Isiah Kiner-Falefa Disrupts the Rangers’ Status Quo at Shortstop

When the 2021 season begins, the Rangers’ starting shortstop will not be Elvis Andrus. He has been Texas’ everyday starter there since his debut in 2009 — a remarkable run of longevity — but earlier this week, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and manager Chris Woodward announced that Andrus would enter spring training as a utility infielder. Replacing him as the everyday shortstop? A former backup catcher.

Describing Isiah Kiner-Falefa as a backup catcher is a little misleading; after all, he won a Gold Glove for his excellent fielding at third base this year. But he reached the majors as a catcher after spending much of his minor league career as an infielder. That was a sacrifice he was willing to make to reach the highest levels with other, more heralded infield prospects ahead of him in the Rangers’ organization. It’s a credit to his determination and dedication that he outlasted those other prospects to earn this opportunity.

As Andrew Simon of pointed out, a player moving from behind the plate to the most difficult infield position is almost unheard of in baseball history: Kiner-Falefa could become the first modern player to play at least 50 games at catcher, shortstop, and third base. He was drafted as a shortstop out of high school and gained plenty of experience on the dirt as a minor leaguer, so this isn’t unfamiliar territory for him. Still, simply due to the way he had to make compromises to work his way up to the majors, he’s in rare company.

Kiner-Falefa’s ability to stick at shortstop shouldn’t be questioned either. An award-winning glove at third should be proof enough, but the advanced defensive metrics all point toward a positive adjustment up the defensive spectrum. In 2020, he logged 121 innings at short, and both DRS and UZR found him to be a positive asset there. If we lower the minimum inning threshold to match his total, his +3 DRS at the position was the ninth best among all shortstops. Even more incredible was that his 16.5 UZR/150 topped all shortstops with at least 120 innings logged at the position in 2020.

Baseball Savant’s granular fielding data paints a similar picture. Savant filters not only by plays where Kiner-Falefa was listed as the shortstop on the lineup card but also, more broadly, by plays where he was positioned like a shortstop (i.e. when he was listed as a third baseman but shifted into the shortstop’s regular fielding area). On plays where he was acting as the shortstop, he accumulated two outs above average and successfully converted 92% of his plays into outs, three points higher than his expected success rate based on his positioning, batted ball data, and baserunner speed. Among all infielders positioned like shortstops, his +2 OAA ranked 15th.

At the plate, Kiner-Falefa made some significant changes during the offseason to try and unlock some of his offensive potential. Coming up as a catcher with all the responsibilities that are involved meant he wasn’t as focused on his swing as much, and he struggled to make much of an impact at the plate during his first two years in the majors, posting a 71 wRC+ across a little over 600 plate appearances in 2018 and ’19. Here’s what his swing looked like during those two years:

And here’s what his swing looked like in 2020:

When Kiner-Falefa came up in 2018, he had a batting stance that was wide open, and his swing included a significant leg kick as a timing mechanism. The changes he made in 2020 are immediately obvious: His stance is now square to the pitcher, and the leg kick is all but gone. During spring training, he explained that he had difficulty timing the ball with an open stance, but that the pressures of catching and trying to stick in the majors discouraged him from making a change. With the responsibilities of being a catcher no longer on his plate in 2020, he made the adjustments and saw slight improvements in some areas. His overall offensive contributions were better than before, with his wRC+ rising to 84 this year. The biggest improvement was a contact rate that improved by five points along with a more aggressive swing rate, particularly on pitches thrown in the zone. With a swinging-strike rate that was already low, his new aggressive approach at the plate paired with a higher contact rate helped him lower his strikeout rate to just 14.0%.

But Kiner-Falefa’s underlying batted ball metrics send some mixed signals. His hard-hit rate and exit velocity data are both below average, and with his new swing, his batted-ball profile changed drastically. His groundball rate increased by 12 points up to 62.0%, the highest among all qualified batters. He has good speed, so pounding the ball into the ground isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it certainly puts a cap on his potential offensive ceiling. Still, a slick-fielding shortstop with a slightly below-average bat is still a valuable player profile. It’s basically what the Rangers have gotten from Andrus for the last 11 years.

Kiner-Falefa’s opportunity to prove himself at short is only half the story. After eleven years of holding the same job — an eternity in the constant churn of baseball — Andrus finds himself relegated to a utility role. By virtue of his seniority and his massive contract, he held onto the starter job maybe a year or two longer than you might have expected given his production. After posting the only two seasons of above average offensive production in his career in 2016 and ’17, injuries and ineffectiveness sapped any gains he might have made during those seasons. He’s combined for a 73 wRC+ over the last three years, the second worst mark by a qualified shortstop in that time.

This season was a low point for Andrus, as he posted a career-low 48 wRC+ in 111 plate appearances. Some of those offensive struggles could be chalked up to bad luck: His isolated power was tied for the second highest mark of his career, and he posted career bests in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate. An unusually low BABIP and a nagging back issue, though, sabotaged any hope of him regaining his previous offensive highs.

With $28 million left on his contract spread over the next two years, Andrus is about to become a very expensive utility infielder, and the Rangers face a similar situation with his long-time double play partner. Rougned Odor hasn’t been able to replicate the success he found in his first few seasons in the majors, and he’s owed $27 million over the next two years, including a $3 million buyout of his 2023 club option. Neither player has much if any trade value, so the Rangers will have to make the most of a bad situation.

With Kiner-Falefa installed at shortstop now and Odor facing stiff competition for his job at second in the form of Nick Solak, 2021 could see the Rangers’ middle infield completely overturned. With Josh Jung and Sherten Apostel both looking to make the jump to the majors in 2021 and Anderson Tejeda a little behind them, it’s possible the entire infield could look a lot younger come September. The Rangers are facing a long rebuild, and keeping their two underperforming veterans on the roster makes giving their prospects major league playing time tricky. These sorts of decisions early on in the rebuilding process are always the ugliest. They took the first step by giving Kiner-Falefa the keys at short, but the messiness will likely continue until both Andrus’ and Odor’s contracts expire after the 2022 season.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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3 years ago

I thought Brandon Inge played some SS but apparently only one game

3 years ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Nice call. He could have played SS, athletically, but the Tigers were beholden to Guillen for most of Inge’s prime, before moving on to Renteria, Everett and Peralta…should have just given Inge a chance!

Russell Martin was the other guy I thought of, but only three games for him at SS. He was a freak athlete too.

Smiling Politelymember
3 years ago
Reply to  Newfy

Austin Barnes could likely do it (though not well, but not, like, Jose Offerman bad)

Sonny Lmember
3 years ago

More like Jose Ooooferman. Am. I. Right?