Isiah Kiner-Falefa is fulfilling his potential

By MARK SIMON

Our Minor League Defensive Runs Saved numbers are something we share with our team clients, not publicly. They look a little odd because players are judged on an MLB basis, meaning that most come out with a negative rating.

A few have come out with numbers that are strongly positive. We joke that Matt Chapman is the Defensive Runs Saved posterchild because his numbers in the minors foretold his major league success. We’re now starting to see something come together in a similar fashion for another who rated well by our minor league stats, Rangers infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

In his first two seasons, Kiner-Falefa had the same success he had in the minors, when he got to play in the infield. The Rangers tried him at catcher in 2018 and 2019 and it didn’t take at all. In those two seasons, he cost the team 15 runs with his catching defense because he was a below-average pitch framer and a below-average pitch blocker.

This season, he hasn’t caught at all. He’s spent most of his time at third base with some work at shortstop. And he’s totaled 7 Runs Saved. The only infielder in MLB with more is Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado with 10.

Most Defensive Runs Saved – 2020 Infielders

PlayerTeamDRS
Nolan ArenadoRockies10
Kiké HernándezDodgers7
Carter KieboomNationals7
Isiah Kiner-FalefaRangers7
Dansby SwansonBraves7
José AbreuWhite Sox6

Kiner-Falefa has now played a little less than 1,100 innings in the infield for his career (that would be more than 120 full games) and totaled 22 Runs Saved. That Runs Saved total would have ranked fourth among infielders in 2019.

Here are some examples of his fine work:

At third base

At shortstop

And just for good measure, at second base from 2018

Kiner-Falefa’s specialty this year has been handling balls hit to his right, like this one, on which the out probability was 32%.

These kinds of plays are high-value plays for a third baseman’s Runs Saved total because those are would-be doubles he’s denying. He’s shown he can go in both directions without issue, as in 2018 he rated above-average on balls hit to his lfeft.

Entering the season, there were still plenty of questions as to whether Kiner-Falefa could hit MLB pitching. How he fares in a full season remains to be seen, but in 41 games, he’s hitting .320 with a 114 OPS+. His contact rate is up 5 percentage points from last season.

Not much has gone right for the Rangers this season, but the shortened campaign could be just what Kiner-Falefa needed to put himself on the map and make him a prominent player to watch in 2021.

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