After working with Olympian, Isbel ready for healthy 2024

February 24th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- As Royals outfielder struggled again to stay healthy and on the field during the 2023 season, he went to head athletic trainer Kyle Turner with a question: Why does he keep getting hurt?

“I told him, ‘I’m eating well, I’m hydrated and I’m doing everything I can to take care of my body.'" Isbel recalled. "'So what is going on?'

“I was just getting mad. I want to be on the field. That’s the main thing. I feel like you let your teammates down and it makes you look like you’re not taking care of your body.”

Turner had some ideas, starting with Isbel’s running form. The 26-year-old has good speed, but he emphasizes his hamstrings when he sprints, which leads to injury. Turner put Isbel in contact with former Olympic gold medalist, world record holder and Kansas City native Maurice Greene, who lives in Arizona, for offseason training.

And Isbel was all in.

“Staying healthy is the only thing on my mind,” Isbel said before making his spring debut Saturday, when he went 1-for-2 with a walk and opposite-field single in the Royals’ 5-4 win over the Rangers at Surprise Stadium.

Greene broke down how Isbel is a “backside runner,” and with greater backside mechanics come greater hamstring injury risk due to knee flexion in an extended position. Isbel, historically, has had soft-tissue injuries, missing over a month with a hamstring strain last season and being limited at the end of the year.

“My hamstrings have always been really sore,” Isbel said. “But they’re not anymore. He said the only time you should use your hamstrings is when you’re stopping. I thought that was interesting.

“He’s put my body in a good spot.”

Isbel did speed work three times a week, one of those workouts being directly with Greene on Kansas City's conditioning field. He spent other days in the weight room, focusing less on lifting heavy and more on functional strength, mobility and agility.

“Obviously, at Kauffman, you’re running a lot out there,” Isbel said. “Being conditioned is one of the things that I overlooked. But it catches up over 162 games. So being able to stay in shape and keeping your body where it needs to be, I think, is the key for this year.”

Isbel, likely the Royals’ Opening Day center fielder, has shown he’s their best defensive option to roam the Kauffman Stadium outfield grass. His 11 Outs Above Average ranked in the 96th percentile, and he was tied for fifth among outfielders last year. He also ranked third in outfield jump (2.8 feet better compared to average).

“Izzy, with his defense in center field, is really valued,” general manager J.J. Picollo said.

Offensively, Isbel won’t be hitting home runs in the middle of the Royals’ lineup, but having a more productive No. 9 hitter would give the lineup some length and help turn it over for the big boppers up top.

This offseason, Isbel spent more time on his bat path staying through the middle of the field; being able to hit different pitch shapes; and the timing and rhythm of his swing. In 2023, Isbel hit .279 and slugged .474 on fastballs last year, but against breaking balls, he hit .235 with a .338 slugging percentage. Isbel's production against offspeed pitches was even worse, with a .157 average and .214 slugging percentage.

His focus now is on simply making sure his swing is on time so he can be ready for any pitch.

“Guys have slide steps, short arms, they’re slow, quick,” Isbel said. “They have different angles. They hide the ball. It’s not so much the actual pitches as it is being able to swing as soon as he releases the ball. When you’re on time out of the hand, you’re on the fastball, and then you can adjust.”

Isbel feels and looks more confident in the box this spring. How that translates to the regular season and whether he can improve -- and stay on the field -- remains to be seen. But instead of constantly searching for a way to answer those questions, he has a better plan for how to find them.

“In the past, when I felt something off, I was kind of searching and didn’t really know where to go,” Isbel said. “That’s when the inconsistency drags on. You don’t know what to target, you don’t know what’s off. … Learned a ton about the swing, dove deep into biomechanics and how your body works. Ties into my running and everything. I just want to learn about my body and how it functions.”