Right now, one of the biggest question marks for the Royals in 2022 is who will start in right field on Opening Day?
The right field position was a revolving door for the Royals in 2021, and not necessarily in a positive way. Hunter Dozier led all Royals players in innings played in right field last season (454), with Jorge Soler coming in second (345), and Ryan O’Hearn (167) rounding out the top three. While Royals fans were aware of how those three failed to do much at the plate last season (they posted wRC+ numbers of 82, 79, and 70, respectively, with the Royals), they also were perhaps worse in the field, as they combined to be 18 runs below average, according to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS).
Thankfully for Royals fans, Soler is gone (earning a World Series MVP in Atlanta), and it seems likely that Dozier or O’Hearn won’t be an option in right field in Kansas City in 2022 and beyond (though they are currently still on the Royals’ 40-man roster and could see some time at first base or designated hitter). Thus, there could be an opportunity for someone to seize the starting right field spot by Opening Day next season, whether it’s from inside or outside the organization.
Right now, with the lockout still currently in place, the Royals won’t be able to do much in terms of finding a free agent outfielder for the time being. That being said, when the lockout ends (whenever that will be), the Royals could make an aggressive push for a veteran, as the free-agent market is still flush with big-name outfielders available such as Nick Castellanos, Michael Conforto, and Joc Pederson, just to name a few.
However, the Royals could have an internal option already on the 40-man in Kyle Isbel, who actually was the Royals’ starting right fielder on Opening Day last season.
And if Royals fans dig deeper into his metrics, they will see a correlation with Tigers outfielder and former Rule 5 pick, Akil Baddoo, who ended up having a breakout season both at the plate and in the field for Detroit.
But of course, will the Royals give Isbel that chance in the outfield in 2022 like the Tigers gave Baddoo in 2021?
The similarities between Baddoo and Isbel last season
Baddoo was the third overall selection in the 2020 Rule 5 Draft, and for good reason, as he was a Top-20 prospect in the Minnesota Twins system prior to the December draft. Drafted by Minnesota in the second round of the supplemental draft in 2016 out of high school, Baddoo possessed a lot of natural athleticism and tools, but swing and miss issues preventing him from being a Top-10 prospect in the Twins system.
In 2019 in High-A Fort Myers, Baddoo only hit .214, which included a strikeout rate of 29.8 percent in 29 games and 131 plate appearances, which only amplified those “swing and miss” concerns from Twins scouts. Granted, Baddoo still posted a 103 wRC+, and the season before in Cedar Rapids, he posted a 121 wRC+ in 113 games and 517 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. However, considering Baddoo’s struggles to hit for high average in the lower Minors, there were a lot of questions about how Baddoo would fare at the Major League level when it came to his hit tool after the 2019 season, and the lost Minor League season in 2020 only amplified those concerns.
Thus, it’s not a surprise that the Twins left him unprotected in the 2020 Rule 5 Draft. The Tigers, who finished in last place in the AL Central in 2019 and 2020, swooped him up quickly, also not a surprise considering their success with position players in the Rule 5 draft (Victor Reyes was another Rule 5 success story).
For the 2021 season, Baddoo finished with a 108 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR in 124 games and 461 plate appearances for the Tigers. As expected, Baddoo struggled with swing and miss and strikeout issues, as he had a whiff rate of 30.2 percent, and K rate of 26.5 percent, according to Baseball Savant. However, Baddoo did hit 13 home runs, posted an ISO of .177, and stole 18 bases on 22 attempts. Hence, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, especially since he’s only 23-years-old, that Baddoo could develop into a 20-20 threat in 2022 and beyond.
What is interesting though about Baddoo is if Royals fans compare his metrics to Isbel’s, it’s pretty remarkable how similar their 2021 seasons were. Let’s take a look at how their advanced metrics fared last season, via Fangraphs:
As Royals fans can see, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between Isbel and Baddoo, based on advanced metrics. Baddoo was better on a BB/K end, and did hit for more power than Isbel last year (Baddoo’s ISO was 19 points highter), but Isbel hit for higher average, and did outproduce Baddoo on a wRC+ end by 1 point.
Of course, Isbel did benefit from BABIP more than Baddoo last year (Isbel’s BABIP was 50 points higher than Baddoo). That being said, it was interesting to see that Isbel actually posted a higher flyball rate as well as exit velocity and launch angle than Baddoo last season, as evidenced by Statcast metrics, which shows that Isbel’s numbers could be sustainable, even if BABIP regresses:
Additionally, Isbel and Baddoo sport pretty similar, line-drive focused swings from the left side of the plate, which makes their comparison even more valid.
Here’s a clip of Isbel roping a double at Kauffman Stadium in the right-center gap against Frankie Montas of the Oakland Athletics:
Now, let’s take a look at Baddoo, roping a 93 MPH four-seamer from the Astros’ Luis Garcia for a double in the right-center gap at the spacious Comerica Park in Detroit:
it is easy for Royals fans to see the similarities between Isbel and Baddoo’s swings based on those two clips. This similarities, in addition to all the data correlations, should help give Royals fans hope that Isbel could produce a batting line in 2022 that could be akin to Baddoo’s from 2021, should Isbel of course get the opportunity to garner 400-plus plate appearances in Kansas City.
But of course, that will be easier said than done.
What could prevent Isbel from having a Baddoo-esque breakout?
Granted, Isbel is not a carbon copy of Baddoo by any means.
Baddoo is a 20 homer-20 stolen base threat for the Tigers, which is much better than Isbel’s outlook on that end, as his upside may be 10 homers-15 stolen bases. On the other hand, I am not sure if Baddoo will ever top that .260-.265 mark in terms of batting average, while I do beleive Isbel could be a .275-.290 hitter with regularity, especially if he can cut down on the strikeouts like he did in his call up.
Case in point: Isbel in the first half of the year had a 41.7 percent strikeout rate, and 0.13 BB/K in his first stint in the Majors in 2021. In the second half? Isbel decreased his strikeout rate to 17 percent, and increased his BB/K ratio to 0.63, both impressive improvements.
As for Baddoo? While he decreased his strikeout rate from 28 percent to 24.8 percent from the first half to second half, respectively, there was actually a decerease in his BB/K ratio from the first to second half. After posting a 0.40 BB/K ratio before the All Star break, his ratio dropped to 0.33 in the second half, which was fueled by a 3.2 percent decrease in walk rate (11.3 percent to 8.1 percent).
Yes, Baddoo had more games than Isbel’s sample last year. On the other hand, the positive gains in walk and strikeout rates should make Royals fans comfortable that Isbel can still find success over the full course of a MLB season, even if he may not have the power upside of the Detroit corner outfielder.
Furthermore, Isbel has proven to be a much stronger defender than Baddoo. Though both are probably corner outfielders rather than center field options (which was seen as a possibility for both when they were prospects), Isbel produced much stronger metrics on an OAA basis, according to Savant.
Here’s a look at Isbel’s detailed defensive visual, via the Savant Illustrator:
Now, let’s take a look at Baddoo’s Savant visual. Even though there are more “attempts” in the graphic, a lot more of those attempts steer toward the “blue” end, which according to the legend on the bottom left, is not necessarily a good thing, on an OAA basis.
With all this evidenced, it seems like it should be an easy decision for Mike Matheny and Dayton Moore to make Isbel the everyday right fielder. At the very least, he’ll provide the same kind of triple-slash as Baddoo, but with more batting average and defensive upside.
Unfortunately, the presence of Dozier and O’Hearn on the Royals roster will make it tough for Isbel to get a full-time shot, even if their respective stocks aren’t as high as a year ago.
Now, I am not necessarily averse to Dozier still being on the Royals roster. The Royals need power production in the lineup, and if Dozier can bounce back, and somehow capture at least 80-85 percent of what he did in 2019, then his extension will be tolerable at the very least (as I wrote about in a previous “Bounce Back Royals” piece). If fully healthy, Dozier gives the Royals a bat they need, especially in the middle of the batting order, an area they struggled in last season.
On the other hand, O’Hearn makes things more complicated. Sure, he may offer more power upside than Isbel, but he pales in nearly every other area. Furthermore, take a look at O’Hearn’s career metrics in comparison to Isbel, who just made his MLB debut on Opening Day in 2021:
O’Hearn has nearly 60 more games, and 171 more career plate appearances than Isbel. And yet, Isbel has hit more triples and has scored only seven less runs than O’Hearn.
Yes, O’Hearn and Isbel have different roles in the lineup. But, I think most Royals fans would take the upside of Isbel in 2022 over what they know of O’Hearn, which is not all that enticing at this moment, especially with O’Hearn already 28-years-old and set to be 29 in July.
If the Royals decide to stand pat in free agency and not sign an outfielder, then Isbel should be given first shot at the right field position, even over Dozier, who would be a better fit at first base or designated hitter in 2022. Isbel has that Baddoo-esque skill set that could fit the Royals lineup well, and help the bottom of the order be more productive as well, which as a result, should help the Royals improve in the AL Central standings.
Isbel proved at the end of the 2021 season he could make the necessary adjustments to succeed against MLB pitching, even if it may only be ultimately as a 2 to 3 fWAR player.
But the Tigers were patient and gave ample opportunity to their Rule 5 outfielder in 2021, and it paid off both in the short and long-term. Detroit has an outfielder on their roster who could give them that kind of fWAR production for a few more years at the very least, and at a pretty reasonable cost, as he doesn’t begin arbitration until 2024 (and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2027; this is of course if the arbitration system doesn’t change after the lockout).
The Royals could have a similar kind of player and situation with Isbel in 2022 and beyond.
All the Royals management needs to do now is give Isbel that chance in Kansas City, like the Tigers gave Baddoo in Detroit.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
4 thoughts on “Kyle Isbel could be the Royals’ Akil Baddoo (if given the chance)”
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