Isiah Kiner-Falefa was off to a torrid start in 2020. The Mid-Pacific alum and Texas Rangers utility player was hitting .378 in 37 spring training at-bats with a team-high four home runs and six extra base hits.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, putting an abrupt pause on the 2020 MLB season and scattering players across the country. Kiner-Falefa has spent the last three months at home on the islands training.
Despite months of uncertainty and an ongoing labor battle between players and owners, Major League Baseball announced its return to action last week, with players set to report to spring training 2.0 on July 1. With games beginning on July 23, Kiner-Falefa is set to begin his third MLB season.
Although Kiner-Falefa was drafted as a shortstop in the fourth round of the 2013 MLB Draft out of Mid-Pac, his defensive versatility as a catcher, second baseman and third baseman have made him a valuable cog for the Rangers. Although it got hard at times last season, Kiner-Falefa hopes to keep progressing and show the same grittiness that has made him a fan favorite in Texas.
“Last year was a tough year for me catching, I’m not gonna lie. It wasn’t glory, it wasn’t fun, it was a grind being in the heat in Texas and having to squat for the first time in a full season, that was really tough for me so I have a big chip on my shoulder just to come in this year and prove to everybody that I’m still the shortstop from Mid-Pac, I still have the glove, I’m still a speedy guy,” Kiner-Falefa told KHON2’s Rob DeMello. “I’m not a slow catcher so I came in with the mentality this year just to remind everybody who I am and I gave them a pretty good sample size so I’m really excited to get back when things get rolling and just make a really big impact on the team.”
In 2018, Kiner-Falefa was named the Texas Rangers team recipient of the 2018 Heart and Hustle Award, presented by the MLB Players Alumni Association. To Kiner-Falefa, the award laid the foundation for his young career.
“For me, that honestly set the tone. I had guys like Adrian Beltre, Cole Hamels, Bartolo Colon, so to be the unknown and kind of young guy on my team and get the award above everyone else, that kind of just showed me that I’m on the right path and it’s kind of just that local boy mentality of just be a good guy, that Hawaiian style, it goes a long way,” Kiner-Falefa said.
During his return to the islands in the past few months, Kiner-Falefa has trained with other Hawaii professionals such as Joey Cantillo and KJ Harrison. Although Kiner-Falefa just turned 25 in March, he’s starting to feel more of a responsibility to pass his knowledge on down to the state’s up-and-coming young ballplayers.
“They really were able to push me,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Sometimes being the big leaguer out of the bunch, you start slacking a little but when you have the younger guys, the 18 year olds, the 19 year olds working harder than you, you better show up every day and it’s kind of cool being their older brother and being there for them. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of good people around me to stay the course.”
With a pitching staff led by newly acquired two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, Kiner-Falefa has no shortage of confidence in the Rangers’ chances heading into an abbreviated 2020 MLB season that consists of 60 games instead of the usual 162.
“It’s a fresh team, it’s a fresh look and the way our pitching staff looks, I think we have a really, really good chance to compete for a World Series,” Kiner-Falefa said.