Does Kyle Isbel Need a Restart with the Royals?

The Royals lost 9-7 to the Oakland Athletics on Saturday, which drops the Royals’ record to 26-44 for the season.

Offensively, Kansas City did what they needed to do, as they scored seven runs on 10 hits, which included home runs from Bobby Witt, Jr. and Michael A. Taylor. Taylor’s three-run home run brought the Royals within one in the bottom of the eighth.

Unfortunately, bad defense and baserunning ended up costing the Royals against one of baseball’s worst teams (the A’s are 24-49 after today’s loss).

A costly baserunning blunder came in the eighth inning with the Royals having runners on first and second and no one out. Pinch-runner Kyle Isbel was thrown out trying to take third base on a ball that got by A’s catcher Sean Murphy. Murphy, who won a Gold Glove in 2021, ended up gunning Isbel down easily at third for the inning’s first out.

The poor decision by Isbel pretty much killed all momentum for the Royals in the inning.

A’s reliever Lou Trivino ended up striking out both Andrew Benintendi and Edward Olivares to end the inning, and the A’s tacked on an extra run in the ninth (thanks to a Dylan Coleman wild pitch that should’ve been classified as an MJ Melendez passed ball), which pretty much sealed the game for the Boys in Blue.

Though it was just one play in a meaningless June game between two last-place teams, Isbel’s blunder seemed to resonate with Royals fans, including David Lesky of Inside the Royals.

One doesn’t want to make a conclusion after one bad game (Isbel also misplayed a Christian Bethancourt flyball), but it seems like the Royals are coming to a crossroads with Isbel, who is in a particular spot on the Royals roster. With the return of Edward Olivares (who had a brutal game today as well, both at the plate and in the field), as well as the presence of Benintendi and Taylor, it seems like innings are limited for Isbel, who also hasn’t torn things up at the plate lately.

Do Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo send Isbel down to Triple-A Omaha for the time being, even though he really doesn’t have a whole lot to prove with the Storm Chasers? Or do the Royals continue to use him in a limited role in Kansas City, with his innings probably getting scarcer until a trade happens with either Benintendi or Taylor?

When looking deeper into Isbel’s profile, Royals fans will see that perhaps a “restart” for Isbel should be in store.

And that restart can begin perhaps with him getting his confidence back with more everyday at-bats in Omaha.

Safe to say, Isbel is a popular player among Royals fans on Twitter, even though his resume isn’t as extensive at the Major League level.

For most of the year, many Royals fans, especially those crying out for the “play the kids” movement have been advocating for Isbel to take away at-bats from Taylor, who has been the Royals’ primary center fielder in 2021 and 2022 when healthy. The argument seemed to have steam back in May, after a month when Isbel hit .283 over 55 plate appearances in May, a huge step up from the .222 average he posted in 10 plate appearances in April.

Unfortunately, Isbel’s May was a bit of a mirage of sorts, especially when diving into the data. Isbel struck out 15 times and only walked once in May. Despite hitting for a high average, he also failed to offer much else. His OBP was under .300, his slugging was only .358, and his OPS overall in May was .649.

In the month of June, opposing pitchers have exploited his high-swing approach, as he is only hitting .125 with a .364 OPS in 34 plate appearances this month. As a result, his overall numbers have dropped, with his average sitting at .223 and OPS at .540 over 99 plate appearances.

According to Fangraphs, Isbel’s wRC+ is 50, and his total fWAR is 0.0, mostly fueled by his defense, which has been 3.5 runs above average, according to Fangraphs’ Def rating. To compare, Taylor is hitting .276 with a .761 OPS in 186 plate appearances, and also has five home runs to Isbel’s zero. For a team starved for offense, especially at the bottom of the lineup, it’s hard to justify Isbel earning more playing time over Taylor when Isbel’s OPS is 121 points lower than the 31-year-old Gold Glover.

Now to be fair, Isbel has been solid defensively this year, and actually, arguably better than Taylor, which has been a surprise. On an Outs Above Average basis, Isbel leads all Royals outfielders with a five OAA mark. To compare, Taylor has been worth zero OAA, which signifies he’s been league average at best.

The full data table of Royals outfielders and their OAA numbers can be seen below, and one can see that Taylor lags behind both Whit Merrifield as well as Benintendi, in addition to Isbel.

On a positive note, I think Isbel’s solid performance defensively in the outfield this year has demonstrated that he can handle center field on a defensive end at the Major League level.

Unfortunately, Isbel’s bat hasn’t been nearly as good as a season ago, and that’s held him back from earning more playing time at the Major League level.

If Isbel was hitting as well as MJ Melendez or even Olivares, he would be earning at-bats, regardless of Taylor and Benintendi’s presence. However, it’s hard to justify everyday playing time for an outfielder posting a .540 OPS, no matter how good defensively, with less than 200 plate appearances at the Major League level. If the Royals wouldn’t do it for Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips, then they most likely won’t break precedent for Isbel.

Now, in some cases, one could argue that Isbel is getting “unlucky”. His BABIP is .292, and his BABIP has been .160 this month after being .385 during the month of May, according to Fangraphs data. Thus, with the huge decline in BABIP, nearly all of his other metrics suffered in the month of June, which can be seen below:

Isbel is also generating an average exit velocity of 91.2 and a hard-hit rate of 50 percent this season, according to Statcast metrics. To compare, he only averaged an exit velocity of 87.3 MPH last year, as well as a hard-hit rate of 30.2 percent, which shows that Isbel is making more “harder” contact.

That being said, harder contact doesn’t always equal more “productive” contact. His barrel rate is only 0.4 percent better from a year ago despite the huge jump in exit velocity and hard-hit data.

A big issue is that while Isbel is hitting the ball harder, he’s hitting the ball more on the ground than ever before.

His average launch angle is only 3.6 degrees, which is down from the 19-degree average LA he posted during his rookie season in 2021. He is hitting way too many groundballs, as it is currently 50 percent (it was 35.8 percent last year). While the line drives are nice (25 percent), it will still be hard for him to be productive when he’s hitting so many balls to infielders on a regular basis.

Here’s an example of Isbel hitting the ball at 102.7 MPH off of Giants ace Logan Webb in a June 14th game in San Francisco. However, with the shift, Isbel’s hard-hit ball becomes an easy double play for the Giants’ defense.

In addition, Isbel’s breakdown data over the past month shows a significant decline in his expected wOBA. His rolling expected wOBA graph from this season shows that Isbel’s regression in June is not just luck-induced, but a sign of some serious issues with his plate approach and how he’s making contact.

If his BABIP struggles just were affected by luck, then the xwOBA would remain stable, but that isn’t quite the case, as one can see below.

Isbel needs an opportunity to correct his swing and get in a groove.

And that unfortunately will not come in Kansas City, especially with the Royals needing to play Benintendi and Taylor regularly in order to boost their trade value before the Trade Deadline.

It can really be easy to solely blame Moore, manager Mike Matheny and the Royals staff overall when it comes to Isbel’s development at the Major League level, which seems to be the modus operandi of most Royals fans online right now.

After all, Isbel posted a 109 wRC+ in 83 plate appearances a season ago, and he also posted a 116 wRC+ in 451 plate appearances in Omaha a season ago as well. Isbel’s power tool may still be a question, as he only posted a .175 ISO in Omaha and .158 ISO in Kansas City in 2021. Nonetheless, he has the potential to be a productive MLB outfielder, especially with his defensive improvement this season.

However, something is not right with Isbel at the plate in 2022, especially at the Major League level.

He’s becoming a groundball machine, such as Nicky Lopez this season or Kelvin Gutierrez a season ago. He also doesn’t have elite stolen base ability to make up for the lack of power either. He only has two stolen bases this year, and as Royals fans saw today, he’s prone to blunders on the basepaths.

And hence, Isbel needs a “reset” in Omaha. He needs to get everyday playing time and get a chance to boost his confidence at the plate and on the basepaths. Isbel has the potential to be a 10-home run, 20-stolen base outfielder with really good defense in center field if he can get the opportunity every day. But he’s not showing that now, and he won’t be able to show it with his current situation, where opportunities are few and far between in the Kansas City outfield as of this moment.

Moore and Picollo need to do the wise thing with Isbel and get him back to Omaha to rebuild his swing so it can be a line-drive producing one like it was a season ago. After roughly a month, Taylor and Benintendi will likely be gone, and maybe Merrifield too, if the rumors online are any indication:

A trade of Taylor, Benintendi, or even Whit will open up an opportunity for Isbel to take over as the everyday centerfielder in Kansas City. When this transition happens, the Royals will need Isbel to be as prepared as possible.

A good, solid stretch in Omaha, especially at the plate, will go a long way in helping make that “confident and prepared” Isbel a reality at the Major League level come August.

Because Isbel is not looking prepared or confident at the plate or in the field right now. Rather, he is looking like a fourth or platoon outfielder at best both in the short and long-term.

And Royals fans know he is better than that…

But some work will need to happen in Omaha first, as tough and frustrating as that is to stomach.

Photo Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s