Don’t Forget About Kyle Isbel

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals have a wave of strong position player prospects that look like they’re ready to make their debuts as early as 2022, led by the No. 2 player on our Top 100 list, Bobby Witt Jr., as well as MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Vinnie Pasquantino. All four of those players carry a 50 FV or higher and could form a formidable young core in Kansas City for years to come.

Amidst all the hype over those four prospects, it would be understandable if you forgot about Kyle Isbel, who turned a fantastic spring training last year into a starting role in the Royals’ Opening Day lineup. While he didn’t have the prospect ceiling of Witt or the rest of that quartet, he did rank fifth on the 2021 edition of Kansas City’s prospect list with a 45 FV. But after starting off his major league career with five hits in his first two games, Isbel collected just four more across ten more appearances and was optioned down to Triple-A on April 22.

A rookie with a strong spring and a flash-in-the-pan debut who struggles to follow up on his early success isn’t an uncommon storyline, and it’s not surprising given Isbel’s lack of experience. A 2018 draftee out of UNLV, he had only played in just 123 minor league games and only reached High-A before making his debut. The canceled 2020 minor league season had a huge impact on that lack of experience, though he did play at the Royals’ alternate site.

Isbel’s first taste of Triple-A didn’t exactly go well either, as he struggled to a .220/.316/.360 line and a 84 wRC+ through his first 50 games there. But he managed to acclimate and adjust: Over his next 55 games in Triple-A, he slashed .320/.399/.531 (148 wRC+), bopping nine home runs and walking in more than 10% of his plate appearances. His rediscovered production at the plate earned him a second stint in the majors; he was recalled on September 12 and he posted a 138 wRC+ across 16 games down the stretch.

So what sparked that mid-season turnaround? Some subtle swing changes implemented while he was in Triple-A played a big role. Here’s an Isbel swing from early April:

His stance is slightly open, and he uses a small leg kick as a timing mechanism. Now here’s a swing from September, after he had made adjustments:

His stance is much more open, and his back foot is pointed inward a bit, which helped him clean up the movements of his lower half through his swing.

Still, while Isbel’s September numbers speak for themselves, some of his underlying peripherals weren’t so great. (We are talking about just over 50 batted ball events total and just 34 in September, so you should take these metrics with a fairly large grain of salt.)

Kyle Isbel, Batted Ball Peripherals
Month Batted Balls Hard Hit% Barrel% Avg FB+LD EV xwOBAcon
April 19 26.3% 5.3% 92.6 mph .347
September 34 32.4% 2.9% 86.7 mph .276

His hard-hit rate improved with the swing changes, but his average exit velocity on elevated contact and his expected wOBA on contact both dropped significantly. His popup rate also skyrocketed in September: six of his 34 balls in play were infield fly balls. It seems like much of his success in the final month of the season was BABIP driven. But it’s hard to surmise anything at all about his contact quality from his minuscule September sample, and he did show off some power in his previous minor league stops, including a .175 ISO in Triple-A.

The other big change that occurred after his return to the majors was a much more disciplined approach at the plate.

Kyle Isbel, Plate Discipline
Month K% BB% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
April 41.7% 5.6% 40.0% 55.4% 69.9% 13.0%
September 17.0% 10.6% 34.7% 63.0% 82.1% 9.0%

In his initial exposure to major league pitching, Isbel was both too passive and unable to make consistent contact when he did swing; his strikeout rate far exceeded the 20.3% mark he had posted during his minor league career. But his strikeout rate in Triple-A was right in line with his previous career norms, and when he was recalled, it was far more manageable. Likewise, his walk rate bounced back past his minor league career rate of 8.1%. Isbel’s new approach wasn’t perfect — he still chased out of the zone a little too often — but the increased aggression on pitches in the zone did wonders for his contact rate.

That was a conscious choice on his part, too. In a mid-September interview with Alec Lewis of The Athletic, Isbel discussed the lessons he learned from his April cup of coffee that led to the changes in approach in September:

“I don’t like getting out, so when I got out a few times, I was being more selective to where I could get a better pitch to hit. But when you’re facing guys like Shane Bieber and Lance Lynn, you don’t really get many good pitches to hit anyway. It’s better when I’m aggressive, and I hit their first or second pitch rather than trying to fight them off with two strikes. Because you can’t do much up here with two strikes.”

Isbel’s swing rate on the first or second pitch of the at-bat didn’t really budge between his two stints in the majors, but he was much more aggressive once he fell behind the in count, with his swing rate in those spots going from 51.7% in April to 66.7% in September. With a better approach and the rediscovered ability to put the bat on the ball consistently, he looked much more comfortable and confident in the majors during the last month of the season.

The lingering question for Isbel is his long-term position on the Royals. He played an adequate center field in spring training last year, and that’s where he got the bulk of his time in Triple-A, but Michael A. Taylor’s elite defense in center relegated him to the outfield corners for most of his time in the majors. Right now, he’s penciled in as the strong side of a right field platoon on our Roster Resource Depth Charts. Still, the ability to play all three outfield positions while putting up a league average offensive line is a solid starting point for his career. That’s essentially what his ZiPS projection sees as the most likely outcome for him in 2022.

Kyle Isbel, ZiPS Projection
2022 0.247 0.308 0.398 445 64 110 23 4 12 47 34 17 91 2 1.6

If he’s able to unlock the power he showed in Omaha, there could be some additional upside in his bat. The resilience and persistence he showed in making his mid-season adjustments bode well for his future. Building his confidence towards the end of the season and understanding the amount of work needed to succeed in the majors puts him in a good position to build off that success in 2022.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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2 years ago

Do you see Olivares as Isbel’s platoon partner?