We have had a very interesting relationship with the Yankees’ Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
He hit .302 in April of last year, so much that I went so far as to call him the new Didi Gregorius. ESNY’s tone then gradually shifted with both Kiner-Falefa’s regression and frustrating fielding at shortstop. By the offseason, the discourse was either potential trades involving him or just cutting him because of the infield logjam.
Well, fans, guess what? Not only is Kiner-Falefa still on the Yankees, but the now-utility man probably not going anywhere for a while. His four hits against Seattle in Tuesday’s 10-2 win are just pieces of what’s been a great month for him. Kiner-Falefa is batting .279 with an .848 OPS in May and .380 in his last five games.
He also has three home runs this month. In 2022, Kiner-Falefa didn’t even hit his first homer until Aug. 13. His third wasn’t until Sept. 7, and he finished the season with a grand total of four.
Kiner-Falefa has also thrived in his new role as a utility player. He’s played six different positions this year, including pitcher and all three outfield spots. His outs above average (OAA) are in the 83rd percentile even if his defensive runs saved (DRS) on the year sit at exactly zero.
Is this just one player on a hot streak with a hard regression coming? Or is Kiner-Falefa’s recent success his redemption arc?
Honestly, it could be both. Yankees catcher Jose Trevino spoke to ESNY last summer and said how even in their days in the Texas Rangers organization, Kiner-Falefa — or “Izzy” as Trevino called him — was always a good teammate. Kiner-Falefa even spoke to MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch last week and fully “accepted” his new role on the Yankees.
“I don’t think my numbers last year were good enough to hold the spot, so it is what it is,” he said. “I was given another opportunity to be here, so I’m just trying to do everything I can to show what I can do and why I’m here.”
Kiner-Falefa’s work ethic also extends off the field. He hit a light .261 last year with a .642 OPS. He’s only batting .243 with a .667 in 2023, but still added almost 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason to improve his power. That’s evident in his .848 OPS this month, especially compared to last season’s monthly high of .715 in September/October.
It’s been a great seeing Kiner-Falefa play well and the at-bats will probably keep coming for the foreseeable future. Harrison Bader is on the injured list with a hamstring and Oswaldo Cabrera is only batting .195. Even as he regresses, he’ll still look better than Marwin Gonzalez did at any point in 2022.
And just for extra irony, rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe is only batting .198 on the year after winning the starting job out of spring training. Suddenly, Kiner-Falefa doesn’t look too bad, even for a $6 million utility player.
Becoming an afterthought seemed almost inevitable for Kiner-Falefa. Instead, he’s become a star in his role rather than just trying for stardom. Better yet, it’s helping both him and the Yankees.
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