Isbel reaping benefits of mechanical adjustment in second half

August 26th, 2023

SEATTLE -- Even the one out made on Friday night is indicative of how he feels with his swing right now.

The Royals’ center fielder lined a fastball from Mariners starter Bryce Miller the opposite way in the fourth inning of Kansas City’s 7-5 series-opening loss to Seattle at T-Mobile Park. And even though third baseman Eugenio Suárez made a nice grab to end the frame, the pitch location and where it came off Isbel’s bat tells him his path is right.

Three innings later, Isbel pulled an inside four-seamer from reliever Matt Brash a Statcast-projected 396 feet over the right-field wall.

“When I’m hitting balls high to pull side and low to opposite side … I know my path is working right,” Isbel said. “It feels good right now.”

Isbel’s 2-for-3 day with a walk led the Royals’ offense as they attempted a comeback before falling just short again. Friday marked the Royals’ 11th game of their last 12 decided by two runs or fewer, including all four games against the Mariners in Kansas City last week.

Friday followed a similar script.

Royals starter grinded through four innings, allowing four runs on nine hits and seeing his pitch count balloon to 87. His outing was a microcosm of his 2023 season -- flashing the kind of pitcher he was last year at times while battling through command issues at others.

“It’s been off and on with the stuff all year,” Singer said. “Some really good ones, some days where it’s been a grind. I feel like I’ve had more of those this year where the stuff just wasn’t good, so just learning how to compete with what I have and do the best I can with what I have.”

Isbel’s first hit of the game was a go-ahead single in the third, a lead the Royals quickly lost in the fourth. But Isbel’s fifth home run of the year pulled the Royals within one in the seventh. He worked Brash for nine pitches, crushing the 97.7 mph fastball with an exit velocity of 104.5 mph.

“This team is trying to go up the ladder on him,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “He’s fouling them off. Getting on top of them and being able to react, that tells me he’s seeing the ball really well.”

One of the questions the Royals wanted to answer this season was centered around Isbel in center field -- is he an everyday guy? Isbel struggled in the first half while missing 46 games with a hamstring injury; he posted a .613 OPS in 37 games before the All-Star break.

But in the second half, after making a mechanical change in Cleveland right before the break, the 26-year-old is slashing .286/.299/.438.

“My path was getting in and out of the zone too quickly,” Isbel said. “And I was having to be perfect. I wasn’t able to execute on things I needed to.”

Isbel is focusing on doing damage on better pitches, trying not to be ultra-aggressive early in his at-bats. That showed in his final plate appearance Friday, when he worked an eight-pitch walk against Mariners closer Andrés Muñoz. Isbel fouled off three 100 mph fastballs at the top of the zone, forcing Muñoz to pitch lower. Isbel took a 2-2, 100 mph sinker low and slightly outside for a ball, then a fastball high and outside.

If the Royals are evaluating whether Isbel can play center field every day, he’s proving that he can defensively. His 10 defensive runs saved are tied for second among center fielders, while his six outs above average rank in the top 15 of the position. He's tied for seventh among outfielders with a jump that is 2.2 feet better than MLB average, per Statcast.

Isbel made a pair of stellar grabs in the second inning Friday, including tracking down Josh Rojas’ fly ball at the warning track in left-center field for just a 5 percent catch probability.

“To me, that shows how good the jump was because, as he got over there, he didn’t have to angle back,” Quatraro said. “He didn’t have the greatest route, but the jump was incredible.”

And if Isbel’s bat in the second half is more indicative of the kind of hitter he is, it’s certainly serviceable, especially at the bottom of the lineup with strong hitters around him.

“Really, just trying to simplify everything, especially with guys in scoring position,” Isbel said. “Just trying to get a good pitch, not try to do too much and keep the line moving.”