Isiah Kiner-Falefa could have viewed his return to the Frisco Roughriders in 2017 in several ways.
On one hand, the 22-year-old Hawaii native could have wondered why he was returning to the Texas Rangers’ Double-A affiliate, especially after spending the entire 2016 season in Frisco?
However, Kiner-Falefa also could have viewed his return to the ‘Riders as nothing more than another great opportunity, a chance to hone various aspects of his offensive game and gain more experience at a position he is pretty new to playing-catcher.
Yeah, just being back here, it’s a comfort level. Frisco’s almost like my second home. I’ve been here the longest,” Kiner-Falefa said. “If you look at my minor-league numbers, most of my games in my career are here at this ballpark, so being here I’m just comfortable with the area and everything about this place is just my second home.”
Kiner-Falefa chose the latter, the glass half-full approach if you will, and delivered a strong season for the ‘Riders, hitting .288 with 5 HR, 48 RBI and an OPS of .740. He was also a 2017 Texas League-All-Star, a nice showing for someone who played five different positions this season, six if you count his time at designated hitter.
I’m really confident in myself, confident in my abilities and love to play the game. If the Rangers want me in Double-A, I’m fine being here. If they want me in Triple-A, I’m fine there,” Kiner-Falefa said.
As long as I get to play and have fun, be around the team and just learn new things, the goal is the big leagues. It doesn’t really matter Double-A or Triple-A for me, the real goal is the big leagues. At the end of the day, if I’m in Double-A, I’m trying to do everything I can here, learn everything I can to be in the big leagues. And if I’m in Triple-A, it’s the same thing, to be in the big leagues. Either way, just trying to get to the big leagues. Double-A, Triple-A, same thing.”
Kiner-Falefa or “Kiner” as he’s referred to, played 129 games for Frisco in 2017. The bulk of those were spent in the infield, as he played 50 games at third base, 37 games at second and 10 more at shortstop.
However, he also spent 33 games behind the plate for the ‘Riders, a position he first started playing in 2016, a spot where he has developed nicely.
And it’s a position he quickly came to love for one simple reason.
You’re a leader on the field. It’s definitely a dirty spot. You got to get down, get dirty, block balls, take shots on foul tips,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Once I moved there, I watched the game in a different way. I’m watching TV and I watch how the catcher moves, how they set up, when they set up.”
Kiner-Falefa has benefitted greatly from working with Frisco’s starting catcher Jose Trevino and also with ‘Riders coach Carlos Maldonado, himself a former big-league backstop.
Frisco manager Joe Mikulik has enjoyed having Kiner-Falefa on his roster these past two seasons and knows firsthand just how much he’s developed over the past two seasons.
It’s been very steady, it’s been very consistent. He’s a little sparkplug for us when we need him,” Mikulik said. “He’s played a lot of different positions. His offense has really improved. He’s getting stronger. He’s so very, very confident with the skills that he’s developed. He’s been one of the most consistent (players) that we’ve had and probably in the league with the way he’s going about his business.”
Kiner-Falefa just completed his fifth year of professional baseball. But before anyone calls him an old man, remember that he is still all of 22.
And again, he feels that spending a second season in Frisco was an experience he wouldn’t trade for anything because of how much another year with the ‘Riders helped accelerate his development, both at the plate and in the field.
Yeah, I feel a lot more comfortable back there (at catcher)-conversations with the umpires, knowing when to go out, when not to go and talk to them. Still working on game calling in certain situations, but for the most part everything’s been simple,” Kiner-Falefa said.
Mikulik admits that in his years managing and coaching minor leaguers that he hasn’t seen many players who can play both in the infield as well as behind the plate, making Kiner-Falefa one of the more unique prospects he’s ever managed.
Some might view his versatility as a double-edged sword, something which can be a curse because Kiner-Falefa doesn’t have one true position on the diamond.
However, Mikulik sees that versatility as nothing but a huge blessing.
My personal opinion is it creates value,” Mikulik said. “Somebody asked me the other day how I’d rank his positions, I’m still going to lean on second, third in a pinch, short, catcher. That’s how I’d probably rank it and the catching’s coming along, it’s getting better. He’s put himself on the map because he’s been able to go to different positions and he’s obviously successful offensively.”
Last fall, the end of Frisco’s season was only a prelude to more baseball to come. That’s because Kiner-Falefa was among the Ranger prospects selected to play in the 2016 Arizona Fall League, an honor reserved only for the top minor leaguers.
He also then played winter ball, which made his offseason a bit shorter, but two experiences he feels benefitted him greatly.
This fall, however, he will have a more normal offseason, taking some time off and then embarking on his off-season conditioning program to prepare for the start of spring training in February 2018.
At first, it (having some time off ) is going to be nice. The first month is going to be nice, but after that I’m probably going to be bored out of my mind and wanting to get back,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Honestly, it’s going to be different this year. I’ve been in (instructional league) almost every year. It’s going to be weird. I’m probably going to be bored. I’m probably going to travel places, try to do some stuff. I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s going to be weird for sure.”