Isiah Kiner-Falefa came into 2020 with a reputation among Rangers fans, and within the organization, for being a strong defensive infielder. There’s been a lack of clarity about his defensive work in the infield, however, due to the efforts to have him convert to catching, which started in 2016 and were not abandoned until last summer.
Mike Petriello has a piece up at MLB.com on the best defensive infielders in baseball this year per the Statcast metrics, and he said on Twitter that his takeaway in working on this piece was “Wow, Isiah Kiner-Falefa.” IKF is current tied for second in the Outs Above Average Leaderboard with Jake Cronenworth at +5, behind only the transcendent Nolan Arenado, who is at +6.
Petriello spends a section of his piece delving into IKF and his history, and includes some video of some especially unlikely plays IKF has made, while also noting that despite only playing 25 games at third base in 2019, he was in the top ten at the position in OAA.
If we look at the Fangraphs page for IKF, we see that DRS has had him as well above average defensively at third base in his limited action there in each of the past three seasons (as well as at shortstop and second base, in his even more limited action at those positions). At third base, in a little over a half-season’s worth of innings in his career, IKF is at #14, including +4 this year. UZR has Kiner-Falefa at close to average so far this season, but at 4.0 UZR/150, and 4.7 UZR (7.3 UZR/150) for his career.
Petriello says it is time to call IKF an elite defender at third base — a description Chris Woodward would no doubt endorse — and notes that IKF has improved offensively this year, as well. B-R has IKF, who is slashing .321/.366/.407 this year, at 1.6 bWAR through 45 games this season, which would put him on pace for around a 5 win season. And even that may be underrating him a bit, as I believe that B-R is currently treating the Rangers’ home park as neutral*, when there’s some belief that it is actually pitcher-friendly.
* Fangraphs appears to still be using the park factors for Globe Life Field, which was extremely hitter friendly, thus making pretty much all park-effected values from there kind of useless right now.
IKF currently has a .334 wOBA, and is one of two Rangers out-performing his xwOBA, which is currently .311. I wouldn’t expect him to continue to outperform his xwOBA — however, if he just matches that going forward, a .310 wOBA in a pitcher-friendly park with +10-20 defense at third base is a valuable player, probably in 3-4 win territory.