SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Isiah Kiner-Falefa is a catcher. That appears to be stating the obvious, but it hasn’t always been that way for him.
Last season, he felt like a converted infielder trying to learn a difficult position at the Major League level, and it may have been the ultimate “baptism by fire.” This spring, with the help of an experienced mentor, Kiner-Falefa actually feels like a real catcher now that it is his primary position.
The burden lifted makes a huge difference for a player who was under enormous stress on every pitch he caught last season.
“Understanding that I belong there,” Kiner-Falefa said. “For a guy not to play the position in the big leagues, there was that feeling of unsureness. This year, I’m able to get all that out. I’m attacking it full speed. In years past, it was divided attention. It was hard to get better. This year, it’s full speed.”
Kiner-Falefa's mentor is Jeff Mathis, who is entering his 19th season in professional baseball and his 15th in the Major Leagues. Mathis is also a converted infielder, having made the switch to catcher as a senior in high school. Kiner-Falefa did it in 2016, which was his fourth season of professional baseball.
“What I did was nothing compared to what [Kiner-Falefa] went through,” Mathis said. “To be able to make that switch and do what he has done, is pretty impressive. He has taken to it full stride. To me, he is looking more like a regular catcher. He just needs more innings.”
There is much work to be done, especially in throwing like a catcher instead from the lower angle of an infielder. Kiner-Falefa was in the bottom five among 67 Major League catchers (minimum 10 stolen base attempts) in arm strength (77.2 mph) and exchange time (0.66 seconds). But he threw out eight of 25 attempted basestealers, a 32 percent rate that was above the Major League average of 28 percent.
There is also the art of framing pitches. According to Statcast, Kiner-Falefa had a borderline pitch called a strike 40.7 percent of the time. That was the lowest for a catcher with a minimum of 500 borderline “takes.” The Major League average was 47.3. Mathis, with the D-backs last year, had the highest at 54.9 percent.
“Just having Jeff around, just being able to see what he does calms me down,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Because last year, I really didn’t know what I was doing. To have a leader show what’s right and what’s wrong, that makes the biggest difference.”
Kiner-Falefa caught 35 games for the Rangers in 2018 as opposed to 76 as an infielder. The catching load must increase this season with Mathis as the No. 1 catcher. Mathis, 35, hasn’t caught at least 81 games for a team since his 91 with the Angels in 2011.
The Rangers must decide if Kiner-Falefa can handle the increased workload, of if they would be better served with a veteran backup while he gets more development time in the Minor Leagues.
Kiner-Falefa entered camp as the favorite to be the backup catcher, but it was not guaranteed.
“I didn’t want to put added pressure on him and say you have to make the team,” manager Chris Woodward said. “Just trust in what you are doing and commit yourself to getting better. I can’t ask any more from him. He has dedicated his entire life to this. He is on the right path. I’m really proud of him for that. It’s rewarding to know I can reward him by getting him out there.”