SEATTLE – The Yankees’ clubhouse is full of big names, big stars and big money.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa fits in none of those categories, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a player more liked and respected by his teammates than the 28-year-old utility man.
“He’s so team-first,” Gerrit Cole said Wednesday. “Just loves being a Yankee. Loves this team. Literally will do anything for this team.”
Kiner-Falefa has done just that this season in a completely new role after losing the job he held the vast majority of last season — starting shortstop.
This year he’s played all three outfield positions — having never played the outfield before doing so this spring — as well as at third base and one game at short. Kiner-Falefa even pitched an inning.
All of which occurred because of the way Kiner-Falefa handled discovering very early in spring training the chances of him being the shortstop a second straight season was a slim and none proposition. The organization’s behind-the-scenes preference entering camp was for one of its top shortstop prospects, Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza, to win the job, which Volpe ultimately did.
Kiner-Falefa never batted an eye, even mentoring the far younger Volpe and Peraza, as well as Oswaldo Cabrera, who was also in the competition.
“He told all of us, he told the coaches, he told everybody, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of this,’" Aaron Judge said before Wednesday night’s game against the Mariners. “If I have to be the fourth outfielder, if I have to be the leftfielder, play in center, first base, if you want me to catch again, I’ll do it. To hear that from a guy that’s been around the big leagues, won a Gold Glove in the infield [at third base in 2020 while with the Rangers], and hearing that from him, it just means a lot as a teammate. We’re lucky to have a guy like that. He checks his ego at the door every single day.”
Kiner-Falefa more or less was handed the shortstop job in 2022 upon arriving early in spring training in a trade with the Twins.
It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream for Kiner-Falefa, who grew up in Honolulu a passionate Yankees fan. As is the case with so many of Kiner-Falefa’s generation, Derek Jeter was his favorite player.
“My favorite team,” Kiner-Falefa said shortly after the trade from Minnesota in March 2022. “I didn’t tell any other teams that; that’s a red flag if you go into another clubhouse and say you want to be a Yankee . . . I’m a baseball freak. I love the history of this game. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Thurman Monson, just to name a few. It’s surreal for me just to be able to look around and see [that history] every day I put this jersey on. This is where I want to be.”
But Year 1 could not have been much more disappointing. In addition to never really getting things going at the plate — Kiner-Falefa hit .261 with four homers and a .642 OPS in 142 games — he came up short on the defensive side as well.
The Yankees' internal metrics rated Kiner-Falefa as a top 10 defensive shortstop, which most in the industry, including analysts and scouts with other clubs, found highly debatable. And Kiner-Falefa, the target of plenty of fan anger and discontent, himself acknowledged throughout 2022, and into this season, that he had not played up to his capabilities offensively or defensively.
But he has been a standout regardless of position he’s played this season and his recent work with the bat — 13-for-34 (.382) with three homers, 12 RBIs and a 1.182 OPS in his last 11 games entering Wednesday night, in which he got the start in center — has allowed him to become, at the moment, an everyday player again.
“Credit to him for just completely embracing and diving into the role and making whatever adjustments he’s needed to make,” Boone said. “[Continuing] to work on becoming a better player and better hitter, and we’re seeing that.”