“My dad used to tell me: when someone shows you what they are, you believe them.” — Bill Parcells.
CLEVELAND — Isiah Kiner-Falefa has spent the 2022 season showing the Yankees who he was.
The Yankees finally got around to believing it. In Game 166.
Their shortstop had the yips both with his hands and his throws in the most pressurized situations all season, particularly in the second half. For a team expecting to play pressure games in the end, this seemed a bad marriage. Yet, the Yankees never rectified the matter.
They finally conceded that Kiner-Falefa is a defensive detriment for Sunday night’s Game 4. Which was many months too late, and certainly one day.
Because Kiner-Falefa was still playing short in Game 3. His inability on Saturday night to convert a couple of grounders into outs led to runs and a built pitch count for Luis Severino, which began a relief wheel that ended in defeat on the field and controversy off of it involving the he-said, he-said between Aaron Boone and Clay Holmes about why the closer never appeared.
The Guardians’ 6-5 triumph also gave them a two-games-to-one lead in the Division Series and motivated Boone to bench Kiner-Falefa, stating, “He’s been pressing a little bit out there, playing a little bit kind of not to make that mistake, and I think that’s gotten in his way a little bit.”
Translation: Kiner-Falefa has all but turned into the Little Leaguer hoping the ball does not get hit to him.
Oswaldo Cabrera, who last played short for two innings on Sept. 30, was installed as the starter. Before that you have to go to Aug. 28 when he started one of his three games at short since his Aug. 17 major league arrival.
That the Yankees were facing this situation on an elimination day is a years-long story of miscalculation. Namely, they spent seasons (plural) insisting Gleyber Torres could be the starting shortstop for a contender, which was an actual assessment and not a punch line of a joke. By the time they dissuaded themselves of that theory, they were staring at the most starry shortstop free agent class ever — Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story.
But Hal Steinbrenner did not want to authorize the long-term mega-funds with a big payday looming for Aaron Judge. So the Yankees took a half measure. They decided to go for a stopgap until Oswaldo Peraza or Anthony Volpe were ready. They liked Kiner-Falefa, but couldn’t get him from Texas, who traded him to Minnesota. The Yanks could get him and a catcher whose defense they liked, Ben Rortvedt, but the blackmail was to take on Josh Donaldson’s two years at $50 million and prickly nature. So, lose-lose.
Kiner-Falefa offensively was exactly for the Yankees what he was for Texas — a high contact/speed type. He could produce a good batting average, but overall was a below average hitter because of meh on-base skills and absent power. He had an 85 OPS-plus last year for Texas and 84 this year for the Yankees.
He also was the defensive Joey Gallo. In Texas — where the games never matter — Kiner-Falefa won a Gold Glove at third in 2020 and played short well enough in 2021 to convince the Yankees he could handle this. The defensive metrics this year were mixed on Kiner-Falefa. Defensive Runs Saved loved him — then again DRS had Aaron Hicks as the majors’ third-best defensive left fielder so, you know, grain of salt. Outs Above Average, had Kiner-Falefa as a negative defender. That also was true with the eye test.
Like in 2018 when they obtained defensive stalwart Adeiny Hechavarria at the waiver deadline with Didi Gregouris injured, the Yankees tried at this deadline to find a glove-first option in a shallow market. But once that market period ended and Oswald Peraza was not traded, he should have been summoned.
Peraza should have begun starting two games a week and if that went well expanded to three and then four and if he handled that Peraza should have been made the shortstop because defense is his calling card and his offense really couldn’t be worse than Kiner-Falefa’s. But Boone suggested Peraza was not finished off as a prospect. But what is more imperative, that or making sure an all-in championship contender had its best shortstop option possible?
Consider that Jeremy Pena had played 30 games above Double-A when the Astros made him the Opening Day shortstop to replace Correa. Pena, with defense as his calling card, produced a terrific 4.8 Wins Above Replacement. He hit the 18th-inning homer to send Houston to its sixth straight ALCS with a 1-0 victory for a sweep of the Mariners.
Pena had a whole year to work into the job. Here was Cabrera being sent out for an elimination game. That the Yankees also left Peraza off the Division Series roster over Marwin Gonzalez or Tim Locastro also has proven suspect, since if he were on Peraza — the superior defensive option — would be playing short in Game 4.
That starting Cabrera was the best bad decision rather than sticking with the shaky starter screams that the Yankee grade for handling shortstop in 2022 is an IK-F.