Isiah Kiner-Falefa has been the last piece of the Yankees’ puzzle
Easily the most shocking offseason maneuver by Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman was the trade that sent Gio Urshela and Gary Sanchez to the Twins for Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
When premium shortstops like Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story were all available, the move to instead acquire Kiner-Falefa felt underwhelming by comparison.
Assessing his performance so far, IKF has simply been himself; and, by being himself, has contributed more to the Yankees than his statistics imply. It is no secret the Yankee lineup in recent years has relied heavily on baseball’s three true outcomes: walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Kiner-Falefa’s hitting profile could not be in starker contrast to that strategy. He thrives on making contact and rarely hits for power.
While this approach has fallen out of style as damage hitters get more and more at bats, for this Yankee team, what IKF does has fit in spectacularly. He has brought balance to the lineup, and perhaps there was no better showing for what IKF has brought to the table than on Tuesday night against the Rays.
First, IKF put the ball in play for a single with two outs and men on base.
Anyone who watched the 2021 Yankees would view that outcome in general as a breath of fresh air.
What Yankees’ Isiah Kiner-Falefa brings to 2022 roster
What does putting the ball in play do here? It forces the Rays, and Randy Arozarena specifically, to field the ball. This Rays team has committed errors at a bottom-10 rate in baseball, and Arozarena has always been more of a hitter than a Gold Glove winner (with an especially weak hose). One airmailed throw later, and two incredibly important runs had scored.
Speaking of defense, one of the biggest draws to bringing IKF onto the roster was his excellent D.
While last year this was primarily at third base, the Yankees confidently inserted him as their everyday shortstop. After watching Gleyber Torres make a mockery of the position last season, this is just another subtle way Kiner-Falefa has brought a different set of skills to the roster than they had in recent seasons.
Here, IKF saves a run by knocking down a tricky grounder and then makes no mistake with a tailor-made double play.
The success of the pitching staff this year is also a credit to the defense behind them, where you can argue there has been no bigger upgrade than at the shortstop position. Gerrit Cole was certainly appreciative of his shortstop after Tuesday’s game.
While analytics certainly have their place in the game, their biggest blind spot at the moment is on defense.
It is clear from watching that while IKF has not been Ozzie Smith, he has certainly been steady at the most important position in the infield.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa is not going to be confused for Carlos Correa anytime soon. He has yet to homer on the season and has a below average wRC+ of 86. But he provides balance to a Yankee lineup that has been begging for it.
For once, the Yankees seem to have brought in a player who fits with their current roster and provides qualities that even their better players lack. Not every player on the roster has to be an All-Star, but for the first time in a long time, the Yankees have a team that fits.