In preparation for the Evaluation Season©, the Kansas City Royals traded away center fielder Michael A. Taylor last January. This move opened up the middle of the pasture primarily to allow the evaluation of two players: Kyle Isbel and Drew Waters. The hope was that at least one of those guys would take hold of the job and run with it, giving the Royals their center fielder of the future.
Wrenches were thrown in this audition early on. Waters strained his oblique in February. Isbel spent the first month of the season as the center field starter before also hitting the IL with a hamstring injury. That led to the month of May featuring an uncomfortable amount of Jackie Bradley Jr. in center. Late that month, Waters returned and took the starting job, which he held until Isbel’s return in late June. For the rest of the season, Isbel was the nominal center fielder, but Waters saw plenty of action there as well.
In spite of the injuries, both guys managed to get an extended look with over 300 plate appearances apiece. These weren’t sporadic either, as both guys were regularly in the lineup when healthy. We’ve had plenty of time to evaluate them, so what did we learn?
The UNLV product had a turbulent first couple years in the majors. Isbel broke camp with the big league club in 2021 but would spend most of the season in Triple-A. In 2022, he served mostly as a bench player behind Taylor. He finally got a chance as a starter this season. Unfortunately, he responded with middling offensive performance. Isbel hit .240/.282/.380 in 313 plate appearances, good for a 75 wRC+.
A look under the hood doesn’t paint a rosier picture. His hard-hit rate (39.8%) and barrel rate (5.5%) were both comfortably below average. While he managed to slash his strikeout rate to 18.8%, a marked improvement over his 27.0% mark in 2022, that additional contact was rarely quality. He doesn’t have particularly good on-base skills either. He makes lots of contact and doesn’t chase much, but he sees fewer pitches than anybody on the roster not named Salvador. There’s really nothing he does exceptionally well in the batter’s box beyond not whiffing.
Despite his offensive struggles, Isbel was still considerably better than replacement level. This is thanks to his work with the glove. Isbel is one of the very best defensive outfielders in baseball. Among 218 players that recorded at least 100 innings in the outfield in ‘23, Isbel ranked 8th in DRS (13), 16th in UZR (5.0), and 5th in OAA (11). In addition to grading out well by advanced metrics, he also fares well in fielding percentage. Isbel committed just one error this season after committing four in a smaller sample in ‘22. If he had been the fulltime center fielder for the entire season, he very well could have run away with the Gold Glove award.
Isbel achieved this despite an unremarkable throwing arm and average speed. His defensive prowess comes not from his physical tools, but his instincts. Per Statcast outfield jump data, nobody reacts to the ball off the bat better than Isbel. He also gets up to speed quickly, helping make up for his lackluster sprint speed and routes. Add it all up and Isbel was 2nd among 100 qualified outfielders in outfield jump. This is nothing new - Isbel led baseball in this metric in 2022. He is one of just five outfielders that recorded three 5-star catches this season:
Those plays had catch probabilities of 20%, 10%, and 5%, respectively. Though he did not contribute much with the bat, Kyle Isbel can flat out get it in center field. Combine that with solid baserunning and you have an outfielder that was worth 1.1 WAR per FanGraphs and 2.1 per Baseball Reference.
The Georgia native was very solid in a limited sample in 2022, producing a 120 wRC+ at the dish. This gave hope that he could be the long-term answer in center field. However, there were numerous indicators that his ‘22 performance was aberrant. Last winter, I wrote:
In summary, it’s difficult to believe that Waters’ 2022 performance is sustainable given the underlying data. It is very challenging to hit well while striking out as often as Waters did in 2022...
Strikeouts can be overcome to some extent, but it is extremely difficult to be successful offensively without hitting the ball hard.
Sure enough, despite modest improvements to his batted ball metrics, Waters drastically regressed offensively in 2023. In 337 plate appearances he hit .228/.300/.377, good for an 82 wRC+. The causes for this are numerous and fairly straightforward:
- He lost 32 points of BABIP, shaving off some batting average. This is likely because he hit fewer groundballs and more flyballs this year than in ‘22. Flyballs are great for power, but not for average.
- Despite hitting more balls in the air, his ISO dropped from .240 to .149. This is a natural consequence of one’s HR/FB% dropping from a Stantonian 26.3% to 10.0%, which is more in line with Waters’s hard-hit metrics.
- He walked 8.0% of the time, which is more in line with his minor league track record than the 11.0% mark he posted in ‘22.
- Waters still has a ton of swing-and-miss, both in and out of the zone.
A solid barrel rate is basically the only thing that positively stands out in Waters’ offensive profile. He’s not an exceptional baserunner either despite 84th percentile sprint speed as he went 16-21 on stolen bases. He does, however, put that speed to good use in the outfield. Waters graded out positively by all three of DRS, UZR, and OAA. While his routes are not as good as Isbel’s, Waters has a much better arm that allowed him to rack up seven outfield assists this season.
He also showed an aptitude for flashy plays, notching a five-star catch of his own:
While he produced marginally more offensively than Isbel, Waters couldn’t quite make up for it with the glove to Isbel’s extent, producing 0.8 fWAR and 0.7 bWAR.
Entering 2023, the Royals hoped that Isbel or Waters could take the center field job and run with it. Instead, it’s clear that these are two flawed players with overlapping skillsets. There aren’t any center fielders in the minors breaking down the door to the big leagues, so unless Kansas City goes outside the organization this offseason, Isbel and Waters are the 2024 options for center field (or Dairon Blanco, I guess, but you can read about him elsewhere). Let’s breakdown the options:
Option A: Start Isbel, bench or move on from Waters
We have enough of a track record at this point to say that Kyle Isbel lacks the power and the plate discipline to be an above average major league hitter. However, he can make up for his shortcomings at the dish with his glovework. Elite defenders up the middle can usually carve out long careers in the majors. Isbel can be a 1.5-2 WAR guy as the everyday center fielder hitting at the bottom of the lineup. He’s not a foundational piece by any stretch, but this is a guy that can fit on almost any team.
Option B: Start Waters, bench or move on from Isbel
While past production favors Isbel, future projection perhaps favors Waters. He is the far toolsier option and is
six two years younger and a switch hitter. There could still be more in the tank and he’s shown flashes at times. Also, given what I wrote above, maybe something can be gotten in a trade involving Isbel.
Option C: Start both
This is what the Royals favored down the stretch this year, with lineups frequently featuring Isbel in center and Waters in right field. I don’t think having both of these guys in the same lineup is viable offensively, but what do I know?
Option D: Platoon
Maybe Kansas City can be more like the Rays and lean into platoons more. This would be a weird one though. Isbel only has a bit less than a quarter as many career plate appearances against lefties as right-handed pitching, but he has produced reverse splits, hitting to a 72 wRC+ with the platoon advantage versus 89 against southpaws. This was even more pronounced in ‘23 as he produced a 119 wRC+ against same-handed pitching and a 65 mark against right-handed pitchers. Waters, meanwhile, was unplayable against lefties this year (58 wRC+) but held his own against righties (90). I don’t think I’m comfortable with the idea of Isbel batting mostly against lefties, nor do I like the superior defender playing the weak side of the platoon, but the numbers suggest it could work.
After a season of evaluation, it does not appear that Kyle Isbel or Drew Waters is an ideal option for center field. Few teams have a player that can really bring it offensively and also defend well at the position. Kansas City has not had such a player since Lorenzo Cain in 2017. Both guys bring something to the table, but center field is unlikely to be a position of strength for the 2024 Royals.
How would you grade Kyle Isbel’s season?
How would you grade Drew Waters’s season?