Jeter-like inside-out drive.

Most recently in Tuesday’s game he came through with a sacrifice fly in all likelihood aided by the adjustment to consciously lift. And by the way, he ranks in the 97th percentile in outfielder jump while playing outfield for the first time in his career. Overall across all positions? 73rd percentile in Outs Above Average.

This version of IKF is unprecedented. With these offensive results, his value skyrockets — a bat with some power providing elite defense at near every position is a solid building block for a contender. If Kiner-Falefa can grow into his new swing and make the jump permanently, there’s a spot for him to fill beyond this year that was previously assumed to be handed to almost anyone else.