In today’s Major League Baseball, what’s the price for a player coming off a wildly disappointing season, one that saw them bat .261/.314/.327 (.642 OPS) with an 85 wRC+ while adjusting to the rigors of a major media market for the first time?
Based on Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s one-year deal to return to the Yankees, the answer is six million dollars. The infielder showed no pop — only five qualified players had a lower slugging percentage last season — and failed to cash in on his sterling reputation as a gloveman, committing a few postseason blunders that earned him a spot on the bench.
Still, the Yankees chose to tender him a one-year deal worth six million dollars to be a part of the 2023 squad, likely hoping he settles into a utility spot rather than reprising his role as the starting shortstop. Ranking in the bottom ten of league-wide slugging percentage, OPS, wRC+, isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) and hard-hit percentage was definitely not what the Yankees envisioned when they traded for Kiner-Falefa, even knowing that defense is his carrying tool and offense has always been a struggle.
The 2022 season was a different type of struggle, though. The already light-hitting Hawaiian posted the lowest slugging percentage of his career, thanks in large part to 102 of his 126 hits being singles. In the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium, where players are often rounding the bases in a home run trot even after slightly mishitting the ball, Kiner-Falefa’s two home runs matched the total he had on the road. It’s easy to speculate that playing in the Bronx, and playing as poorly as he did for most of the season, had a profoundly negative mental effect on the former Ranger, not unlike what happened to Joey Gallo.
When things looked particularly ugly for Kiner-Falefa on the field, the vicious side of Yankee fandom came for him. In August, one fan sent a direct message on Twitter to Kiner-Falefa’s father saying that his son had been murdered. During the American League Division Series, fans harassed him as he was driving out of the stadium. The embattled shortstop spoke all year, as many players do when they put on the pinstripes, about how he grew up rooting for the Yankees and how playing for the storied organization was a dream come true. It’s not out of pocket at all to say that dream bordered on nightmare territory for most of the second half.
When his tumultuous season came to a head in Game 3 of the ALDS, the one where he had three miscues that led to a Yankee loss, Kiner-Falefa summarized his feelings and, unintentionally, those of the impatient fans who watched him start 131 regular season games at the diamond’s most important spot.
“Frustration, anger, shock,” he vented. “Me personally, I’m just disappointed in myself. I had opportunities to come up with some key plays and help the team win.”
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There are still some positives for the 27-year-old to feel good about. Unfortunately, most of them would have carried much more weight during a bygone era of baseball when slugging wasn’t so highly prioritized. Kiner-Falefa was one of just six players in the entire league to have 100 singles, 20 doubles and 20 stolen bases. Of those six players, he struck out the least. The problem is that shortstops are expected to be much more than singles hitters now. Without any real threat of extra bases, paired with a tiny 6.6% walk rate, Kiner-Falefa’s numbers ring a bit hollow.
In the field, Kiner-Falefa’s season illustrates the somewhat confusing nature of advanced defensive stats. According to FanGraphs’, he was one of seven shortstops responsible for at least ten Defensive Runs Saved. But by Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he came in at negative-4, placing him in the bottom 13th percentile of the league. He also made 15 errors and had several other plays that could have either been counted as an error, or would have been if he was not bailed out by an Anthony Rizzo pick at first base. The Yankees are fond of reminding reporters that they have their own internal metrics for these things, and they have made passing mentions of things that Kiner-Falefa grades well in, like making quick transfers from glove to hand.
But by both watching him regularly and looking at his Statcast data, it is clear that Kiner-Falefa has a noodle arm, and his tendency to double clutch before unloading only exacerbates the issue.
The Yankees still remained loyal to him basically all the way to the bitter end. The brief postseason benching — he did not start Games 4 or 5 of the ALDS but was back in the lineup for Game 1 of the ALCS after Aaron Hicks’ injury pushed Oswaldo Cabrera to left field — was bizarrely timed. If the Yankees were going to relegate him on the depth chart, it should have happened at the tail end of the regular season to give the youngsters as many reps as possible without the pressure of the postseason weighing them down. Instead, the Yankees stuck to their guns, just like they did when refusing to pursue Carlos Correa, Corey Seager or Marcus Semien last offseason despite having an obvious need that, if filled, could have put them over the top.
Some of this reeks of pigheaded stubbornness by the Yankee front office. Punting on Kiner-Falefa after just one year, especially given the well-known shortstop menu they could have ordered from last winter, would have been both an admission of failure and a healthy scoop of embarrassment. So instead of non-tendering Kiner-Falefa and letting the rugrats duke it out for the shortstop job (the latter being something that should have happened in August) the Yankees appear ready to let him compete with Cabrera and Oswald Peraza for the position.
With Kiner-Falefa firmly under contract for 2023, the Yankees will, barring a trade, show up for spring training with three major statistical eyesores in him, Hicks and Josh Donaldson. Jose Trevino declined dramatically at the plate as well, and there’s no guarantee that Aaron Judge and Andrew Benintendi will ever suit up for the team again.
The Yankees as currently constructed are looking eerily similar to the team they’ve been for most of the Aaron Boone era: one with undeniable star power at the top but liabilities at the bottom that are perhaps equally detrimental as the stars are helpful.