There is no doubt that the Yankees’ shortstop situation is not what any of us expected after the end of the 2021 season. But, it is what it is and it’s, apparently, what the organization wanted, for better or worse. So here we are, watching Isiah Kiner-Falefa man the position and bat at the bottom of the order.
Including early returns this year, IKF went into Saturday night’s game against the Orioles with a .666 career OPS. His career high was .689 in 2018, his debut year in the Majors. While the Yankees acquired him primarily for his defense, I’m sure there’s some hope that they can turn him around as a hitter, much like they did for Didi Gregorius and Luke Voit after him. So, is that possible?
The first thing we can take a look at is the underlying performance. Is there something there to tell us there’s more than meets the eye? Let’s look at his percentile ranks for some important batted-ball categories:
|Year||Avg. Exit Velo.||Hard hit Percentage||Barrel Percentage|
|2022 so far||51||68||1|
Well, that past performance is not too encouraging, is it? Luckily, there’s been an uptick to start this season. IKF worked with noted swing-changer Justin Turner this offseason, so maybe that work is bearing some fruit already, even if it’s not showing up in the results just yet. On the other hand, IKF’s xWOBA this year is just .235 despite the uptick in the underlying numbers above. That’s easily attributable, though, to a ridiculous ground ball rate over 82%. Chances are it won’t stay that high. But–there’s a but again–his career ground ball rates are all over 50%. So unless he keeps those exit velos real high and manages to find the holes in the infield, there’s not a lot of production to be found.
The season is young and we have evidence that IKF did something to change his approach at the plate, so we do need to give time to let that set in. Last year, we waited patiently and watched Jameson Taillon adjust to a new approach. Still, we have over 1500 career plate appearances from Isiah Kiner-Falefa that show us pretty definitively who he is. So, can he hit? Probably not. But, maybe. I’m not going to hold my breath, but I’m willing to cross my fingers…for now.