Kyle Isbel was one of the Royals’ best stories this Spring in Surprise. After only playing in High-A ball in 2019, and spending the entire 2020 season at the Alternate Site in KCK, Isbel absolutely flourished in Cactus League play this past Spring. In 23 games and 50 plate appearances, Isbel posted a slash of .333/.420/.548 with an OPS of .968 to go along with two home runs. After a rough Spring from Nicky Lopez, the Royals made the call to move Whit Merrifield to second base (he was projected to start in right field), and make Isbel the Opening Day right fielder:
On Opening Day, Isbel had a banner debut, as he went 3-for-5 with two RBI in the Royals’ 14-10 marathon win over the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium (which I was able to attend in person).
After his stellar debut, it seemed like Isbel was going to be a “Rookie of the Year” candidate, as his combination of hitting, speed, and defense definitely fit the mold of what Royals fans were used to when it came to starting outfielders. And with Adalberto Mondesi’s oblique injury, it seemed like Isbel would get a prime opportunity to accumulate a lot of at-bats at the Major League level.
Unfortunately, things went a bit south for Isbel after his strong Opening Day performance. In 12 games and 36 plate appearances, Isbel posted a .279 wOBA and 75 wRC+. While those aren’t bad numbers necessarily at the surface, his advanced metrics showed that he still was in need of a lot of development.
His xwOBA (expected wOBA) was .212 and his hard hit rate was only 26.3 percent, both sub-average marks. Furthermore, Isbel really struggled to recognize pitches, as he posted a 41.7 percent K rate and only a 5.6 walk rate with the Royals. His strikeout rate was mostly fueled by his struggles against breaking balls, as he posted a .181 xBA and 38.5 percent whiff rate on that type of pitch, according to Baseball Savant.
In the chart below, one can see how he mostly struggled with breaking balls down in the zone, as he chased often, which led to easy punch outs for opposing pitchers:
Based on these whiff and pitch recognition issues at the big league level, the Royals demoted him to the Storm Chasers after only a month of play, hoping that he could work on hitting for more power and improving his plate discipline in a lower stakes environment in Omaha.
Since the Minor League season began in May, Isbel has been with the Storm Chasers the entire time, and has played a key role on a team that is currently 24-9 and is in first place in the Triple-A East Midwest division. So, let’s take a look at how Isbel has fared with the Storm Chasers this season, and what his timeline may look like when it comes to returning with the Royals this season.
The 24-year-old Isbel has been a bit of a mixed bag in Omaha in 2021, especially at the plate. Currently, Isbel is posting a slash of .244/.329/.346, with a .310 wOBA and 87 wRC+, going into Saturday’s game. While he is not striking out nearly as much as he did in Kansas City, swings and misses continue to be a problem for Isbel. His strikeout rate is 23.1 percent, which isn’t necessarily bad, but not at the level one would want for a guy who was starting in right field in Kansas City on Opening Day and is known primarily for his hit tool. His walk rate is only 8.4 percent, which actually would be a career high for him at the Minor League level. So, Isbel is demonstrating that he can lay off pitches enough to generate a decent amount of walks, which is a promising sign of development.
That being said, a 23.1 strikeout rate against Triple-A pitching hints that his strikeout issues with the Royals may still be lingering. While I do not think he would strike out again at a nearly 42 percent rate, he most likely would be a high 20’s, maybe even low 30’s rate guy if he were to, theoretically speaking, return to the Royals lineup immediately. How his strikeout rate fares in the coming month or two could be a strong indicator of where Isbel is as a hitter, and what his long-term outlook may be when he returns to Kansas City. If it dips under 20 percent, and his walk rate stays in the 6-8 percent range, then Isbell could make a more serious case for a call up.
While his strikeout issues are concerning, it’s the complete lack of power that has been more head scratching, especially considering the hitter-friendly environment of Triple-A. Isbel’s ISO is only .102, which would be a career low for him at the Minor League level. Even Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report remarked some concern regarding Isbel’s lack of power at the plate in a recent Tweet:
Of course, Isbel has never profiled, and probably never will profile, as a “power hitting outfielder”. According to Fangraphs, on the scouting 20-80 scale, his game power profiles as a 40 with 45 potential, and his raw power profiles as a 50 both now and in the future. Thus, Isbel most likely will be a 10-15 home run kind of hitter, not necessarily a 20-plus one at the Major League level.
However, with his speed and athleticism, Isbel has the potential to generate a lot of doubles and triples. Yet, in Triple-A, he is not only hitting a lot of balls on the ground, but he is also pulling the ball a lot as well. Currently, he is posting a 42.7 groundball rate on batted balls, and 52.1 percent of batted balls have been pulled as well. This is a stark contrast to his time in Kansas City, as he not only sported a lower groundball rate (38.9 percent), but also went up the middle and to right field more as well (36.8 percent pull rate). Isbel will need to find that middle-opposite field approach again in Omaha, as that was how he found success when he made contact at the Major League level.
On the basepaths, Isbel has continued to be proficient, as he has nine stolen base on nine attempts. Furthermore, his defense has also garnered strong reports, as he has not committed an error so far with the Storm Chasers. However, his hitting will have a big effect on his “pending” return to Kansas City, and thus, it will be interesting how Isbel fares at the plate against Triple-A pitching as he enters his second month of play with the Storm Chasers.
Duvall hits it on the nail with Isbel in regard to his current status in Omaha. He’s doing fine in a lot of ways, but the power is concerning, and it will be intriguing to see if Isbel will be able to find his power stroke a little more as we enter the middle summer months of the Minor League season. While Isbel was certainly popular in his short time in Kansas City, it doesn’t seem like he’s due for a call up in the near future, barring an injury or a dramatic tear from him at the plate in the next couple of weeks.
Right now, Edward Olivares most likely will be the first outfielder up from Omaha, which makes sense considering that he has hit .367 with a 187 wRC+ in 104 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers. Also, the Storm Chasers have been experimenting with Ryan O’Hearn in left field, which also could get in the way of a possible Isbel return to Kansas City in the near future as well. The Royals need power hitters right now, especially in the midst of Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier’s struggles, and O’Hearn offers much more power upside than Isbel, even if Isbel is better in nearly every other category.
Isbel returning to Kansas City in 2021 will depend not just on his performance, but how the Royals do as well. If the Royals continue to slide in June and early July, it is possible that the Royals may jettison some of their established talent to get some prospects in return. If that is the case, that could open a roster spot for Isbel, as the likely Royals to be traded would be outfielders (Soler, Michael A. Taylor, Jarrod Dyson, etc.). However, if the Royals turn it around and find themselves back in the thick of the playoff hunt, then it’s likely that the Royals won’t see Isbel, unless it’s a September call up. That being said, there are new rules with the September rosters, so that may not be a guarantee either, even though he’s on the 40-man.
The former UNLV product still has a bright future in Kansas City, and once Soler and Taylor become free agents after this year, I could see Isbel and Olivares being the starting center and right fielders, respectively, on Opening Day in 2022. Isbel is a talent who could have long-term value for this Royals organization, and he showed flashes of being that player during the first week of play in April.
But for now, Isbel still needs some more seasoning in Omaha. Thus, it’s likely that he’s not going to contribute much to the big league roster for the remainder of the 2021 season unless some MAJOR roster changes happen in the next couple of months.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports