Nothing has changed behind the plate for the Texas Rangers, who will continue to deploy catchers Jeff Mathis and Isiah Kiner-Falefa equally even though their recent usage hasn’t been equal.
Kiner-Falefa was the starting catcher for the fourth time in the Rangers’ past five games, as they opened a three-game weekend series against the Oakland Athletics with an 8-6 loss. That certainly feels like something has changed since Opening Day.
But the recent surge, true to the equal playing time decree, gave Kiner-Falefa only one more start than Mathis early this season.
There is no denying, though, that Kiner-Falefa has made significant strides at his new position since last season. For a player who still has fewer than 50 games caught in the big leagues and barely more than 100 in his professional career, he’s trending the right way.
“It’s still really early in the season, but I just want to continue my progress,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I don’t want to slow down. I want to keep betting better every day. More and more, day by day, I’m just feeling more like me.”
The improvements have come across the board. Though manager Chris Woodward wasn’t in the organization last season, he has heard from bench coach/catching instructor Don Wakamatsu that Kiner-Falefa is throwing better, blocking balls better and has a better idea of how to call a game, and he’s finally starting to framing pitches better.
The biggest area where he has seen games is working with the pitching staff after spending last season trying to juggle a variety of things.
“I was so stuck on myself that it was kind of hard to worry about the pitchers,” Kiner-Falefa said. “Now I’m getting more comfortable, and that’s allowing me to engage with everybody else and be more into the game instead of worrying about myself.”
He’s not as good as Mathis is defensively, but few are. Mathis led MLB catchers last season in defensive runs saved, and it wasn’t even close. A veteran playing his 15th season, Mathis knows the ropes and has worked with hundreds of pitchers.
To his credit, Kiner-Falefa is leaning on Mathis whenever something new comes up or whenever he encounters an issue.
“He’s making everything a lot smoother,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I’m able to go over bumps a little quicker. He gives me his adjustment, and I kind of make into my own.”
There were two reasons Kiner-Falefa was in the lineup Friday: To continue working with all pitchers and to give the lineup a boost. Woodward said that he thought Kiner-Falefa matched up with A’s right-hander Mike Fiers better than Mathis, who has only a .198 career average.
But he wasn’t signed to a two-year, $6.25 million deal to hit home runs. The hope is he teaches the young Rangers pitchers how to navigate games and that the young Rangers catchers -- Kiner-Falefa and Jose Trevino -- learn from him.
That’s already happening, as Kiner-Falefa continues to improve.
“He’s really, really working hard to gain the trust of the pitchers, which is huge,” Woodward said. “Mathis is a great guy to have a locker mate next to because he’s a student and he wants to help Kiner in every way. It’s a huge improvement, and it’s a testament to how hard he’s been working. He wants to be great.”