It is no secret that benches have never been shorter. Teams carrying a ludicrous number of relievers means that they can only carry so many position players on the bench. Unless teams start developing relievers to go more than one inning — a shocking concept, I know — this is not going to change anytime soon as starting pitchers throw fewer and fewer innings.
Teams have 25 roster slots. Thirteen of those slots now tend to go to pitchers (five starters plus eight relievers). Eight more slots go to your starting position players. That leaves just four slots left for bench players, one of whom has to be a back-up catcher. Such players can’t play any other position, and even if they could, they are usually the worst hitters on the team, so they can’t hit enough to play another position other than on an emergency basis. This leaves only three slots open for bench players that can play other positions on the field.
Because of this roster crunch, bench players have to be able to play more than one position. There is no room anymore for a bench player who can only play first base. In fact, a backup infielder has to be able to play up-the-middle positions at least in a part time role. If a utility infielder can’t play shortstop, that is a problem. Similarly, it is beneficial to have a backup outfielder who can play center field, especially if a team can’t slide one of their starting corner outfielders to center.
Position versatility is more important than ever. That is why what the Rangers have in Isiah Kiner-Falefa could be as valuable as it is interesting. He did not have a stellar debut season at the plate, hitting .261/.325/.357 in 396 PA. A utility infielder with that batting line will not catch anybody’s attention, until you see that he played 35 games at catcher. That’s right, the Rangers’ backup catcher started most of his games at third or second base, and he started at shortstop twice.
I had never heard of Kiner-Falefa before this past season, and I doubt anybody other than the most serious prospect followers had heard of him either. He was taken out of high school in the fourth round of the 2013 draft as an infielder. His glove looked good, but he just did not hit much, with a career minor league line of .276/.346/.332. He did a good job of getting on base, but with just five home runs across all the levels of the minors and a .056 ISO, it looked like he had 20-grade power. To put that in perspective, he probably had more power than Ben Revere, but not by much.
In 2016, someone in the Rangers’ organization thought to try Kiner-Falefa at catcher. (I hope that somebody writes a story on that someday because I would love to hear the thought process behind it.) Believe it or not, Kiner-Falefa had caught only 69 games in the minors before doing so in the majors. Though the game has seen shortstops who were converted to catcher — Buster Posey is a great example of this — the modern game has never seen anyone who could do both.
Kiner-Falefa is a good defensive third baseman, but he is not going to win any Gold Gloves behind the plate. Thankfully, the Rangers have Jeff Mathis, who presumably will be the everyday catcher, and he still adds a lot of value defensively as a result of his pitch-framing. As is well known, however, he is one of the worst hitters in MLB history. His 2018 line of .200/.272/.272 makes Kiner-Falefa look like an All-Star hitter.
Playing catcher is hard. It is really, really hard. It is a specialized position, and there is a reason why it is the highest position on the defensive spectrum. Finding utility players who could slot in at catcher once or twice a week is no small task, or else we would have seen a lot more players like Kiner-Falefa. I wonder if it might be easier to identify catchers who can play other positions. They generally lack the agility and speed for it, but not always, and obviously they have great arms that can be suited for shortstop or third base. Remember, Josh Donaldson used to be a catcher! So was Hall of Famer Craig Biggio!
The Red Sox are trying something like this with Blake Swihart. He is a good candidate, not just because his defense behind the plate is sub-par, but because he is exceptionally athletic for a catcher. The Sox have tried him out a little bit in the outfield, and he has even made a few appearances at second and third base. Of course, he needs to hit better than the .229/.285/.328 line in 2018, though he did have an 88 wRC+ in the second half.
Even with Kiner-Falefa’s complete lack of power, he still managed to accumulate 1.6 WAR in 111 games last year. He might not make any All-Star teams, but a utility infielder who can play catcher and possibly crack 2 WAR in a full season is a pretty useful player to have.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.