With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at infielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
Approaching things from a certain point of view, a write-up on Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s 2021 season should be pretty straightforward and non-controversial. On a bad team he was, for the second year in a row, one of the team’s best position players, a solid if unspectacular contributor on a team that didn’t have many of them. He’s well-liked, seen as a high makeup guy, and has exceeded expectations. As someone under team control for two more seasons for cheap, and who can play all over the infield, he’s someone you don’t have to worry or think about.
Of course, things aren’t really that simple.
The problem is that Isiah Kiner-Falefa doesn’t really hit all that well. He makes contact and doesn’t strike out — his 13.3% K rate was 8th best among 132 qualified MLB hitters in 2021, a hair better than Jose Altuve. That said, he doesn’t consistently hit the ball hard, and he almost never walks — the only two qualified hitters walked less frequently than IKF in 2021 are Tim Anderson and Jose Iglesias.
That combination means that Kiner-Falefa has a middling OBP — .312 last year, compared to an overall MLB rate of .317 — and a poor slugging percentage. IKF’s .357 slugging percentage was well below the MLB average of .411, and was 7th worst among qualified hitters in 2021. Middling OBP and poor slugging means you are not a good hitter.
Its worth noting that IKF’s .271/.312/.357 slash line in 2021 was down from 2020’s .280/.329/.370 slash line. On the other hand, his xwOBA was .291 in 2021 (with a .293 wOBA), while his xwOBA in 2023 was .293, so there’s an argument to be made that the 2021 slash line is more indicative of IKF’s true talent level. On the other other hand, faster players are going to be more likely to outperform their xwOBA, and IKF is fast, so maybe the 2020 slash line is not really off base. And I’ve run out of hands.
In any case. Being a not good hitter is not a good thing. However, you can be a useful and productive major leaguer without being a good hitter. Quality defense — especially on the right hand end of the defensive spectrum — and quality baserunning can provide enough value to overcome the weak bat.
Whether that is the case for Isiah Kiner-Falefa — and perhaps more importantly, whether that will continue to be the case going forward — is at the crux of the IKF Wars over the past two seasons.
Let us look, for example, at what Baseball-Reference’s WAR data has for IKF in 2021. IKF has a 3.7 bWAR and a 2.6 oWAR for 2021.
I think everyone knows what bWAR is, but may be less familiar with oWAR. oWAR is WAR that essentially assumes that a player is an average defender at his position — it factors in hitting, baserunning and a positional adjustment, but not the quality of the defense the player played at the position. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best defensive shortstop in the league or the worst, your oWAR will be the same. When you add to oWAR the number of runs above or below average a player is, defensively, for their position, you get bWAR.
So, according to B-R, Isiah Kiner-Falefa was a shade above average in 2021 before factoring in his quality of defense. The positional adjustment for playing shortstop, and IKF’s baserunning — particularly his going 20 of 25 on stolen bases — gets him there despite the weak bat. With DRS — the method B-R uses for defense — having IKF as +10 in 2021, that gets you to a 3.7 bWAR (assuming that fractions and rounding is why you have the extra 0.1).
And a 3.7 bWAR is good! Above-average, in fact. Among players who had at least 80% of their games in 2021 at shortstop, IKF’s 3.7 bWAR was tied with Corey Seager for 11th in the majors.
If we look at Fangraphs, however, they use UZR instead of DRS for defense, and UZR had IKF as +1.2 defensively in 2021. Which goes a long way towards explaining why IKF’s 2.3 fWAR is so much lower than his bWAR. That was 21st in the majors among shortstops in 2021 (although, for what it is worth, 2 WAR is generally considered average).
Kiner-Falefa is generally considered to be a quality defensive shortstop, so you may be inclined to say that the B-R number to being accurate than the FG number. Of course, you could also look at Statcast’s Outs Above Average stat, which had IKF at -7 in 2021 — one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball. If that is accurate, then Kiner-Falefa is going to be dragged down further.
Which defensive metric is correct? I don’t know. But this helps illustrate the problem with defensive metrics, and why folks are oftentimes hesitant to put much weight on them when looking at WAR calculations. There are different ways of calculating offensive value, but just about every accepted methodology is going to generate an end result that is around what the other methodologies come up with. You aren’t going to have something like with DRS, UZR and OAA, where one says that a player is one of the best in the league, one says he’s one of the worst in the league, and one says that he’s average.
And that makes it even harder to say with any confidence how well Isiah Kiner-Falefa will perform defensively going forward. I think we can say that IKF is a solid major league starter if he’s an above average defender at shortstop...but if you have a large confidence interval about how good defensively he will be going forward, it makes it hard for you to make a strong bet on him for the future.
All this was more relevant, of course, six weeks ago, before the Rangers signed Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. With Seager and Semien starting at shortstop and second base, respectively, and Josh Jung expected to be the team’s third baseman in 2022 — if not on Opening Day, then likely at some point in the season — Isiah Kiner-Falefa isn’t a long-term starting position player for the Rangers. If IKF is in Texas, he will be a bench or role player if everyone is healthy. If he’s not in Texas, its because the Rangers had an opportunity to trade him to a team that sees him as someone who can start for them for the next couple of seasons.
One other thing to keep in mind is that Isiah Kiner-Falefa is just 26 years old — he won’t turn 27 until the end of spring training. He’s in the early part of his peak years, and its possible there could be a little more juice in his bat. You may recall he had a pretty nice first couple of months of the season offensively, leading him to talk about how he should be in the All Star Game. Then he slashed .257/.281/.330 in June and .188/.233/.224 in July, which is unacceptable.
IKF rebounded to put up a .299/.349/.371 slash line over the final two months of the season, however, and if he can continue that level of performance, then that alleviate concerns about the bat. That said, if he’s going to perform like that as a regular, its likely not going to be in Texas.