After he was miscast as the Yankees starting shortstop in 2022, fueling this short-fused fan base to turn on him, bringing Isiah Kiner-Falefa back was viewed as a fallacy for 2023.
As recently as a few weeks ago, tendering Kiner-Falefa a $6 million contract while letting Matt Carpenter seek playing time elsewhere felt like the next step in this team's continued dedication towards misappropriating funds. The Yankees' offense had stalled the second Carpenter was removed in 2022. Was it really the right solution to double down on being powerless?
But then, somewhere along the way, something amazing clicked for Kiner-Falefa. The argument was never that a contact bat wasn't needed; most just didn't believe IKF could become that bat after his 2022 campaign and its continuation in 2023. Sure, he put bat on ball, by the very definition of the terminology, but the resulting contact was too weak to make much of a dent.
With a dedicated work ethic and intense resolve, IKF shrugged off the amplified cries for his dismissal and maintained his focus. He was asked to take on the almost absurd role shift from shortstop/third baseman to oft-outfielder, all the while his playing time and reps were reduced. Somehow, after a worse start to 2023 than anything he'd put up the previous year, his Yankees teammates convinced him to stick with his altered approach despite what he called "the worst numbers [he's] ever had."
Yankees' Isiah Kiner-Falefa has found his role (and red hot bat)
Suddenly ... he became exactly what the Yankees needed. Cashing in clutch hits. Finding holes. Staying up the middle. He's still a singles-and-gaps hitter by trade, but now they're piling up by the dozens (again, with the renewed pressure of defensive shifts weighing on his mind, too).
After Tuesday's win in Seattle, featuring a four-hit effort and two-run double to kick things off in the first, Kiner-Falefa spoke glowingly about his teammates propping him up as he fought through the tunnel to the light.
To sum it up, he feels "free" now, a near-impossible thing in New York and the type of salvation past pariahs like Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks never found again.
Kiner-Falefa won't be a long-term solution at any of the Yankees' positions of need, and it would be unfair to expect him to sustain this remarkable heater, which has pushed his OPS+ to ... yes, still 17% below league-average.
But, in a pinch, he's now someone this team can count on to deliver big at-bats and productive outs, as long as his effectiveness isn't neutered by overexposure. Feeling comfortable with yourself is a hell of a drug, especially on the big stage in New York and, against the odds, the Yankees found someone who could learn to love the bright lights.
Thanks in part to his teammates, of course. He's humble, too.