LAKELAND, Fla. – There’s an old saying in baseball that goes something like this: If you play the field and you’re even the slightest bit vulnerable, the ball will find you.
On Friday, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, trying his hand (and a brand new glove) in center field for the first time, proved why baseball clichés are by definition repeated and overused — because they’re mostly true.
The ball found Kiner-Falefa again and again (and again) during the Yankees’ 8-7 loss to the Tigers. And the party started right away as the first two plays in the bottom of the first were flyouts to center. By the end of the second inning, Kiner-Falefa had recorded four strikeouts on balls hit to him.
However, there were no accidents. Few things happened that would be considered out of the ordinary, and Kiner-Falefa gave himself a positive review, although he pointed out that he once threw to the wrong base. He too was relieved to get that one out of the way.
“I was a little nervous going into it just because it was a new position,” he said. “But it was a lot of fun. It was just a matter of letting go.”
The Yankees are eyeing Kiner-Falefa in center, hoping to find time for him somewhere other than shortstop, a position more likely to be filled by one of the Yankees’ top prospects. The competition is technically between No. 3 prospect Oswald Peraza, No. 1 prospect Anthony Volpe and Kiner-Falefa, and manager Aaron Boone has yet to announce a decision.
But with spring training over and Opening Day less than two weeks away, the decisions are coming. Kiner-Falefa’s versatility to move around the field — he’s been a catcher and third baseman in his career, in addition to shortstop — could give him more opportunities to make plays.
Friday was his first big test as an outfielder, and relatively speaking, it started much better than his first try a few days earlier, during the Yankees’ practice in Tampa, Florida.
“The fans were there on pitch 2. I dropped my first two balls,” Kinner-Falefa recalled, laughing. “I thought, ‘I thought it was just going to be a walk.’
“But I think it was good because it prepared me for today. It was [a] tough few days of practice but the game [Friday] it was much slower than i thought. I was really happy.”
The conditions were perhaps a little better in this game than on backcourts in Tampa, but there were still challenges. The sun was bright. The winds were strong. The homers were flying. And the game was moving quickly, even with all the goals scored.
And Kiner-Falefa was playing with an outfielder’s glove that hadn’t been properly broken in yet. That he still pitched well can be taken as an encouraging sign for the future as the catcher/infielder/outfielder begins to become even more familiar with the position.
“He had a lot of action, mostly ground runs,” Boone said. “It was good to see him acclimate out there, get one under his belt. Good start.”
Kiner-Falefa pointed to the third inning as his only real mistake of the day, blaming himself for not taking Colt Keith’s ball that ended up falling between Volpe and left fielder Aaron Hicks. Kiner-Falefa said he misread the cards carried by fielders for positioning purposes and ended up with the wrong alignment.
“That was probably my ball,” he said. “I lined up on the wrong side. This cannot happen in a real game. That’s where I need to fix myself. I felt bad for Hixie, that should have been my ball.
Assuming all works out, Kiner-Falefa projects to get available playing time in center when the Yankees play at home. Yankee Stadium’s spacious left field likely eliminates him from the mix, but he figures he might have a chance to see some time there on select road pitches.
“Maybe if it’s like Houston, they’d put me in left,” he said.
Kiner-Falefa just wants to be part of a winning formula, and his experience and fearlessness moving around the outfield shows that the center field experiment could work.
“Since he’s been here, he’s just wanted to win and win in pinstripes,” Boone said. “It’s important to him. He works very hard at his game. He’s a really good teammate. I think moving around is something that will serve us well and I think he’s the right fit for that.”