C to SS? Why this rare move could work

December 2nd, 2020

When Rangers general manager Jon Daniels revealed the team’s 2021 plans for the shortstop position on Tuesday, with set to take over the starting job from , it was notable for a couple of reasons.

First, it signaled a changing of the guard, with the club set to go with someone other than Andrus as its Opening Day shortstop for the first time since 2008. Second, it meant that Kiner-Falefa will have the opportunity to continue carving a highly unusual career path.

While the 25-year-old was drafted as a shortstop in 2013 out of a Hawaii high school and spent most of his time in the Minor Leagues at short, second base and third base, he also mixed in time behind the plate, beginning in 2016, to increase his chances at a big league career. In his first two seasons in Texas (2018-19), Kiner-Falefa logged 73 games as a catcher (starting 66), in addition to 71 at third, 20 at second and two at short.

This past season saw Kiner-Falefa move back out from behind the plate and emerge as a Gold Glove Award-winning third baseman. He started 42 games there during the shortened 2020 campaign, plus 15 at shortstop.

Now Kiner-Falefa can make the nearly unprecedented leap from catcher to regular shortstop -- albeit while moving back to his natural position. Here are a few key questions about this unorthodox development.

How often is a player a catcher AND a shortstop?

It’s rare. Kiner-Falefa will enter 2021 with 73 career games at catcher and 17 at shortstop. The only other player to log double-digit career totals at both positions in recent years is the Reds’ Kyle Farmer, who has spent 19 games behind the plate and 16 at shortstop since 2017. Before that, you have to go back to Dave Cochrane and Jamie Quirk, who both last played in 1992.

Assuming Kiner-Falefa does go on to receive significant playing time at shortstop in 2021, he will find himself in practically uncharted territory. Among all players to debut since 1900, only two have spent at least 50 career games at both positions: Bobby Bragan (debuted 1940) and Moe Berg (1923). In other words, nobody has pulled off that feat in more than 70 years.

Bragan was the Phillies’ regular shortstop in his first two seasons and ultimately played 415 games there, adding 140 at catcher, most of which came after a trade to the Dodgers before the 1943 season. Berg, who also had a role as an American spy during World War II, came up as a shortstop and only became a catcher when White Sox manager Ray Schalk asked for volunteers in 1927 due to a cascade of injuries. He wound up spending 529 games there, compared with 84 at short.

If you factor in Kiner-Falefa’s time at third, he could become the first modern player to log at least 50 career games at catcher, shortstop and the hot corner.

Is there precedent for an “up-the-middle” switch?

Yes, but not much. If you look back at modern baseball history, two players stand out for shifting successfully from catcher to one of the other positions in the middle of the diamond -- shortstop, second base, center field -- that serve as the backbone of any defense.

The Astros drafted Craig Biggio as a catcher out of Seton Hall and played him there for four seasons before orchestrating a highly successful move to second base after Biggio’s first All-Star selection in 1991. Biggio went on to play nearly 2,000 games at second (plus 255 in center) and make the Hall of Fame.

Dale Murphy also was a catcher when the Braves drafted him fifth overall in 1974 and spent 85 games behind the plate through '79. By the next year, he was Atlanta’s primary center fielder and went on to win five straight Gold Gloves there from 1982-86, while also capturing two NL MVP Awards.

Obviously, Kiner-Falefa isn’t the same sort of offensive threat as Biggio or Murphy were, with a career line of .260/.319/.351. But he could make a similar sort of defensive conversion.

Can he actually stick at short?

It’s certainly worth noting here that Kiner-Falefa already has proven himself to be an excellent third baseman, culminating in his 2020 Gold Glove win.

Let’s focus on Outs Above Average (OAA), a range-based Statcast metric that judges fielders on the number of plays they make or don’t make, as well as the difficulty of those plays, while accounting for their positioning. Since 2017, Kiner-Falefa ranks fourth in total OAA accrued at third, despite relatively little time at the position.

OAA as a 3B, since 2017

  1. Nolan Arenado: +33 (511 games at 3B)
  2. Matt Chapman: +28 (421 games at 3B)
  3. Jedd Gyorko: +16 (237 games at 3B)

4) Isiah Kiner-Falefa: +14 (117 games at 3B)
5) Anthony Rendon: +13 (479 games at 3B)

In 2020, Kiner-Falefa tied for second behind Arenado, with 4 OAA as a third baseman. But what about shortstop?

As mentioned, that was his original position, and he played 142 games there in the Minors. Beyond that, what little data is available on Kiner-Falefa as a Major League shortstop is positive.

OAA allows us to break down a fielder’s performance not only by his lineup position, but also by his actual location on the field -- an important distinction given the prevalence of infield shifts. In limited opportunities manning short, Kiner-Falefa has handled himself well, as the numbers and graphic below show.

Kiner-Falefa’s career OAA by field location
Third base: +13 (236 attempts)
Shortstop: +4 (65 attempts)
Second base: 0 (64 attempts)

Small samples of defensive metrics certainly can be misleading, but the Rangers also have watched Kiner-Falefa up close over the past few seasons. Clearly, they think he has the tools to handle shortstop, and now he will have that opportunity.

If he capitalizes, he will complete a positional journey unlike any other in MLB history.