Last week we introduced BP’s new defensive statistic, Deserved Runs Prevented (DRP). A core component of it is Range Defense Added (RDA), given how central getting to the ball is to defense and how not every player has the same ability. This is especially relevant for shortstops because of the responsibility they assume at the six. They don’t dictate things the way that, say, a defensive football captain might, but given the overwhelming right-handedness of hitters and how they’re not guardrailed by the foul line like third basemen, they are a linchpin in the infield.
We’ve opened ourselves to questions about the metric and explored the ways it can help us understand certain qualities of the game, for both individual players and whole teams. But by bringing DRP and RDA into the world we have also opened ourselves up to other things. One is the general acrimony that comes with a new stat that suggests a different reality than our eyes while another, more specific matter is the rancor of a fanbase that reveals itself when you suggest one of their players isn’t the bum he’s perceived to be.
By RDA, Isiah Kiner-Falefa ranked as the shortstop with the third-best range in the league in 2022. By DRP, or overall defensive value, he was seventh. Those are excellent marks, if also different. To Yankee fans, he is often public enemy number one, the guy whose good range doesn’t compensate for his goofs coming in on a ball or unreliable ability to make a strong, crisp throw to the bag.
The thing is, RDA and DRP say that he does, that our eyes might not appreciate what it takes to range over to a ball as the shortstop and might overvalue cleanly getting the ball to the bag. This is not a dig: A core tenet of BP’s new defensive metrics is “subtleties, not criticism.” The matter with Kiner-Falefa is one of aesthetics. For now, he’s the Yankee shortstop. If he’s really no good, though—or not good enough—what types of defenders are around the league who could offer more appealing defensive visuals?
The primer on RDA linked above goes into detail on a couple of the more notable shortstops in this context. The one with the best defense as we’re defining it is Willy Adames, whose scouting report has regarded a strong glove as long as he’s been a professional. He does it all—he can get to more balls than anyone else and can make every throw, and the only thing that kept him from lapping the field last year was that he only got into 131 games. Behind him in the defensive ranks is Dansby Swanson, whose attempt range (a nice, round zero)—which feeds into RDA—was exactly average, but whose overall skills allowed him to execute on balls he was actually able to get to.
Two other shortstops stick out, for comparison’s sake. One is Corey Seager, who is even more high profile than Adames or Swanson. Seager’s attempt range checked in at -11 last year, third-worst in the league at the position. But his arm was ultimately very good, ranking in the top 10 at the position. The other is Jose Iglesias, whose attempt range (-5) wasn’t as abysmal as Seager’s but was still 13th-worst among shortstops, and whose arm makes up for a lot of that by ranking second behind only Nick Allen of the Athletics. He might be as close as we can get to an inverse Kiner-Falefa.
We don’t hear griping about the limits of these three defenders (no one’s griping about Adames) on a level anywhere near the level of griping about Kiner-Falefa’s, especially online and on talk radio. Maybe their unimpressive or repulsive range lowers our expectations and tamps down our willingness to offer it. If you turn on a game and know a guy isn’t going to get to a hard hit ball in the hole without hurting themselves or flopping like that one uncle at every family wedding you go to, it’s easier not to hold it against them. It’s different than seeing the ball in someone’s glove, processing that they’ve already done the hard part, only to blanch once they try to get rid of it.
Maybe you’re more generous than that and think it has to do with how their bats are all better than Kiner-Falefa’s. And that’s true. None of them had a DRC+ below 103 last year, while IKF’s has only generated a mark better than 95 in the shortened 2020 season. But it doesn’t account for how his bat is on par with or better than every other shortstop on the defensive leaderboard, most of whom are anonymous as far as public perception, between him and Swanson and Adames.
Something else it doesn’t account for is how the way his defense looks is not the only thing in the picture that may be antagonistic, even if it’s shoehorned into being the focus. It’s mired down with the Yankees’ overall inconsistency, too. The club went 23-31 in July and August, completely upending their 66-21 start in the first three months thanks in part to their competitive division and creating the soggiest 89 win team imaginable for September 1. During that August, he was charged with zero errors. The four he had at shortstop were no more than any other month during the year.
If his bat was better, if the team was steadier, if we didn’t leverage ambiguous language (“strong glove,” “clean, crisp throw”) when talking about how defense purportedly should look, would fans regard Isiah Kiner-Falefa as less of a pariah and more of a useful ballplayer because of his top-end range? Would they be less reluctant to acknowledge him as a perfectly suitable stopgap who isn’t a net negative, for an organization with multiple top shortstop prospects and that is possibly more reluctant to use stopgaps than any other in the league because of a mystique that they have thoroughly commodified?
The Isiah Kiner-Falefa experience doesn’t have to be one in which the viewer has complete adoration for the club he plays for but equal lack of faith in its ability to execute. This is not arguing to defer to the club because the club knows best. Instead, it’s extending a chance to be open to what a new stat can offer rather than shooing it away because it seems outlandish; to reassess how we talk when we talk about stats. RDA (and DRP) presents a chance to recalibrate our eyes when watching exceptional cases like Kiner-Falefa for subtleties we haven’t appreciated before, even if you find them exceptional for reasons that make you mutter under your breath.
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