Kiner-Falefa quietly exceeding expectations two months in

May 29th, 2024

CHICAGO -- Pleasant surprises keep hope alive.

When signed his two-year, $15 million deal last winter, it was framed by who he was not. He was not Matt Chapman. He was not Juan Soto. He was not Cody Bellinger. He was certainly not Shohei Ohtani.

Now that all of that framing has fallen away, though, we see a version of Kiner-Falefa that needs only to be judged against himself. The Blue Jays have problems, but Kiner-Falefa isn’t one. He’s been that pleasant surprise so few saw coming, exceeding all modest expectations to emerge as a still point in the turning, churning world of the 2024 Blue Jays.

Kiner-Falefa’s line-drive double into the left-field corner opened the scoring in Tuesday’s 7-2 win over the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field that finally trudged to its end after two rain delays, giving them back-to-back wins at a time they desperately need to start a streak. Nothing about the win was flashy, but nothing about Kiner-Falefa was flashy. That’s his whole thing.

“He’s just a baseball player,” manager John Schneider said. “He helps you win every single day.”

Of course he’s a baseball player. We already know his occupation, but that obvious label is the ultimate praise within the four walls of a big league clubhouse.

“He’s always on. He’s a gamer,” Schneider said. “He’s very attentive to every single detail that may come up throughout the course of a game. Quietly, he’s really intense, too. I think he’s always had that about him and he’s not afraid to hold people accountable.”

The same compliment just keeps coming up, over and over.

“Izzy is a ball player, through and through,” echoed Kevin Gausman, who threw six innings of one-run ball. “He gets to the ballpark and the first thing he does is grab his glove and start banging a baseball into it. You really respect guys like that. Those guys are few and far between any more, those baseball rats. That used to be the norm, but there’s not many of those guys any more.”

With a .269 average and a little more pop than we’re used to seeing from Kiner-Falefa, he owns a career-high .725 OPS. He’s never had that number start with a seven over a full season before and his four home runs are already halfway to his career high of eight.

Defensively, he’s been rock solid. You may not remember the last time you said “wow,” but you also won’t remember the last time you had to say “what’s that guy doing?”

Behind Daulton Varsho and Kevin Kiermaier, the best defensive duo in baseball, Kiner-Falefa might be the Blue Jays’ third-best defender this season. He’s been worth four Outs Above Average with a Fielding Run Value of three. When you get beyond the elite tier of defenders, Kiner-Falefa is right there in the next tier.

This is all relative to each player. Kiner-Falefa is giving the Blue Jays more than most expected entering the season, and in a perfect world, this team has six or eight similar cases to balance out players having down years. Those scales are tipped to the wrong side, though.

It comes down to players doing what they are supposed to do. Let’s not veer too far into Bill Belichick’s “do your job” territory -- baseball demands a little more romance than that -- but this is why the Blue Jays have felt so disjointed at times. George Springer wasn’t doing what a leadoff hitter needed to do, so he was dropped in the lineup. Bo Bichette wasn’t doing what he always does, so he was dropped. A cleanup hitter didn’t hit a home run until May 22.

Kiner-Falefa has done his job and more. There’s an off-field component to this, too. Kiner-Falefa didn’t exactly come over from the Yankees with the reputation of being a threat to win the Triple Crown, but he did come with a reputation of a true professional and solid teammate that’s been proven quickly. He’s a serious baseball player. Seeing the work he puts in each day, it’s so easy to appreciate.

“We’re excited and we’re ready to go on a run,” Kiner-Falefa said. “We’re not out of it throughout it. We’re playing every game like it’s a playoff game and understanding that we put ourselves in this position, but we also have the power to get ourselves out.”

Kiner-Falefa isn’t just a complement to that, he’s a driving force now. Whether you expected it or not, he’s been the pleasant surprise this organization so desperately needs to see more of.