Is Kiner-Falefa due for a breakout?

As I’ve written previously, I like the acquisition of Isiah Kiner-Falefa. He can field the shortstop position and he’s a very good baserunner, and in case you weren’t paying attention last season, shortstop defense and team baserunning were serious issues for the Yankees.

The question that’s been raised often, legitimately so, is about Kiner-Falefa’s bat. Despite coming through with 172 hits last season which was good for seventh-best in the American League, he didn’t hit with any power (.357 SLG) and drew only 28 walks on the season, despite getting 677 PA. As a result, his overall offensive performance was graded as below average by OPS+ and wRC+, finishing with an 85 in both. (In case you’re unfamiliar, both OPS+ and wRC+ are set so 100 is league average, therefore 85 is 15 percent below league average.)

Yet, could there be a glimmer of hope for Kiner-Falefa’s tenure in Pinstripes? Before we find it, we need to do a quick review of player evaluations.

Although OPS+ and wRC+ are calculated slightly differently, they both tell us the same thing (which is why a player’s OPS+ and wRC+ will almost always be very close, if not exactly the same as in Kiner-Falefa’s case.) They both base their number on OBP and SLG, weighing OBP more, then adjustments are made for park factors and the run-scoring environment of that particular season (i.e., it’s a heck of a lot easier to hit in Denver than in Oakland, and it was much easier to hit 1930 than it was in 1967.)

Although those are great comprehensive stats, and both OBP and SLG are very telling as well, they’re based on results and not what the player actually did. Even great stats often are affected by luck and randomness and OBP and SLG are no different in that regard, so they may not tell the whole story.

Baseball Prospectus’ DRC+ (deserved runs created) also uses OBP, SLG and adjusts for parks and era, and sets average at 100, but it also weighs what the player actually did as much as the outcome. This not only gives us a little more information to go on in some cases but as a result, a player’s DRC+ isn’t always the same as his OPS+ and wRC+.

What this all means, is that when a player has a DRC+ that’s lower than his OPS+ and wRC+, he may have been the beneficiary of good luck and been on the right side of randomness. Conversely, if a player’s DRC+ is higher than his OPS+ and wRC+, it may indicate that he performed better than his results-based numbers may suggest.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s DRC+ in 2021 was 95 – close to league average and 10 points higher than his OPS+ and wRC+ of 85. That’s a significant difference and is rather interesting.

Perhaps Kiner-Falefa wasn’t as ineffective offensively as his numbers indicate. Maybe he was the victim of poor luck – his 2021 BABIP was the lowest of his career, while his line drive percentage was the highest, which both would push us in the direction of that conclusion.

If that is the case, and Kiner-Falefa breaks out and becomes even a league-average hitter, that would be a big boost for the Yankees. One of the better baserunners in the league with even a league-average performance with the bat would be big for a team that had trouble scoring runs last season. Even with the poor offensive results in 2021, he still produced 3.7 bWAR and 2.3 fWAR almost entirely due to his defense and baserunning. (Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus was higher on him again, giving him 4.2 WARP, which is almost All-Star level value.)

To be clear, when I say it “may” indicate that we’ll see improvement this season, it doesn’t mean we “will” as there are innumerable factors that go into this – it just is more likely than the reverse. But when you factor that he’s in a much better lineup now, and he’ll only be 27 on Opening Day, I think there’s reason for optimism.

Did I miss something? Let me know.

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