How bad was Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and why did the Yankees choose to bring him back?

In today’s Major League Baseball, what’s the price for a player coming off a wildly disappointing season, which saw him hit .261/.314/.327 (.642 ​​OPS) with an 85 wRC+ while matching the rigors of a large media market for the first time?

Based on Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s one-year deal to return to the Yankees, the answer is $6 million. The infielder showed no pop — only five skilled players had lower slugging percentage last season — and he failed to cash in on his excellent glove reputation, making a few postseason mistakes that landed him a spot on the bench .

However, the Yankees opted to offer him a one-year contract worth $6 million to make the 2023 team, likely hoping he’d settle into a useful spot rather than resuming his role as the starting shortstop. Ranking in the bottom ten in league slugging percentage, OPS, wRC+, isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average), and hard hitting percentage was definitely not what the Yankees had envisioned when they traded for Kiner-Falefa , even knowing that defense is his tool of transportation and offense has always been a struggle.

However, the 2022 season has been a different kind of fight. The already lightweight Hawaiian has recorded the lowest slugging percentage of his career, thanks in large part to the fact that 102 of his 126 hits are singles. In the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium, where players often spin the bases on a trotting home run even after slightly missing the ball, Kiner-Falefa’s two home runs equaled his total 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 especially bad for Kiner-Falefa on the field, the evil side of Yankee fandom came for him. In August, a fan sent a Twitter direct message to Kiner-Falefa’s father that his son had been murdered. During the American League Division Series, fans harassed him as he left the stadium. The embattled shortstop has talked all year, as many players do when in pinstripes, about how he grew up rooting for the Yankees and how playing for the historic organization was a dream come true. It’s not at all out of place to say that dream verged on nightmare territory for most of the second half.

When his tumultuous season came to a head in Game 3 of the ALDS, one in which he had three errors that led to a loss to the Yankees, Kiner-Falefa summed up his feelings and, unwittingly, those of the impatient fans who have seen starting 131 regular season games in the diamond’s prime spot.

“Frustration, anger, shock,” he vented. “Me personally, I’m just disappointed in myself. I had the opportunity to come up with some key plays and help the team win.

There are still some positives the 27-year-old feels good about. Unfortunately, most of them would have carried a lot more weight during a bygone era of baseball when hits weren’t as much of a priority. Kiner-Falefa was one of only six players in the entire league to have 100 singles, 20 doubles and 20 stolen bases. Of those six players, he eliminated the least. The problem is that shortstops are now expected to be much more than single hitters. With no real threat of extra bases, coupled with a tiny 6.6% walk rate, Kiner-Falefa’s numbers ring a bit hollow.

On 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 according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average, he came in at negative -4, placing him in the bottom 13th percentile in the league. He also committed 15 errors and had several other plays that could have been considered an error, or would have been if he hadn’t been saved by an Anthony Rizzo pick at first base. The Yankees like to remind reporters that they have their own internal metrics for these things, and they’ve made passing mentions of things Kiner-Falefa rates well, like making quick mitt-to-hand transfers.

But by regularly observing him and looking at his Statcast data, it’s clear that Kiner-Falefa has a spaghetti arm, and his tendency to double clutch before unloading only exacerbates the problem.

The Yankees still stuck with him pretty much to the end. Brief postseason benching—he didn’t start Games 4 or 5 of the ALDS but returned to the lineup for Game 1 of the ALCS after Aaron Hicks’ injury prompted Oswaldo Cabrera to leave the field—was bizarrely timed. If the Yankees were going to relegate him to the depth chart, it would have to happen at the 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 as they did when they refused to chase Carlos Correa, Corey Seager or Marcus Semien last offseason despite having an obvious need that, if satisfied, could have put them over the top.

Some of this reeks of willful stubbornness on the part of the Yankee front office. Scoring points on Kiner-Falefa after just a year, especially given the notorious menu of shortstops they might have ordered last winter, would have been both an admission of failure and a healthy scoop of embarrassment. So instead of not bidding on Kiner-Falefa and letting the rugrats vie for the shortstop job (the latter is something that should have happened in August), the Yankees appear poised to let him compete with Cabrera and Oswald Peraza for the position.

With Kiner-Falefa firmly under contract for 2023, the Yankees, barring a trade, will enter spring training with three major statistical ugliness in him, Hicks and Josh Donaldson. Jose Trevino also declined sharply at the plate, and there’s no guarantee Aaron Judge and Andrew Benintendi will dress again for the team.

The Yankees as they are currently constructed look eerily similar to the team they have been for most of the Aaron Boone era: one with undeniable star power above but responsibilities below that are perhaps as harmful as stars are useful.

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