Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman's offseason series analyzing the 2023 performances of various KC Royals players. This entry attempts to evaluate the unpopular centerfielder Kyle Isbel.
I am not a Kyle Isbel defender, but I will likely come off that way. The Kansas City fanbase was not too keen on seeing more of Isbel down the stretch. His presence as Kansas City's top centerfielder is not a bad thing for Isbel, but it exposes the talent deficit the team is operating at.
The 26-year-old spent much of this season still developing and dealing with injuries of his own. Let's look at the numbers, remove the narratives, and see how well Isbel performed in 2023.
Kyle Isbel gave the KC Royals another career year.
Isbel and fellow centerfielder Drew Waters entered spring training in a presumed competition for the top spot, roaming Kauffman. That competition really never got started or was at least delayed due to both players suffering prolonged injuries. Isbel served as the Royals' option in center for the first month of the season, but his performance mirrored the team's as a whole. He struggled at the plate with a .535 OPS and 18 strikeouts through his first 23 games.
Then, after four hits in two games to start off May, Isbel landed on the 10-day IL. Hamstrings can be tricky business, and Isbel's was no different. H did not return to MLB action until June 27 but played in 11 games until the All-Star break. The injury and slow start made Isbel a liability in many people's eyes, and that is not untrue. Isbel posted a negative win probability added in the season's first half, according to Baseball Reference.
Isbel started turning things around at the plate after many Royals fans tuned out on the season. He stayed healthy and appeared in 54 games for Kansas City. His .262 batting average and .699 OPS were not stellar, but they still marked improvements. The 85 wRC+ brought Isbel to a margin that was an acceptable tradeoff for having his glove in center field.
Isbel lost nearly two months to a strained left hamstring, but he still posted career highs in several areas. His 1.1 fWAR doubled his career total thanks to an improved approach at the plate and continued excellence in the field. Isbel had 11 OAA in 2023, good for the 96th percentile amongst all MLB fielders.
What grade did Kyle Isbel earn in his third KC Royals season?
Isbel is just a perfect fourth infielder. He can play all three outfield spots at an above-average pace, with a bat that is still below average but not a complete liability. He is cheap, controllable, and not likely to command a large free agent deal down the line.
I think he gets a bad reputation because, between injuries and struggling Royals talent, Isbel has to bat higher, and more is expected of him than is fair. He settled into the bottom of the batting order nicely in the season's second half, and that is a good role for him with appropriate expectations.
He deserves more credit than many will give him. Considering Isbel's second-half improvements and another great year in the field, a B grade seems very appropriate.