The hidden gem of the Yankees’ season redefines success

Yankees' Isiah Kiner-Falefa is seen during the game against the White Sox on August 8, 2023, in Chicago.

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The star-studded Yankees lineup has a hidden gem who has bounced back from the nadir to rewrite success in an impressive way. Despite Aaron Judge‘s return to the lineup, the Yankees’ standout performer of 2023 might not be who you expect. That honor belongs to Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

The current baseball season has brought a sense of disappointment to the Yankees, with their standings reflecting a fourth-place position in the AL East as of Wednesday. The team has encountered substantial challenges in gaining momentum. While injuries have certainly played a role, numerous players have faced struggles and setbacks, making this season a less-than-ideal one. Since May 28, Anthony Rizzo‘s batting average has plummeted to a mere .174. This decline coincides with the day he sustained a neck injury during a game against the San Diego Padres, a clash involving Fernando Tatis Jr. Consequently, Rizzo’s season has been marred, leading to his placement on the 10-day IL due to concussion symptoms on August 4. Unfortunately, his overall participation in the season remains uncertain.

Giancarlo Stanton, known for his variable power-hitting prowess, has also faced difficulties. With a batting average of just .203 in 236 at-bats, Stanton’s performance has lacked consistency. His OPS of .732 underscores his struggle to regain his formidable power throughout the season.

Certainly, amidst the Yankees’ challenges, a handful of positive aspects have shone through. Gerrit Cole, in particular, has delivered precisely as envisioned by the front office when they secured his services with a substantial 9-year contract valued at $324 million in late 2019. His exceptional 4.8 WAR places him at the summit among all pitchers in MLB for this season.

Notably, Clay Holmes has also displayed outstanding performance on the mound. Despite a difficult start to the season, the Yankees’ reliever has impressively surrendered only two runs since the beginning of June. Furthermore, before succumbing to injury, Aaron Judge was on track to engage in another spirited MVP rivalry with Shohei Ohtani. Despite missing a significant portion of the season, Judge leads the Yankees in vital metrics such as home runs, batting average, and OPS. His commendable 2.6 WAR also positions him in a tie for second on the team alongside rookie Anthony Volpe.

But Isiah Kiner-Falefa has something special this season.

From zero to Yankees hero

Playing left field for the Yankees on Aug 2, 2023, Isiah Kiner-Falefa picked up his first two career outfield assists in a 7-2 win over the Rays at Yankee Stadium.

Undoubtedly, Aaron Judge stands as the Yankees’ most valuable asset. However, when considering the most remarkable player for the 2023 season, that honor belongs to Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Adjusting to a new team can be a daunting challenge for many players. Yet, being traded to the New York Yankees and tasked with assuming the role of everyday shortstop for a fan base that demands nothing short of excellence? This endeavor can undoubtedly prove exceptionally demanding. Kiner-Falefa’s acquisition from the Minnesota Twins in March 2022 saw the Yankees position him as the starting shortstop, despite his limited experience in the position. This decision came with consequences. Kiner-Falefa encountered difficulties, committing 15 errors at shortstop, and this led to a strain between him and the Yankees fan community.

The remarkable transformation from being the most reviled player on a team to becoming a beloved fan favorite within a single year should not be underestimated. In the not-so-distant past, Kiner-Falefa found himself in such disfavor with fans that even his own father, Fili Falefa, grew exasperated. In a tweet that has since been removed, Kiner-Falefa’s father expressed his frustration over the intense hostility directed toward his son.

Fortunately, emotions gradually subsided, and there was no eruption of conflicts between Falefa and Yankees fans on the streets of The Bronx. Falefa navigated through the entirety of the 2022 season without any untoward episodes. His performance for the season culminated in a batting average of .261 and an impressive 22 stolen bases. Despite the earlier unfavorable interactions with fans, Kiner-Falefa and the Yankees managed to come to terms on a one-year contract worth $6 million.

Aaron Judge is seen congratulating Yankees' central fielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa after his outstanding an defensive save against the Angels at Yankee Stadium on April 20, 2023.

Turning into Yankees’ super utility gem

While Kiner-Falefa might not be a top contender for any accolades this season, it’s important to acknowledge his notable contributions. Throughout the year, he has taken the field at every position except first base and catcher, and the possibility of him filling those roles should not be dismissed. Additionally, Kiner-Falefa has showcased his versatility by making appearances as a pitcher in four games this season, conceding only one run on four hits. A particularly memorable moment occurred on June 22 when Kiner-Falefa delivered an unexpected performance in the ninth inning, impressing the audience.

Kiner-Falefa’s commitment to the team’s success has garnered significant admiration from supporters. When he encountered difficulties at shortstop during early spring training, IKF recognized the chance to contribute in alternative ways. As promising prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza contended for the starting shortstop role, Kiner-Falefa dedicated himself to refining his skills in other positions. This dedication has yielded favorable outcomes for IKF, resulting in increased playing time. Although his batting average of .253 and OPS of .696 may not be standout figures, they hold value for a player capable of seamlessly adapting to various positions. The Yankees certainly appreciate his offensive contributions, given his versatile role.

Redefines success amid slumping Yankees

Isiah Kiner-Falefa

Gaining the favor of Yankees fans can be an uphill battle for certain players, as Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks can attest from recent experiences. Despite initial moments of basking in the passionate embrace of Yankees fans, both players found themselves subject to a shift from admiration to criticism. Not even the affable Nick Swisher, one of the most well-liked players in Yankees history, was immune to fan disapproval following his underwhelming postseason performance in 2012. However, Kiner-Falefa managed to achieve what several predecessors could not – he successfully reclaimed the backing of the fanbase.

Certainly, there exist more formidable hitters than Kiner-Falefa, and undoubtedly, superior fielders as well. Yet, he epitomizes the quintessential player any team would fervently desire on its roster. While his game may display imperfections, his unwavering dedication remains beyond reproach. Amidst peaks and troughs, Kiner-Falefa maintains an unwavering equanimity that now defines him. He eschews basking in the spotlight after a stellar game or sinking into despondency on the bench following a lackluster performance. Additionally, he is impervious to yielding during a play or at-bat, a testament to his resolute character. What remains constant is his relentless hustle across the field.

Transforming from New York’s criticized starting shortstop to an indispensable utility player, Kiner-Falefa has seamlessly integrated himself into the team’s fabric. As a result, he emerges as the Yankees’ most impressive player this year.

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