When your favorite team is playing .750 baseball one-fifth of the way into the season the tendency is to look for problems, which in many cases, are unlikely to even be problems as the season progresses. That said, the defense of Yankees’ shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa has been less than optimal lately, which is the polite version of the descriptive expression. For a few reasons, which we’ll get to in a minute, it may make us consider the question “Should we be concerned about IKF’s defense?”
The answer is “yes and no”.
“No” from this standpoint: IKF is 27 years old, has played 184 games at shortstop since the beginning of the 2021 season, and by virtually all* accounts has played it at a better than average level. According to FanGraphs’ Ultimate Zone Rating, which factors in just about everything a fielder does, IKF ranked 11th among MLB shortstops in UZR in 2021 and currently leads MLB shortstops in UZR so far in ’22. (Although FanGraphs is clear that UZR is pretty much useless in small sample sizes, so don’t pay too much attention to the 2022 ranking yet.)
His Defensive Runs Above Average has him ranked a tick above average in both 2021 and 2022 while Baseball Reference’s dWAR has him ranked third among shortstops since 2021, trailing only Carlos Correa and Andrelton Simmons. (*Although Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average had IKF in the 4th percentile in 2021, and the 36th percentile so far this season.)
This tells us there’s next to nothing to worry about because 27-year-olds with a proven capacity to play defense well very rarely just lose that ability overnight. That said, in the very off chance he doesn’t right the leaking ship we’ve seen in recent series, the Yankees do have a problem – potentially a serious one.
For starters, if he doesn’t field well, he’s not particularly useful. Some players can get away with not providing too much value with their glove but IKF with his current 95 wRC+ and career 82 wRC+ isn’t one of them. And any ideas of making IKF a super-utility player are unrealistic given roster construction, as DJ LeMahieu is essentially already doing that in the infield, and unlike Marwin Gonzalez, IKF can’t play the outfield.
Yet the FAR bigger potential issue is that there is no safety net should IKF falter, or even incur an injury. Similar to how the team entered 2021 with no backup plan at shortstop (and that didn’t end well) there’s no one on the current 40-man roster suited to take over on more than a day-to-day basis.
Marwin Gonzalez is fine for providing an occasional day off for the starting shortstop, but there’s a reason he’s only played 19 total games at the position since 2019. Additionally, since leaving the Astros, Gonzalez has posted an awful 77 OPS+ in his last 996 PA, not in a Houston uniform – I’ll let you draw whatever conclusions you want from that tidbit. Still, regardless, his bat is not one you want to see on the lineup card regularly.
Of course, the Yankees’ number two overall prospect is their AAA shortstop. Yet when we consider that Oswald Peraza has only had 137 career plate appearances in Triple-A with a .206/.274/.351 triple-slash line, I think we’d agree he’s not an option to be an everyday player in the show quite yet.
I’ll go back to my very first sentence and say again, that this is just a case of looking for a problem that isn’t there. It’s overwhelmingly more likely that IKF will be fine at shortstop than turning into an issue for the team. That said, it would be a severe problem if it did become one, even due to a misfortunate injury – I’m hoping the Yankees front office does have a potential parachute plan in place because it would be awful to see a season with this much potential get dragged back down to earth by the reality of only having one shortstop (again).
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