When Isiah Kiner-Falefa was acquired by the Yankees in a trade prior to the 2022 season, there was tempered optimism, and the pro-IKF crowd typically made a point along the lines of “he’s exactly the type of hitter the Yankees needed.” The implication was that the Yankees have had too many “all or nothing” hitters who looked to drive and elevate and that a high contact hitter who spreads the ball around to all fields would make the lineup better.
For the faction of the fan base and the media* who felt that way, IKF has been exactly as advertised. His 88 percent contact rate is the highest of his career and the fifth-highest in MLB, and his pull/middle/opposite numbers are all within two percent of his career norms and more or less split evenly. Furthermore, he ranks in the 98th percentile league-wide in whiff rate and 87th in strikeout rate. Simply, when the man swings, he puts the bat on the ball and puts it in play. (Insert Paul O’Neill voice): He puts pressure on the defense. He makes things happen. He doesn’t sit around and wait for the three-run home run. (Now insert me rolling my eyes.)
(*Coincidentally, that’s the same faction of the media who are disinclined to do their homework and the same faction of the fan base that spent 2021 telling us how awful DJ LeMahieu was.)
Here’s the problem: Although all the above may be true, the far more important truism is that he’s also been a hideously awful hitter in 2022.
I’ve said it numerous times, so I’m not going to belabor my point (although I will ask for your patience if you detect a tone that’s indicative of one who’s said this numerous times before) but again, contact just for contact’s sake is useless. A weakly batted ball isn’t quite an automatic out, but it’s close – and IKF is a fourth-degree black belt in the centuries-old art of tapping baseballs. I’m not sure opposing fielders even need gloves when he’s at the plate. You know how infielders play in the shallow outfield when power hitters are up? Outfielders should move up into that position when IKF is at the plate.
Here are Kiner-Falefa’s MLB percentile ranks in categories that all measure quality of contact to a certain extent:
Barrel % – 1st
Hard hit % – 7th
Exit velocity – 8th
xSLG – 9th
xwOBA – 17th
Two items worth noting: a) reminder – the lower the percentile, the worse you are. b) xwOBA also factors sprint speed into the equation for certain batted balls. The fact that IKF runs well and it’s still that low is eye-opening.
Part of the issue is that IKF swings at everything. Instead of waiting for a pitch that can be hit hard, his approach is “screw it, I’m swinging”. That may have worked for Yogi Berra, but IKF ain’t Yogi. If you’re going to swing at pitches out of the zone 84 percent more often than other MLB players and walk 76 percent less often (IKF does both) you’re not going to be helping your team in any way shape or form from the batter’s box. As I posted earlier on my social media accounts…
Joey Gallo 78
If you’re new to wRC+, for the purposes of this discussion, it measures a batter’s ability to get on base and their ability to advance runners, giving a little more weight to the former (because it’s more important) and puts it into one number. 100 is league average, so IKF is 21 percent below league average.
All of this would be OK if he were a plus shortstop, but he’s not. He ranks 18th among shortstops in Defensive Runs Above Average*, and he’s in the 8th percentile in Outs Above Average. He’s been a very good baserunner by all measuring sticks but of course, part of helping your team on the basepaths is actually…you know…getting on base.
(*Ironically, former Yankees Jorge Mateo and Andrew Velazquez are numbers one and two, respectively.)
All told, he’s been a tick better than a replacement player to this point in 2022 and it’s OK to take a break from hitting the usual Yankee piñatas and say that out loud. Of course, there’s unlikely anything to do about it at this point – any shortstop that’s a significant upgrade won’t be available at the trade deadline or would be too costly in prospects to warrant the upgrade. Speaking of prospects, Oswald Peraza has played very well in Scranton, but he hasn’t hit enough (yet) to warrant being granted a full-time MLB job.
But we can be reminded of two things:
First, contact for contact’s sake is pointless – baseballs need to be hit hard if you want to help your team score runs. If just making contact helped your team, then Juan Pierre, Marco Scutaro, and Luis Castillo would be the best hitters of all time. Secondly, yes, the Yankees should have signed Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, or Trevor Story.
Truth be told, I do think IKF will play better in the second half of the season. I think someone is going to get in his head and tell him to be more selective at the plate, and we’ll see more line drives as a result. I also think there’s an adjustment period to playing in New York and playing for a team with sky-high expectations.
But it’s OK to call a Wiffle ball bat a Wiffle ball bat when you see one.
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