Here’s the scene, it’s late July in Binghamton, New York. It’s about 80 degrees, but one of those awful overcast, humid, muggy summer days that feels like you live in a cloud. I’m sure Binghamton’s overall rustic charm only added to the effect. The fifth inning had just come to a close, and a few raindrops had began to drizzle down from the now ominous skies. This was an unusual ballpark trip for the summer of 2018. Not only was I slightly out of my usual New England based scouting radius, I was at this game with all three kids, my wife, my sister, and brother-in-law. I was here as a treat for dad, while on a family visit to see my sister and her husband, who live just outside of Ithaca.
After a few more drops fell, the Yankees scout sitting next to me, checked the Doppler on his tablet, looked up and stated matter of factly “Looks like heavy rains headed this way.” Immediately, both he and the Mets scout sitting a row above stood up, and shuffled off to the concourse. I gave my wife the signal that maybe we should round up the kids and start to make the way back to the car. She and the Lifshitz contingent behind home got up and started to make their way up the isle. I, however, was frozen. Glued to my seat, not yet ready to call it a day. My wife, with the intuition of a Navajo scout, saw the rain wasn’t really intensifying, and that the bottom half of the inning was seemingly about to start, told me to finish the frame and to rendezvous at the kids section in right field.
The bottom half of the inning began, and a junk-baller lefty had relieved the Trenton starter Trevor Stephan, following an inconsistent first four innings. At this point there were three people left in a once packed section. Myself of course, a guy about two rows back, best described as an overweight gentleman, double fisting bud heavies in a faded Jose Reyes shirsey, and then a Royals scout that had been chatting with the New York contingent earlier. A majority of scouts keep to themselves and don’t talk much, outside chat between innings or the rare pitch they miss while charting. But on occasion, you run into the older jocular type. That’s what this guy was, he immediately started chatting me up about Justin Dunn, the starter for Binghamton that afternoon, and a player I planned to cover for that evening’s Razzball post.
As the fifth ended we started to chat a little more about Cape League prospects we caught earlier that summer, and then the conversation moved to Royals players. He admittedly, worked in the higher levels and hadn’t followed their draft much. I asked if he had seen Kyle Isbel, the outfielder Kansas City had just selected in the third round out of UNLV. He had not... Not going to lie, I was a little bummed. At this point Isbel was balling, slashing .381/.454/.610, with 4 homers, 14 steals, and 27 runs in just 25 Pioneer League contests. Days earlier Isbel had just been promoted to full-season Lexington, homering in his first at-bat. My interest was piqued. So I dug in more, read everything written about him, made it a point that Jason Pennini catch him during instructs. Lucky for us Jason did.
Following a Sophomore campaign that saw Isbel hit .290/.349/.446 with 6 homers, the now centerfielder led the Running Rebels in runs and at bats, hitting leadoff. Playing mostly third base as a freshman, Isbel started 53 games in centerfield as a Sophomore. His performance earned him an invitation to Cape Cod, for the annual summer league of College Baseball’s elite. There he stared for the Yarmouth-Dennis Sox, slashing .265/.325/.358, chipping in 32 runs, 13 steals, and 9 extra-base hits. He earned Cape League All-Star honors despite the mediocre stat line. Impressing not only with his all-around game, even earning rave reviews at a new position, second base.
Isbel headed into his junior season at UNLV very much on the radar, ranked a top-100 draft prospect by the industry consensus, and widely considered a player to go early on day two. Isbel did not disappoint.. Hitting in the middle of the Running Rebels lineup, the now centerfielder slashed .357/.441/.643, with a career high 14 homers. He was named a first team All-Star in the Mountain West, while rankings first or second on the Running Rebels in every major statistical category. Headed into the draft on a high note, the Royals made him their first position player drafted at pick 94, after selecting five consecutive pitchers in the previous rounds.
We’ve already touched on some of the success Isbel had in rookie ball, and early in his time in Lexington. Let’s dig a little more into his month of August, the struggles, and what skills I’ve seen, that lead me to believe he can overcome them.
First and foremost, despite my prior usage of the word “struggles” to describe Isbel’s month of August, for context’s sake it should be said that “struggle” is a little strong. He slashed .286/.331/.420 over that month measuring out at a wRC+ of 115. What did rear it’s ugly head were some swing and miss and approach issues that hadn’t been there before. Over a 27-game stretch Isbel struck out 29.8% of the time while walking just 5%. A rather steep drop off from previous production. His struggles versus right-handers magnified, as he slashed just .240/.304/.365 in opposite side match-ups. He did however continue to feast on lefties, slashing a ridiculous .382/.424/.564 against them. So despite some obvious red flags it wasn’t all bad. He did however come on in the Sally League playoffs, helping to lead Lexington to their first league Championship since 2001.
Over the course of the summer I added Isbel to my watch list on MiLB.TV, tuning in for as many at bats as I could. Here’s what I observed. An athletic player of average build, Isbel hits left handed with a slightly closed stance, with a wide base and his hands setup shoulder height. He rocks a bit in his load as he engages his lower half right before his leg kick. This rock also leads him to being susceptible to good spin off the plate and in on his hands. He’s not afraid to lay down a bunt and use his above-average wheels, but he’s not a burner.
At his best he drives the ball to all fields, crushing mistakes in the zone and high fastballs. His lefty swing is quick with natural loft, and heavily rotational in his hips. There’s some moving parts, so it’s easy to see how it can get out of sync. In the video I’ve seen from Instructs, like the one above, Isbel has toned down his lower half a little, which allows him to get into more of his power, and clean up his barrel control. When his timing is synced, it’s a nice lefty swing, and you can see why many evaluators give Isbel a real shot to develop at least average over the fence power.
The hit tool at the moment is a solid 50, with the promise it could creep into above average territory, as he smooths out his mechanics. His hands are quick, he takes good at bats, works counts, and displays good baserunning acumen. A very solid offensive player. On the other side of the ball Isbel is an above average fielder at multiple positions. Our very own Jason Pennini, saw Isbel taking reps at second and was impressed with what he saw, albeit a limited sample. So there’s some chance Isbel spends time in 2019 in both the dirt and the grass. Speaking of JP, here’s his take on Isbel:
“Great use of lower-half. Moderate leg kick with torque. Quiet hands slot at shoulder height. Swings hard. Made Faustian Bargain: bat path geared for loft, yet still short to ball?? Works deep into counts, may border on passive. At times, expands zone up. Handles premium velocity.”
In closing Isbel is slowly creeping into the top 35-45 window in First-Year Player Drafts depending on the scoring, and your team constructs. There’s a potential across-the-board contributor that will no issues earning playing time with multi-position eligibility. A future second division regular, but one that might provide value in fantasy with power, batting average, steals, and runs.