The top of the baseball WAR leaderboard is incredibly surprising less than two months in. The top-3 in bWAR right now are all tied at 2.7. They are Byron Buxton, Brandon Woodruff, and Shohei Ohtani. Given Buxton’s supernova start, Woodruff’s increasing development, and Ohtani finally showing what the Angels dreamed of, this may not be too shocking. But when you go down the list, the next two are John Means and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Surely Kiner-Falefa must be surprisingly great, with an OPS over .900, right? Nope. Kiner-Falefa enters Wednesday at .770. Meanwhile, fWAR is not as nice to him, ranking him 21st among batters alone. How did Kiner-Falefa get to fifth in the league in bWAR?
A catcher and infielder from Honolulu, Kiner-Falefa, turned 26 in March. He debuted in 2018, playing 111 games between catcher, second base, and third base, with two games of shortstop. 2019 was a similar story, with Kiner-Falefa playing catcher and third base. He did not produce offensively in either year, combing for five home runs, 10 stolen bases, while his OPS+ was 80 and 58 in those two seasons. So, not exactly a great hitter.
Kiner-Falefa was able to earn the starting third base job for the Texas Rangers in the shortened 2020 season. He played in all-but-two games, mostly at third, with shortstop mixed in. Kiner-Falefa, who was always strong defensively with 15 outs above average at the position in his first two seasons, excelled. He added six OAA solely at third base and picked up the first Gold Glove of his career. Despite a solid .280 average, the bat still did not come along, as Kiner-Falefa had just a .699 OPS and a 90 OPS+. However, his 1.2 dWAR was able to elevate his seasonal WAR to 1.9. Since the all-star level is around 4.0 WAR, having half of that in 58 games is impressive.
He was so impressive that the Rangers decided to make a big future decision with him. Trusting in their young infielder, Kiner-Falefa was moved to shortstop full-time, which would let his defense shine more. Plus, it will give him a more favorable positional adjustment to help his dWAR. After 12 years, Texas traded their longtime shortstop Elvis Andrus to the rival Oakland Athletics.
Thus far, Texas’ decision is paying off, as Andrus has a 37 OPS+, while Kiner-Falefa is sitting at what would be a career-best 113. Plus, Kiner-Falefa has added three outs above average to his resume. Looking at defensive runs saved, Kiner-Falefa had 10 last year. He already has seven now. That has helped him get to a 1.0 dWAR right now. While oWAR + dWAR does not actually equal WAR, dWAR still significantly raises it.
According to sprint speed, Kiner-Falefa is not an exceptionally fast guy. He was in the 81st percentile in sprint speed last year but has fallen to the 69th this campaign. At 27.6 ft/s, he is not above the average by much. But, what Kiner-Falefa has been able to do is steal bases, which is becoming a dying art in baseball. Last year, he stole eight, and this year, he has already matched that. Whit Merrifield leads baseball with 12, and Kiner-Falefa is engaged in a five-way tie for second place. Dylan Moore, Ramon Laureano, Jazz Chisholm, and Garrett Hampson are also second-place contenders.
What is more important for Kiner-Falefa is that he is getting caught less. He was thrown out trying to steal on five of his 13 attempts in 2020. Avoiding negative situations while still adding stolen bases, which help towards WAR, shows even more development from Kiner-Falefa.
This part takes a bit of luck, but the Rangers have played the most games in baseball, with 45 already under their belt. They also are not afraid to trot out the same guys every day if they are healthy. That can be seen when the top three games-played leaders in MLB are all Rangers. Along with Kiner-Falefa stand Nate Lowe and Nick Solak. The former is tied with Lowe and St. Louis’ Tommy Edman for the most plate appearances with 189 and just Edman for at-bats with 175.
WAR is accumulative, so getting the most chances to increase can lead to a better WAR, especially if you are hitting. More importantly, for Kiner-Falefa, it is probably the increased amount of defensive innings so he can raise his dWAR. He also has produced offensively, with a career-high five home runs already and a tie with his career-best in stolen bases. These can change as the season goes on, but his .286 average, .770 OPS, 113 OPS+, 116 wRC+, and .335 wOBA are also career-bests.
Still Room for Improvement
Of course, given Kiner-Falefa’s offensive numbers, he can get better. But asking for a player already hitting his best to hit better is too much. However, there still are opportunities for Kiner-Falefa to improve. One of his best offensive traits last year was the ability to limit strikeouts. With just a 14 percent K rate, he was in the top-10 percent of the league. Just like about everyone else on the planet, that has gone up this year. However, at 18 percent, it is still fine. What Kiner-Falefa needs to improve on is walking.
Walks are emphasized more than ever these days, but not with Kiner-Falefa. In his first season, he had a BB percentage of 7.1 percent. In each year since then, it has progressively decreased. Right now, it sits at just 4.2 percent. That is bad enough for the seventh percentile of the league in BB percentage. This low walk rate has really hurt his OPS this year. Despite hitting .286, his OBP is at .330. If he matched his 7.1 BB percentage from 2018, which would only add five walks, he would raise OBP to .354. That is a substantial difference. Thus, it would absolutely be in Kiner-Falefa’s best interest to take more pitches.
But right now, there is still very little to complain about the 26-year-old’s performance. He may not be a flashy player to be top-10 in the league in bWAR, but he’s there. Right now, he ranks second among position players, as Ohtani counts as a two-way player. For a 19-26 team mostly devoid of talent, the Rangers will absolutely take that.
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