Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Eric Hinske, and the Nature of Reality

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays, Isiah Kiner-Falefa
Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays, Isiah Kiner-Falefa / Vaughn Ridley/GettyImages

Is Isiah Kiner-Falefa the best player on the Toronto Blue Jays right now, or the poster boy for everything that has gone wrong for the team in 2024? Whichever way you see it, recognize that half of the people reading this probably think the opposite.

It is a strange situation, two conflicting realities existing at the same time; from one man, two players: a hero and a pariah. Through Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the fluid nature of reality is revealed, our expectations irrevocably informing interpretation and belief, the reality we experience not objective, but individually constructed.

Yes, it is a strange and illuminating situation, though not one entirely without precedent. In fact, for some, it may call to mind the career of Blue Jays legend Eric Hinske, in many ways the Kiner-Falefa of his time …

You may remember Hinske. Drafted in the 17th round of the 1998 draft by the Chicago Cubs and traded to Toronto after the 2001 season in exchange for Billy Koch, he burst onto the scene in 2002, winning the AL Rookie of the Year for the Jays.

Sure, Hinske’s rookie numbers were not overly spectacular, particularly in the context of the steroid era – he slashed .279/.365/.845 with a respectable 24 home runs and a 117 OPS+ – but his performance was good enough that Jays fans began to think that if he could just improve on one or two things, the team might have a real superstar on its hands.

Unfortunately, not only did he not improve the next year, but his stats declined in essentially every category. The dreaded sophomore slump, many believed, until his numbers cratered even further the year after that.

In short order, Hinske had evolved into an eminently mediocre Major League player. While his play was far from irredeemable, the expectations of stardom which had emerged with his ROY win meant that Hinske’s decline into mediocrity made him one of the most reviled Blue Jays players of the 21st century, a guy who was booed off the field by the home fans “every time he stepped to the plate.”

Mercifully, Hinske was traded to the Boston Red Sox midway through the 2006 season for a minor league player to be named later and cash considerations. While his performance did not improve upon his arrival in Beantown, something did change. Suddenly, Hinske found himself as pretty much the perfect utility player on a very good team.

He played multiple positions competently across the infield and outfield, hit left-handed, and provided a little bit of pop off the bench. Heck, he even looked the part, with his hefty build, stubbly facial hair, and consistently dirty jersey calling to mind the curse-breaking Red Sox World Series team of 2004, affectionately referred to as “The Idiots.”

As it turned out, Hinske would play the utility role for the Red Sox all the way to a World Series championship in 2007. The next year, he would move to Tampa Bay and play the same role for a 97-win division champion which lost to the Phillies in the finals, and the year after that he would move to New York and do the same for a 103-win Yankees championship team. At each of these stops, Hinske became extremely well liked by the fans, perhaps even beloved – indeed, when he returned to Boston years later, he was given a standing ovation by the Fenway faithful.

Looking back now, Eric Hinske’s career is one of expectation informing reality, his monotonously average performance positioning him in two different worlds at the same time – in Toronto, a pariah, the poster boy of a failed era in which despite fielding strong teams, the Jays never could get over the hump, and everywhere else, a hero, a fan favorite, a borderline legend.

This brings us back to Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

When he signed with the Jays this offseason, it sent a large portion of the fan base into an uproar. At the time, most believed that the front office should be focusing all efforts on adding power to a lineup which was too often punchless in 2023, and for all the good things the man known as IKF may bring to a team, power is most certainly not one of them. Seriously, over his six-year MLB career, he has never hit more than eight home runs in a season or had an OPS over .699. Why not sign a big bopper like Teoscar Hernández instead, many wondered, or even bring back Matt Chapman? Did the Jays really need another defensive specialist who can’t hit the ball over the fence?

As the season started and the offense predictably struggled, Kiner-Falefa became the premier whipping boy of Blue Jays fans, every noodle armed slap of the ball sending them into a deeper rage, particularly as Teoscar Hernández, whom the Jays had declined to sign despite a steeply discounted price, began to go full supernova at the heart of the Dodgers’ lineup.

The more games the team played, however, the more it became clear that IKF was actually, well, pretty good, respectable at the very least, even for the most cynical of fans. Day in and day out, he has brought defense which has been more than competent, while, as of this writing, his OPS+ sits at 100 on the nose, positioning him as a stone-cold average Major League hitter. Add to this his endless hustle, obvious likeability, and well-known leadership in the clubhouse, and IKF is exactly the type of player that fans usually gravitate towards.

And yet, rather than let him settle into a position as a veteran fan favorite, the organization seems intent on presenting him as some sort of superhero. Nearly every game, the Jays' broadcast devotes a special segment to IKF’s greatness, in the pregame show, in one of Hazel Mae’s famous hits, in an innings-long monologue by one of the commentators.

It’s certainly understandable that the organization would use its media arm to big-up the one legitimate free agent signing they made in the offseason. Yet in doing so, they place IKF in a position where he is destined to fail.

If you’re expecting Isiah Kiner-Falefa to be Teoscar Hernández, you’re probably going to be disappointed. If you think, as the organization seems intent to suggest, that he is going to be some sort of star who leads this team to the playoffs, you may even grow to hate the guy. But if you see IKF for what he is, that is, a likeable veteran player and valuable piece of a clubhouse, a ballplayer in every sense of the word, then you will probably take great pleasure in watching him play the game.

Like Eric Hinske, it’s all about expectation informing reality – the same player, the same performance, different tangible manifestations of the world in which he exists. It is expectation which will determine if IKF is remembered as a poster boy for a failed organizational focus on pitching and defense, or if he becomes the type of player who receives a standing ovation when he returns years later.