Isbel 'checks every box' for center-field spot

Royals giving elite defender chance to stick in lineup after offseason work at plate

February 23rd, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When the Royals traded Michael A. Taylor to the Twins this offseason, it sent a clear message about the club’s commitment to playing time for its young outfielders.

Kyle Isbel hopes to take advantage of that opportunity. With Drew Waters sidelined this spring because of a left oblique strain, center field is Isbel’s job to lose.

“The trade was weird, because when I first came up, Michael helped me through a lot,” Isbel said. “I wish him nothing but the best. But obviously, it is an opportunity for me to take advantage of. Them giving me that opportunity is a blessing. That’s all I can really ask for.

“As far as my swing, mental health, my body, I think it’s the best I’ve felt my entire career.”

Isbel knows he has much to prove in 2023. A former top prospect, his two seasons in the big leagues have been erratic and unproductive. Isbel made the Opening Day roster in ‘21 for his debut, but he was demoted just three weeks later. After a ton of work in Triple-A that season, Isbel got back to Kansas City in September and performed well.

Last year, Isbel spent most of the year with the Royals, but he played just 106 games. He slashed .211/.264/.340 with a 27% strikeout rate and a 5.8% walk rate.

“It was tough,” Isbel said. “I was battling, fighting. But at the end of the day, if I would have just played better, I would have been playing more. It’s as simple as that. When I got those opportunities, I was trying to do more than I should have been. I put a lot of extra pressure on myself. But at the end of the day, everything’s on me whether I perform.”

Isbel joined several Royals players who went to Driveline, the data-driven training center, this offseason. Isbel sought answers on his bat path. He found himself hitting a lot of ground balls last year rather than his typical line-drive approach. His 44.6% hard-hit rate was above league average, but it wasn’t showing in the results.

“I wanted to get an in-depth, camera footage, data of what’s going on,” Isbel said. “Like, what’s the problem? I’m hitting balls hard, but they’re low. I just need to be able to optimize the barrel and get better results. Not even that results are everything, but at some point, they need to come. And I need to put myself in a better position to get them.”

Royals coaches supported Isbel’s training at Driveline because of technology provided by the tech-based company.

“Kyle was a pro when he approached us about it,” Royals hitting coach Alec Zumwalt said. “We love to stay curious. There were things that validated what we saw, and truthfully, they have technology that we just don’t have. So it makes a lot of sense with the motion capture and other things they can do.”

This spring, Isbel’s left-handed swing looks smoother. That’s because of his load in the setup, letting his hands stay back, which helps his rotation and leads to driving balls. In 2022, he shortened his hands and tended to come down and across the ball.

“One of our verbal cues that we came up with at the alternate training site [in 2020] talks about him scooping the ball and being able to get his barrel in a good position,” Zumwalt said. “He was struggling to get to that spot last year just because of where he was in his load. He’s been able to work with strength and conditioning, and implement some things to help him get back to where he needs.”

The Royals acknowledge Isbel’s previous two years could have been handled differently, but they’re committed to him in 2023. He’s shown that he’s an elite defender. Isbel played 30 games in center field last year and registered as three outs above average there, as well as six OAA in right (49 games) and three in left (29 games).

By the metrics, Isbel gets great jumps; he ranked first among all MLB outfielders with a jump that is 4.8 feet better than Major League average (jump is feet covered in correct direction in first three seconds of the play).

Now, he’ll need to show his offense can hold up in the outfield, too.

“He has that naturalness to hit,” Zumwalt said. “He’s going to be a good hitter in the Major Leagues. He understands the strike zone. He just needs those consistent at-bats, get as many as he can so we can see what he’s capable of. He doesn’t sell out for power. He just hits the ball hard, hits line drives and runs the bases well. He checks every box that you want for that position."