For the past few years, Isiah Kiner-Falefa has been trying to earn jobs at the major league level. The Rangers have needed him in different roles, and Kiner-Falefa has obliged.
But he's always wanted to be a shortstop.
"I'm a shortstop," Kiner-Falefa told the media on Tuesday. "I'm an elite shortstop. And I'm ready to prove it."
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In 2018, Kiner-Falefa came in as a utility player. In 2019, the Rangers asked him to move to catcher, which didn't work out well for either party. In 2020, he converted back into an infielder, grabbing hold of the everyday job at third base after terrorizing opposing pitching in both versions of spring training.
"I understood that for me to get this opportunity, I had to be a really good third baseman," Kiner-Falefa said. "That's just one of the things I did. I had to be a catcher, I was a catcher. I had to be a third baseman, [I was a] third baseman. Now I can be myself and do what I want to do, not what everybody else wants me to do."
Kiner-Falefa put an exclamation point on his work by winning a Gold Glove for his performance at the hot corner. With the Rangers keenly aware of Kiner-Falefa's ability and desire to play shortstop, they officially turned the page earlier this winter when they traded away Elvis Andrus — the beloved fan-favorite that held the position for the past 12 seasons.
Now, it's Kiner's turn. Growing up in Hawaii, he idolized Derek Jeter, Ozzie Smith, and Rangers Hall of Famer Michael Young. Kiner-Falefa has always thought of himself as a shortstop, even through the position changes. He's worked hard, paid his dues, and the Rangers have rewarded him with the job he has always wanted.
It's difficult to fill the shoes of Elvis Andrus, who will likely have his own spot in the Rangers Hall of Fame one day. Expectations may be high, but Kiner-Falefa is laser-focused on who he is and what he brings to the position.
Clearly, being a third baseman is in the past.
"Third base isn't who I am," Kiner-Falefa said. "It's what I did, but it's not who I am."
Kiner-Falefa has all the makings of an elite shortstop, so the defensive transition is clearly not an issue, physically or mentally. In order for Kiner-Falefa to hit the next level, improvements will have to come at the plate.
Kiner-Falefa was the Rangers' top hitter in 2020 with a .280 batting average. However, he also posted a .699 OPS. That mark is 41 points below league average, and 56 points below league average at third base.
So, what is the key to unlocking that next level? Just being himself.
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"Everybody thinks that my bat's not there, but in reality, I never got to do what I wanted to do until now," Kiner-Falefa said. "I think the pressure of getting myself this opportunity was what was kind of weighing me down and understanding that I wasn't a power hitter. But I had to be a power hitter, so I grew into one. Now I'm a shortstop again, and I'm a dangerous player when I'm playing shortstop. So I'm excited to show everyone."
Now Kiner-Falefa doesn't have the pressure of competing with the likes of Anthony Rendon or Nolan Arenado. He's not trying to earn an undetermined Opening Day roster spot. For the first time in his career, he's exactly where he wants to be.
"I'm trying to be a shortstop. So I think being a shortstop, that really takes all the weight off my shoulders," Kiner-Falefa said. "Now I can just go and play. Now I can be myself. And I think, when I'm myself, that's when everything comes together. And I'm excited to prove myself and to show this organization that I want to be a part of this — a World Series team — for a long time."
Promo photo: Kelly Gavin / Courtesy of the Texas Rangers