OAKLAND -- Isiah Kiner-Falefa in his words, was "drowning."
Kiner-Falefa began his first season as the Rangers’ full-time starting shortstop with a bang. A month-and-a-half into the year, he was one of baseball’s most productive players at the position, putting up better numbers than the likes of Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Tim Anderson and others. An improved bat was matching his elite glove. He was on pace to be an All-Star.
Then, the crash. Kiner-Falefa struggled, and he struggled hard. His defense was still among the league’s best, but he had gone cold at the plate. By the time the All-Star break rolled around, his numbers had been usurped by some of the league’s best shortstops. He described it as one of the toughest stretches of his career.
"When I was down there, I didn’t know if I could get out of it,” Kiner-Falefa said. “That was the biggest part. It was almost like a trap. I just trapped myself. I was thinking small. I was thinking of the things that could happen in the future instead of understanding that, if I take it day by day day, I can overcome it. I’m a good player, but I wasn’t allowing myself to be good because my thoughts weren’t good.”
But over the last month, Kiner-Falefa willed himself out of that trap. Since Aug. 6, the beginning of the Rangers’ previous series in Oakland, Kiner-Falefa is hitting .280/.338/.368, much closer to his production of April and May. There are still a couple weeks left in the season, but in overcoming those struggles, Kiner-Falefa has exhibited growth beyond the stats.
“One thing I tell [young players] a lot is it’s never going to be easy,” said manager Chris Woodward. “Just embrace the fact that this game is going to be hard -- and it’s going to constantly be hard. Even the better you get at it, it’s going to get more difficult as you go. Stakes are going to get higher, expectations are going to get higher. Embrace that. Once you fall in love with that, that’s when you typically release, just let things happen."
Woodward has previously discussed the necessity of "surrendering the outcome," focusing on the task at hand instead of what has happened or what could be. For Kiner-Falefa, the ability to stay present, to remain in the moment, was invaluable to digging out of his slump and, by extension, growing as a player.
“I was very proud of myself to overcome that,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I think it shows more that I’ve overcome it than what my numbers show.”
On the subject of numbers, however, Kiner-Falefa has graded as not only one of the league’s best defensive shortstops in his first full year at the position, but defenders, period.
Kiner-Falefa is tied with defensive guru Andrelton Simmons for the second-most defensive runs saved in the league (11) behind Carlos Correa. The most recent SABR Defensive Index rankings (released on Aug. 22), ranked Kiner-Falefa as the league’s best defender with an SDI of 10.6, ahead of Correa’s 9.7. Come season’s end, he’ll garner a respectable number of votes for a Gold Glove Award if he doesn't win the award itself. Not too bad for someone who is still learning the position’s intricacies.
“I still have some things I need to work on. Actually, a lot of things I still need to work on,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Getting the ball out quicker, reading the hops. I’m still dealing with different fields, coming off the turf and going to different places.”