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Yankees can’t afford to hope Isiah Kiner-Falefa magically gets better
2 months ago  ::  Jan 23, 2023 - 1:17PM #1
Posts: 7,192

Throw a dart at a board of advanced offensive statistics, and the Yankees’ 2022 shortstops probably ranked near the bottom of whatever category you hit.

The group, led by Isiah Kiner-Falefa and his 131 starts at the highly-valued position, fared decently in batting average and on-base percentage. But among the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, the Yankees’ shortstops were 17th in OPS and weighted on-base average, had the 24th-ranked slugging percentage, were 26th in Statcast’s hard-hit percentage and came in dead last in home runs and isolated slugging (a statistic calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage). They also had the highest ground ball rate in the league, removing most chances for extra base hits as soon as the ball left their barren bats.

Their 91 wRC+ best illustrates how forceless the combination of Kiner-Falefa and Marwin Gonzalez were. Those two were the shortstop for 90% of the team’s games, and if not for Oswald Peraza hitting well during his 11 starts down the stretch, the collective numbers would have been even deeper in the shortstop sinkhole.

Starting with Kiner-Falefa — who figures to still be part of the plan in 2023 after re-upping for one year and six million dollars — the issues are obvious. He does not hit the ball hard at all. While his teammate Aaron Judge had Statcast’s highest hard-hit rate at a punishing 60.9%, Kiner-Falefa’s 29.8% mark placed him in the bottom ten of all MLB qualified hitters. That means that only 29.8% of Kiner-Falefa’s batted balls were 95 miles per hour or greater. The league average was 38.2%. While several of Kiner-Falefa’s neighbors at the bottom of the exit velocity charts had great seasons — Jeff McNeil and Luis Arraez, last year’s batting champions, are the very next hitters on the list after IKF — those men were producing far more line drives and far fewer grounders than the Yankees’ 27-year-old project.

When Kiner-Falefa put the ball in play, he put it on the ground more frequently than any other qualified American League hitter. That’s clearly been part of the strategy for Kiner-Falefa during his entire career, as he does not possess the type of power that will lead to 20 home runs if he just starts elevating the ball more regularly. He prides himself on his contact rate (which is, admittedly, elite), but much of that contact proved to be empty last year.

One of the more humorous stats from Kiner-Falefa’s turbulent Bronx debut is that, among the 16 AL hitters to record more than 100 singles, he was the only one with an OPS+ below 100. In other words, despite hobnobbing with Carlos Correa, Cedric Mullins and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on the singles leaderboard, Kiner-Falefa’s 84 OPS+ tells us he was still 16% worse than the average hitter. That stat is adjusted for the hitter benefits that come with Yankee Stadium, too, casting an even darker shadow on his summer.

The question of how to fix Kiner-Falefa is both complicated and simple. Teaching a guy to consistently hit the ball harder over the course of a single offseason is no easy task. Altering a deeply-ingrained approach could also make things worse, as these habits he’s developed are some 20 years in the making and reversing them now would turn familiar into foreign. The simplicity of the situation comes from the fact that this is just who he is as a hitter. Most of his 2022 numbers are eerily similar to his 2021 figures from Texas. The Yankees knew they were getting a light-hitting utility infielder whom they hoped could be their everyday shortstop. The player they got slapped grounders through the hole every chance he could get, but also never walked and was deeply allergic to stroking the ball into the gap with any sort of ferocity, same as he ever was.

With Gonzalez now out of the picture, Kiner-Falefa and Peraza are the two shortstops on the current 40-man roster. Oswaldo Cabrera can fill substitute duty if needed. But the battle, at least at the beginning of the season, is between IKF and Peraza, who doesn’t turn 23 until June. Most people — including probably Kiner-Falefa, if he was feeling especially candid — would say that Peraza is a better hitter despite having just 57 regular-season plate appearances to Kiner-Falefa’s 2,054. If the Yankees think the two play a comparable brand of defense, which is not very hard for Peraza given how poorly Kiner-Falefa graded in arm strength and Outs Above Average, then Peraza should definitely be the starter.

Let’s pump the brakes for now on Anthony Volpe, who’s stood in the batter’s box just 99 times above Double-A and struck out in 30 of those chances. He’ll be in the bigs sooner than later, and maybe even before the All-Star break if he cracks the code on Triple-A pitching, but expecting him to be ready by Opening Day is reckless and premature unless he goes ballistic in spring training.

There’s a chance that more of Kiner-Falefa’s weak contact becomes base hits. His .296 batting average on balls in play last season was the lowest of his career, and the new rules about shifting should help all ground ball hitters, even if the improvements are marginal. But the problem was slugging. Peraza provided that in small doses after he was called up last September, and his nanosized sample would put him on pace to pound 35 extra base hits if given 500 plate appearances. Kiner-Falefa was good for 24 in 531 plate appearances, the fewest of anyone who strode to the plate that many times.

If the Yankees like singles, fielding errors and the cold comfort of knowing what they’re going to get, Kiner-Falefa is their guy. If they’re looking for someone who deals more in doubles and homers, with the added allure of unknown possibility, they need to give Peraza the job and let him run with it.

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