Isiah Kiner-Falefa has always been a shortstop, but first had to fake his confidence as a catcher and a third baseman for the Texas Rangers.
After winning a Gold Glove as a third baseman last season, Kiner-Falefa feels like he can finally be himself, and the leader for a rebuilding team, as their starting shortstop.
“Third base isn’t who I am. It’s what I did,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I’m shortstop. I’m an elite shortstop, and I’m ready to prove it. But I understood that for me to get this opportunity, I had to be a really good third baseman. And that’s just one of the things I did. I had to be a catcher. … And now I can be myself and do what I want to do, not what everybody else wants me to do.”
The Rangers had enough confidence in the Hawaiian, who turns 26 on March 23, that they declared him their top shortstop this offseason before trading Elvis Andrus — their opening day shortstop each of the past 12 seasons, and the only player remaining from their two World Series appearances a decade ago.
“I had to kind of fake the confidence at other positions at show the guys that I could do it, and I was willing to do it,” Kiner-Falefa said.
Kiner-Falefa grew up trying to be like shortstops Ozzie Smith, Derek Jeter and Michael Young, now a special assistant to the Rangers general manager. Young was a five-time All-Star shortstop for Texas after moving from second base to replace Alex Rodriguez, and before switching to third base for Andrus’ debut as a 20-year-old shortstop in 2009.
After an impressive power surge in spring training last year, which he carried over into the summer camp before the pandemic-delayed and shortened season, Kiner-Falefa earned the starting job at third base. Todd Frazier, previously signed as a potential starter at third was moved to first base instead. Kiner-Falefa also started 15 games at short when Andrus was injured.
Kiner-Falefa hit .280, and joined Adrian Beltre and Buddy Bell as Rangers third baseman to win Gold Gloves.
Third-year manager Chris Woodward arrived when the Rangers were still trying to make Kiner-Falefa a big league catcher. The skipper immediately learned of Kiner-Falefa’s reputation as a constant hard worker who would do whatever he was asked, something that hasn’t changed.
“Everybody told me how good of a third baseman he was, and how good of a shortstop he was. When you see a kid being a catcher and working at being a catcher, it’s hard to visualize that in a shortstop until I saw him take ground balls,” Woodward said. “To see him at third and just watching how that played out and then seeing obviously last year how good he was, that made it so much easier for me … made it a really easy decision.”
Kiner-Falefa made his MLB debut early in the 2018 playing second and then third base because of injuries to Rougned Odor and Beltre, the likely future Hall of Fame third baseman then in his final season. When both were healthy, Texas got Kiner-Falefa in the lineup as a catcher, and he was exclusively behind the plate the first two months of 2019, Woodward’s first season, before returning to a utility infielder role.
“I wanted to be a big leaguer,” Kiner-Falefa said. “By doing everything and checking off every box that the organization asked me to do put me in this position. A lot of guys would have shied away, ran away or wouldn’t be here. But I stuck through every single role, and I’ve succeeded at every single role.”
Still a relatively young player himself, Kiner-Falefa has a new role as the starting shortstop and a primary leader for the rebuilding Rangers. Texas had three 22-year-old rookies in the starting lineup for the final game of an AL-worst 22-38 season last September, when the only position player older than 26 was Shin-Soo Choo in a farewell appearance at the end of a $130 million, seven-year contract.
“He’s earned that right, especially from a lead-by-example standpoint. He does it every day,” Woodward said. “He’s our most in-tune player on the field, he’s our most dedicated on a pitch-by-pitch basis. That’s what you want your shortstop to be. … He’s going to take the challenge, and he’s got to prove to the world that he’s a shortstop, and he’s taking that. He loves that opportunity.”
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