The Royals are hitting the the home stretch of the 2021 season, as they begin their second-to-last home stand of the year at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday (I will be going to Tuesday’s game against the Athletics). The Royals were able eek out the final game of the weekend series against the Twins, which not only improved their record to 65-78, but kept them firmly in fourth place in the AL Central, which is far better than the basement.
Granted, it is more than likely that the Royals will finish the 2021 season closer to the bottom than the top, especially with the Indians and Tigers sporting 69 and 68 wins already, respectively. However, a strong finish in September (and the first weekend of October), and a final record in the 74-78 win range, could help build some much-needed momentum for Spring Training and ultimately, the 2022 baseball season.
Of course, the Royals could approach this goal in a myriad of ways.
Yes, manager Mike Matheny wants to put out the best lineup everyday. Matheny has embodied this approach of “winning every game”, regardless of long-term impact, ever since he took over as manager during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. That being said, while short-term victories are nice for the team and Royals fans alike, it will also be important for the Royals to start to look to lineup combinations and utilize pitchers, both in the rotation and bullpen, who could have value next season and beyond.
And honestly, a path for Matheny to utilize a plan that emphasizes “short-term success” with “long-term benefits” could begin in right field with Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares possibly platooning the position for the remainder of 2021.
Because if it works, this combination could perhaps be an underrated pair for the Royals offensively and maybe defensively in 2022 and beyond.
Right now, Isbel is mostly up because center fielder Michael A. Taylor is out on leave due to a family emergency (hope everything is okay, by the way). Usually with situations like these, it will only be a brief matter of time before Taylor returns, and in the process, resumes his role as the Royals’ everyday center fielder. That puts the Royals in a roster dilemma with Isbel, as well as Olivares, whom they have yo-yo’d between Kansas City and Omaha for a few months now.
Honestly, it wouldn’t be surprising if either Isbel or Olivares is demoted sometime before first pitch on Tuesday (after all, that has been the trend, especially with Olivares).
However, as I wrote yesterday in a post, the Royals would be better off keeping Isbel, and demoting Ryan O’Hearn, who has proven that he is what he is, which is a streaky, but ultimately inconsistent power hitter at the Major League level. Furthermore, O’Hearn is 28-years-old, and at his age, it is unlikely that he will be more than what he is, which is a sub-.300 wOBA hitter. When Taylor returns, it would be in the Royals advantage to send O’Hearn to Omaha, and keep Isbel up in Kansas City, with the idea of giving the latter more regular playing time.
Now, I am not sure if Isbel can play center field everyday, much like I think Olivares cannot handle the role, as we saw during his costly lack of communication that contributed to a Hunter Dozier error in right field, which ended up giving the game to the Orioles in a disastrous game three of that series:
Isbel, in a limited sample at the Major League level, has been a slightly better defensive player than Olivares, who too has had a limited stint in the Majors this year. Isbel for the year is one out above average, according to Baseball Savant, and has a success rate added of three percent in the outfield this year, which is much better than Olivares, who is one out BELOW average, and is posting a success rate added of minus-three percent in the outfield, according to Savant. Both players are a far cry from Taylor, who is considered 14 outs above average this year, according to Savant’s fielding metrics.
However, if the Royals do demote O’Hearn, that leaves a spot open in right field, and the only other competition for regular playing time in the spot would be Hunter Dozier, who has proven to be rough defensively, wherever he has played this season.
Overall this year, across four different positions, Dozier has been 11 outs below average defensively, according to Savant. Dozier’s worst position has been third base, as he has been eight outs below average at the hot corner. But his second-worst position? Right field, where he has been four outs below average this year.
Isbel and Olivares won’t win any Gold Gloves in right field. But they will at least be serviceable defensively, and honestly, they wouldn’t be much worse than Dozier on a hitting end either. Let’s take a look at how their metrics compare, based on some key Fangraphs data:
Granted, the sample sizes among Isbel, Olivares, and Dozier is pretty wide, which makes this not a completely fair comparison. After all, Dozier has nearly 330 more plate appearances with the Royals this year than Isbel and Olivares, combined. That being said, when looking at some key rate metrics, it’s obvious that Olivares and Isbel have some advantages over the 30-year-old Dozier.
When it comes to batting average, Isbel seems to be the best option, and his walk rate is not too far off from Dozier’s this year (only 0.6 percent lower). But much like Dozier, Isbel has posted a high strikeout rate, and his power metrics aren’t that impressive, as his ISO is nearly 120 points lower than Olivares, and 99 points lower than Dozier. That could deter Matheny from giving Isbel everyday at-bats in right field.
As for Olivares, he’s been the best out of the three when it comes to minimizing strikeouts, as well as generating power, as his ISO is 21 points higher than Dozier’s, and Olivares nearly has half as many home runs as Dozier in 370 fewer plate appearances. That being said, Olivares’ batting average isn’t much better than Dozier’s (mostly due to a very low .214 BABIP) and his wRC+ is the same as Isbel’s, even though Olivares’ xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) is 48 points higher than Isbel.
Isbel and Olivares both offer different pluses and minuses as outfielders. Isbel seems to have stronger bat control, in addition to a better ability to line balls in the gaps, even if it goes for measly singles. In fact, his approach may remind some Royals fans of Nicky Lopez, as evidenced by this single below against the White Sox’s Dylan Cease at Guaranteed Rate Field:
On the other hand, Olivares has been able to hit the ball with more authority this year, which shows in Olivares’ better barrel rate (5.3 percent to Isbel’s 4.8 percent). Olivares’ is a little more pull-happy (51.3 percent pull rate) than Isbel (38.1 percent) and even Dozier (44 percent). However, Olivares has made it work for him, thanks to his ability to launch and drive the ball on occasion.
Below is an example of Olivares pulling a ball he should go to the opposite field with against the Mariners’ Yohan Ramirez. Thankfully for Olivares and the Royals, Olivares’ swing produces a home run which helped the Royals win the contest in Seattle:
Both Isbel and Olivares are certainly flawed outfielders. But at the very least, they are young (Isbel is 24 and Olivares is 25) and they could give the Royals more production in the lineup with more exposure to Major League pitching down the stretch.
Of course, platooning the two could be a tricky situation, as neither player really has hit well against pitchers where they would have a “platoon” advantage. Here is a look at Isbel’s splits against left-handed and right-handed pitching this year, according to Fangraphs:
And now let’s take a look at Olivares’ splits this year, according to the same categories on Fangraphs:
As Royals fans can see, neither has been particularly good in situations where they would have an advantage “situationally” against the pitcher (i.e. lefty vs. righty for Isbel or righty vs. lefty for Oilvares). Isbel has been much better in his plate discipline and ability to make contact against lefties this year, while Olivares has hit for more power and struck out less against right-handers, in comparison to left-handers.
Then again, they haven’t accumulated huge sample sizes this year, so maybe with more at-bats in platoon situations things may change metrically by season’s end. After all, Hanser Alberto was struggling early in the year against lefties, only to see those numbers eventually correct themselves later in the year (he is posting a 90 wRC+ against lefties in comparison to a 65 wRC+ against righties, according to Fangraphs).
Regardless, Matheny and Dayton Moore need to see if both outfielders can play their way into starting or regular positions in 2022, and now is the time to do it, especially with less than a month remaining this season. The Royals aren’t playing for a playoff position. They know what to expect from O’Hearn and Dozier (and honestly, Dozier should be splitting time at first and DH with Carlos Santana, who has also been immensely struggling the past couple of months). They need to build some positive momentum with some young players who have years of team control left.
The Royals have been very sparse in their usage of Isbel and Olivares this year, and it made sense, especially when they had veteran options like Jorge Soler and Jarrod Dyson available (well…sort of made sense for a team thinking they could “compete” this year).
But the focus over these final few weeks of 2021 should be on building for next year…
And who knows…
Maybe Isbel and Olivares could be to the outfield in 2022 what Lopez was to the infield in 2021.
Just like Nicky, all they need is that chance.
Let’s see if they can get that chance over the next three weeks, especially this week at Kauffman Stadium against the Athletics and Mariners.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports