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Kyle Isbel has thus far been evidence that there is no replacement for the upper minors

Isbel has been overwhelmed by MLB pitching

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Kyle Isbel #28 of the Kansas City Royals hits in the fifth inning against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium on April 4, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Kyle Isbel #28 of the Kansas City Royals hits in the fifth inning against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium on April 4, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

If you’ve been watching Kansas City Royals broadcasts on Bally Sports Kansas City, you probably have heard Rex and Ryan hype up Kyle Isbel. They’ve often said that he “looks the part” of a big leaguer and have been impressed with his attitude and approach. When Isbel drew a walk against reigning American League Cy Young Winner Shane Bieber—after starting the count 0-2, no less—the two Kansas City broadcasters talked about it for days.

A broadcaster’s job is to get people excited for the product on the field, and so it makes sense that they’d want to discuss a young, new face in a positive light. However, their focus on how Isbel looks is telling because Isbel’s on-field performance has been, objectively, miserable.

While Isbel’s reputation is as a sterling defender, he botched his one chance at a highlight reel catch. And after 29 plate appearances, Isbel is slashing .250/.276/.321, with one lone walk and one extra base hit. Isbel has essentially struck out half the time, with 14 strikeouts over those plate appearances. He is hitting 36% below league average and, perhaps worst of all, has done so with the platoon advantage against right-handed pitchers in all but three plate appearances. In other words, Isbel has stunk.

Normally, pointing out that a player has stunk after only eight games is silly talk. It’s just far too few games to be of much evidence. You can look at almost every player in the league and find an eight-game stretch when they looked like MVP candidates and an eight-game stretch where they looked absolutely lost at the plate from the same season.

But Isbel is an interesting case because of how he made his debut. See, Isbel hasn’t played a single inning above High-A ball. Rather, he’s a product of the nontraditional development that the Royals, along with other teams, had to take in a COVID world without minor leagues: that of the alternate site.

The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to his performance but allowed him to work with the Royals’ revamped hitting development department: director of hitting performance Alec Zumwalt, hitting coordinator Drew Saylor and assistant hitting coordinator Keoni De Renne, among others. Isbel competed at the alternate site, annoying pitchers such as Lynch, but also earning their respect and leaving an impression on the staff. That reputation preceded this year’s spring training.

At the alternate site, the Royals basically held a quasi-extended spring training situation with their top prospects and 40-man roster guys. Held at T-Bones Stadium last year, it was those players’ only way to continue playing baseball in a semi-competitive manner. Thanks to the Royals’ communications team, we even have a glimpse into what it was like there:

Perhaps the whole situation can best be summed up from this article from Lynn Worthy at the Kansas City Star. Worthy asks a, well, worthy question at the end of his introduction, and it is that question that is still up in the air:

However the experiences of the top prospects and the presumptive future core of major-league teams like the Kansas City Royals may have far-reaching implications.

After all, a lost year of development for an entire farm system could temporarily cripple an organization’s future.

But might the unusual alternate training site setting have served as an accelerator for talented young players such as budding phenom Bobby Witt Jr., left-handed pitching force of nature Daniel Lynch and potential center fielder of the future Kyle Isbel?

In a normal year, prospects would be forced to climb the minor league ladder. There are essentially four clear levels of minor league ball: A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, moving from least to most talented. Players in A ball are usually fresh out of the MLB draft, while Triple-A teams are filled with former big leaguers looking to get back into the league and the highest skilled minor leaguers looking to finally make their MLB debut.

Even the most talented prospects generally spend half a season at each level, if not longer. Talented and polished college players, like Brady Singer, sometimes skip A ball and start at High-A. But, generally speaking, players must put in their dues in the minor leagues, not just because of procedural reasons, but because professional baseball is hard and the difference between collegiate and MLB baseball is wider than the Grand Canyon.

To go from High-A ball to the big leagues, like Isbel has, is nearly unheard of. Juan Soto and Mike Trout skipped Triple-A entirely and debuted as teenagers—but both played in Double-A, and Trout even played in Triple-A the following year before being called up for good. Alex Gordon is probably a better comp to Isbel, considering both were college players, but even Gordon demonstrated that he could dominate Double-A before getting the call to Kansas City.

Ultimately, Isbel is here in the big leagues because the Royals believe that their alternate site was a viable replacement for the upper minors, the crucible that separates hotshot prospects from real MLB players. Thus far, Isbel’s inability to step up to the plate and avoid a strikeout is evidence that the alternate site perhaps hasn’t done everything that the Royals said it would in preparing their players for the real world, as it were.

It’s still early. Isbel is hitting the ball hard when he actually makes contact. But keep an eye on him, because Isbel isn’t just any rookie; rather, his success or failure has implications up and down the Royals prospect list, from Daniel Lynch to Bobby Witt, Jr. Kansas City’s hopes for 2021 and beyond depend in large part on the alternate site’s efficacy.