Growing up a Rangers fan since the early 2000’s, I have seen a ton of catchers behind home plate for this team over the years. As I chronicled in an article a couple months ago, there has been a revolving door at catcher since the initial departure of Pudge Rodriguez after the 2002 season. No backstop has managed to find the footing to stick as the team’s primary starter for more than a year or two for close to two decades, but the Texas front office and coaching staff are doing what it takes to make sure Isiah Kiner-Falefa could be the next long-term man with the mask.
The 24-year-old Hawaii-native broke onto the big league scene for Texas in 2018 after injuries to the majority of their Opening Day infield (third baseman Adrian Beltre, shortstop Elvis Andrus and second baseman Rougned Odor) brought him to the big league club to help fill multiple holes around the diamond. It didn’t seem like he would be here for too long, but his performance and defensive versatility forced them club’s hand and allowed him to stay in the big leagues all season long and make himself part of the 2019 picture.
Once the injuries healed up for Texas in the second half of the 2018 season, Kiner-Falefa began to see some action at catcher. He would eventually appear in 35 games at that position and it went well enough that the team wanted to make him one of team’s catchers in 2019 after allowing incumbent starter Robinson Chirinos to walk in free agency. The Rangers knew that he wouldn’t be ready for full-time catching duties right away, though. They did their due-diligence and brought in veteran defensive-wizard Jeff Mathis. The 36-year-old has logged over 808 appearances at catcher over 15 major league seasons and has managed to keep a job over the years because of his abilities behind the plate and not so much his bat.
The duo of Mathis and Kiner-Falefa’s lockers are next to each other in the Texas clubhouse at Globe Life Park and “IKF” is appreciative of the support of Mathis and his coaching staff.
“Just having the backbone and all the help that I’ve been given and ability to get better everyday, it means a lot,” Kiner-Falefa said after Sunday’s 8-7 come-from-behind win over the Oakland Athletics. “I’m feeling more comfortable everyday and it’s showing on the field.”
So far, the Rangers have held true to their word from this winter that the catching duo would be a true split job. With Kiner-Falefa logging 8 of the team’s first 16 games behind the plate and Mathis with 7, there have been no surprises.
“I knew my role coming into the season,” Kiner-Falefa says positively with a tone of honest understanding. “I had time to think about it and get used to it.”
He is well aware of the need to make the most of his time when he’s not in games.
“When I’m not playing, I’m learning. Now when I’m sitting on the bench I’m actually watching the game, understanding what’s going on and just getting better.”
Even though he seems confident that he could fill in at other infield positions where starters Rougned Odor and Ronald Guzman are currently missing due to injury, Kiner-Falefa again emphasizes his understanding of his role in 2019.
“If my name’s called, my name’s called. We have a lot of depth in the infield compared to last year. I don’t think the need’s there as much, but I’m ready,” the Honolulu-native said assuredly. “Right now it’s just me and Jeff (at catcher), so we’re doing everything we can to help the pitchers.”
Helping this Rangers pitching staff is going to be vital in helping them keep their head above water. With the likes of Shelby Miller and Drew Smyly working their way back from major injuries, they need a catcher working with them confidently each and every start. Isiah is enjoying that challenge.
“That’s my job and I really enjoy doing that part of catching. Really helping the pitchers make strides and getting places they haven’t been before. If we as catchers can help them, it’s only going to make our team better. If you look back at what they’ve (Miller, Smyly and even Edinson Volquez if he returns this season) done before the injuries, they’ve had awesome careers. They know what they have to do. It’s just communicating and getting on the same page of what’s going to help them take the next step and elevate their game.”
Even if his catching resume isn’t too extensive, Isiah Kiner-Falefa is nailing the interview phase of his opportunity to become the Rangers long-term answer at catcher. With the help of his coaching staff, pitchers and a veteran voice like that of Jeff Mathis, Kiner-Falefa has all the tools he could ever need to seize this opportunity.
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