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  • Cory Claus

Yankees’ Isiah Kiner-Falefa Has Earned Respect

The Yankees came into this season with some of the most talented players in baseball on the team. Their one big fear was that their role players would drag down the team. Instead, it’s been the other way around. Their stars have disappointed, while their lesser-known and lesser-paid players have helped save the season. And none has shined more than IKF, who’s earned the respect of the team and its fans.

The big board in right field
Yankees Stadium

The Yankees keep waiting for a magical winning streak to happen.

They still have hope, however fading, that they can go on a run of winning 25 out of 30 games. If they do that, they can go from 59-55 to 84-60 and leapfrog both the Mariners (61-52) and Blue Jays (64-51) in the process.

The smart money says Brian Cashman and the Bombers would have a better shot at it if they’d stop fiddling around and promote Everson Pereira. We all know he’s coming; it’s just a matter of when. The hope throughout Yankee land is that he can provide a spark that ignites their offense.

If that happens, it would be in keeping with the season so far, one that has seen the role players keep the Yankees' dreams alive. It’s well-documented how players such as Severino, Rizzo, and Stanton have let the team down and led to their underwhelming record.

Now it’s time to recognize those players without the big contracts who’ve saved the season so far. And that has to start with Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

Big Ups To IKF

Few Yankees fans could have imagined how much they would grow to love IKF this year. Last year, he was a pariah who most Yankees fans would have volunteered to drive out of town. The Yankees moved the gold-glove-winning third baseman to short, and it didn’t go well.

Or at least that’s the way it appeared.

IKF didn’t have a horrible year at the plate or in the field. His BA (.261) was actually tied with DJ Lemahieu for second on the team among regular players. And his .314 OBP was in the middle of the pack. The problem was that he generated little power. His SLG of .327 was second-worst on the team and one of the worst in baseball, although he still beat Aaron Hicks by 14 points. Unfortunately for him and the team, the two tied for worst OPS (again, among regulars) at .642.

Compare that to the man he tied for BA, Lehmahieu, whose OPS was almost one hundred points higher at .734 and you can see why Yankees fans were less than thrilled with IKF.

Making constant weak contact at the plate probably colored how Yankees fans felt about IKF in the field as well. His fifteen errors and .970 fielding percentage were both middle of the pack, certainly nothing worth pillorying him over.

But pilloried he was. It seemed like he always came up in big situations, and always came up small. The same is true of his errors. Watching him play, it seemed he always made them at the worst times. Researching this story, I expected him to have a lot more errors. That’s how I and a lot of Yankees fans saw his play.

No one wanted to see this guy back again. Questions and concerns about his place on the team only grew when Volpe won the starting SS job in spring training. What role would a middle-of-the-pack defensive player with no power play on a team with World Series dreams?

Turns out, his role has been that of a steady presence in the field and at the plate.

The Ultimate Utility Player

IKF has played in 88 games this year, compared to 64 from Stanton, 60 from Judge, and a mere 33 from Josh Donaldson. And he’s done it by filling in wherever the team’s needed him, including SS, 3B, and every outfield position.

Better yet, he’s shown the kind of character that every fan wants to see in the players. His attitude has been great, the quintessential put your head down and work type of blue-collar player. With that attitude on full display, it’s no surprise he’s obviously put in the work to be a better hitter, too.

The results speak for themselves. His BA is down ever so slightly (.253) while his OBP is ever so slightly higher (.322), but his SLG (.373) and OPS (.696) are virtually tied for his career best.

That’s what you get when you increase your home run per plate appearance so drastically. IKF hit but four home runs last year in 483 ABs. This year, he’s hit 6 in half as many. Six might not seem like a lot, but it puts him on pace for 16-20 if he played as much as Volpe.

The Yankees might not be where they want to be, but they’d be in a lot worse position without IKF. That’s especially true when you realize he’s making six million this year while Donaldson collects 21 million and Stanton brings home 32 million.

IKF isn’t the only one who’s kept this team from being so far out that they’d have no chance. Jake Bauers, for instance, has provided the pop that so many players have lacked.

A Good Part of The Journey

Jake’s a journeyman who’s played for Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Seattle, and Cincinnati before coming over to the Yankees last year. The team parked him at Scranton for all of 2022, but pressed him into service this season.

He’s rewarded them by providing significant pop.

In his 62 games, he’s hit .225/.304/.484 with eleven home runs and fourteen doubles. While it would be better if his average and on-base were higher, both his SLG and OPS (.788) are second on the team. As a comparison, Stanton is slashing .203/.279/.453 with a .732 OPS. And they both have 25 extra-base hits.

But Bauers is only earning $700,000. That’s getting bang for your buck, comparatively.

This season hasn’t sunk merely because of the offense. Starting pitching has let the team down, as well. Luis Severino, once the heir apparent to Andy Pettitte, has a 7.74 ERA, which he earned by melting down at the worst times.

The only question is, who is hurting the Yankees more, he or Carlos Rodon? Rodon was brought over as the big-ticket free agent of the off-season. The Yankees thought he might be the piece that puts them over the top, as Tom Verducci at made clear in an article entitled, "Yankees Splurge for Carlos Rodón, Hoping He’s Their Missing Piece":

It’s World Series or bust for New York after doling out the third most expensive contract to a lefthander in history.
New York and Rodón agreed on the first six-year contract for a pitcher since 2019, at the cost of $162 million, a $27 million average annual value. David Price and Clayton Kershaw are the only lefthanders to sign contracts of greater overall and average annual values.

Right now, it looks like bust.

That's true in part because he’s spent most of the season on the injured list, where he is right now. And when he has pitched, he’s been almost as bad as Severino. So who’s worse, Rodon and his 7.33 ERA, who’s put a strain on the staff by not being there, or Sevvy, who has been there and contributed to more losses?

The Yankees Finally Get There Man

It sucks that it’s even a debate. But one thing that isn’t up for discussion is that the Yankees would have already disappeared if Clarke Schmidt hadn’t finally developed.

It’s been a long time coming for the first-rounder, but he knew a change was gonna come. And boy has it. Schmidt has been a consistent starter this season, his 23 starts second only to Gerrit Cole (24). More importantly, he’s been the team’s second-best starter since Mid-May all while the pitchers around him have melted away.

Schmidt got off to a slow start this season, carrying a 6.30 ERA through nine starts while pitching less than five innings in six of those outings. But he turned a corner in May and has been on quite a run since.
Entering Tuesday, the 27-year-old held a 3.23 ERA in 14 games (13 starts) since May 19. That was tied for 18th in baseball (among pitchers with a minimum of 60 innings) with Astros ace Framber Valdez.

Plus, he’s gotten better as the season has gone along. His ERA in the month of August is 2.61, the best in any month so far, while he’s just starting to go deeper into games. I know of some fans who’ve been scared of Schmidt pitching beyond the fourth inning, but now he’s getting into the sixth sometimes.

That’s an almost incalculable value when Severino is earning 15 million and Rodon is getting 22 million, while Clarke is getting just $750,000.

That’s not how the Yankees envisioned this season going.

They thought they could rely on players like Severino, Rodon, Stanton, and Rizzo. They could only hope their role players wouldn’t sink the season. Instead, it’s been Schmitty and Bauers and IKF, among others, who’ve kept the season afloat.


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