Kiner-Falefa shines behind the plate

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, May 7th, 2016

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By Ryan Rouillard
ryan.rouillard@ridersbaseball.com

When the lineup card came out for the Frisco RoughRiders home
opener on April 14, it seemed like there was a typo.
There was nothing jarring about seeing Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s name
written in the leadoff spot in the order, but the surprise came with
the letter “C” written next to his name, indicating that he would be
the catcher that night.
The move was surprising because he hadn’t caught a game yet in
2016 for the Texas Rangers Double-A affiliate. In fact, he never
donned the catcher’s gear last season, nor his other two seasons as a
member of the Rangers organization. Even more shocking, he never even
played a game behind the plate in high school at Mid-Pacific Institute
in Honolulu, Hawaii.
So here he was, standing just 5’10” and making his first career
start in front of almost 10,000 fans at Dr Pepper Ballpark, the home
of the RoughRiders. One might expect a flurry of stolen bases with a
first-time catcher behind the plate. Instead, the visiting Northwest
Arkansas Naturals – the Texas League leaders in stolen bases – only
swiped one bag on Kiner-Falefa’s watch. It also wouldn’t be too
surprising to see a handful of passed balls in a catching debut; there
were none.
“I felt comfortable,” said Kiner-Falefa the day after his debut
behind the plate. “For it being my first professional catching start
in a Double-A home opener, it was really exciting. I felt good.”
Through the end of April, the 21-year-old ended up behind the
plate three more times for the RoughRiders, who finished the month
with a league-best 17-4 record, which also set the mark for the best
21-game start in franchise history. Each time he’s gotten back behind
the plate, the Honolulu-native has blended in seamlessly as if he’d
been catching since high school.
“You wouldn’t know that that’s his first time catching,” said
Riders right-handed pitcher Sam Wolff, who was paired with
Kiner-Falefa in a game on April 16. “Just his athleticism back behind
the plate, you know, being able to block balls the way he does,
receive balls the way he does. Even the pitch calling. It’s almost
like it comes second-nature to him. It’s impressive. It was fun for me
to throw to him.”
Kiner-Falefa played second base, shortstop, third base, and left
field in his four seasons as a professional in the Rangers
organization. However, after catching some bullpens last season, he
came to Spring Training with hopes of developing more as a catcher in
order to bolster his hopes of a long career in baseball.
“It was more from what I wanted to do to open some doors,” said
Kiner-Falefa. “I just saw it as a better opportunity for myself and to
help our organization and our team.”
“I was excited about it, but I kind of thought it was going to
slow me down in a way where I’d have to start over. For the Rangers to
give me the opportunity to start in Double-A, it really helped me and
my confidence level, so now I feel really confident doing it. I love
doing it. It’s fun.”
Fortunately for him, some of the middle infield skills he had honed
earlier in his career made the transition to catching a little
smoother.
“The catch-and-throw, that’s all middle infield,” he said. “I
mean, if you’re playing second base and you’re turning a double play,
it’s pretty much the same thing. I use the same footwork.”
Those skills were put on display on April 30, in front of 10,004
onlookers at Dr Pepper Ballpark, when Kiner-Falefa threw out two
would-be base stealers with extremely quick and accurate throws.
“It felt great. I mean, it was an unbelievable feeling. It
almost felt like making a spectacular play in the field. It was
awesome.”
RoughRiders manager Joe Mikulik took notice, too.
“The two throws were average major league throws to second base,” said Mikulik.
“The sky’s the limit” with him
Veteran major league catcher Chris Gimenez sits at his locker on a
Monday afternoon, two days after Kiner-Falefa’s pair of eye-popping
throws. As soon as Kiner-Falefa’s name is mentioned, he springs out of
his seat, ready to hype up the newest catching prospect in the Rangers
farm system.
“He’s kind of a gamer,” said Gimenez, who played in seven games
with the RoughRiders in late April and early May, while recovering
from an ankle infection. “He’s scrappy, he hustles all the time. I
mean, he’s just got really good hands, makes all the solid plays that
you need him to, and he’s obviously such a good kid, too, that I think
it boosts him a little bit more just because of that.”
“The sky’s the limit with him,” said Gimenez. “To have him be
able to catch and do it to a very serviceable level, that’s going to
extend his career…those are the types of tools that you have in your
toolbox that can help extend careers.”
And for Kiner-Falefa, he’s gained a fresh outlook on his future,
too, after his early success behind the plate.
“Now, I just see myself more as a utility guy and someone who
can play multiple positions. It’s a good thing because now I can get
comfortable all over the field. I love playing baseball, and playing
every position is fun.”
Kiner-Falefa doesn’t catch with too much regularity for the
RoughRiders, but with the way he’s begun his catching career, there’s
no more need for a double-take when he’s listed at catcher on the
lineup card. Instead, it’s just another development in a fascinating
career of an up-and-coming Rangers minor leaguer.

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