Photo: Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire

One of the things we liked about talking to Royals center fielder Kyle Isbel was that he takes an analytical approach to playing center field without explicitly saying he’s taking an analytic-based approach. He processes data points – ones he estimates as he sees them.

“Being able to read swings and the different pitches guys throw, you can get certain outcomes based on certain guy’s swing paths,” Isbel said in our podcast interview last week. “You can pretty much see where a ball’s going before a guy even makes contact.”

The play on which Isbel gained the most value towards his Defensive Runs Saved this season was not a jumping, sliding, or diving catch, but one on which he got a great jump. Statcast measured him as being 7.7 feet ahead of the average major league center fielder within the first 1.5 seconds of Luis Robert Jr. making contact.

That allowed Isbel to turn a ball with a 29% out probability into an out.

Being able to do that and do it well is vital for any MLB center fielder. Isbel is one of the best outfielders in baseball when it comes to covering ground with immediacy. By Statcast’s jump stats he’s nearly 3 feet ahead of the average center fielder within the first 1.5 seconds of ball hitting bat.

And as he keeps running (in a manner honed by Olympian Maurice Greene this spring), he’s still processing and analyzing estimated data points.

“The wind is a factor, the sun is a factor,” he said. “How you perceive the ball. How does it spin?”

That last one explains why Isbel doesn’t rank as well in another aspect of what Statcast tracks, routes.

Watch Isbel make catches and you’ll see that sometimes he’s taking indirect paths to the ball. He goes back or comes in first and then does other things second. Relative to other center fielders it seems that there’s more in-the-moment adjustment going on.

By Statcast’s measures, he takes among the least direct routes to a ball of any center fielder. And that doesn’t bother him.

“You can’t necessarily see the spin off the bat at contact,” Isbel said. ”You can just kind of see the direction, so as you make your move in the direction, you figure out how the ball is spinning and that’s how your route is getting altered. The ball’s not hit straight every single time.”

“Back or in is the first thing that pops into your head. You can see if a guy gets jammed. You can see if he hits it well, takes a big swing. The more you really watch, I try to do it in BP every day, just watch a guy’s swing. See the ball flight. Is it top spun off the bat, is it side spun, is it back spun? Did he get everything into it?”

Isbel has the 3rd-most Defensive Runs Saved among center fielders since the start of the 2023 season.

Most Defensive Runs Saved – CF since start of 2023

Player Runs Saved
Daulton Varsho 20
Kevin Kiermaier 19
Kyle Isbel 18
Johan Rojas 14
Brenton Doyle 13

That’s driven largely by how well he’s done catching balls hit to the deepest part of the ballpark and making plays like the one he made against Robert.

Entering Tuesday, Isbel had caught 87 of 100 balls classified as “deep” by our data tracking in the last 2 seasons. Based on out probabilities, the average center fielder would have caught 75.

He’s 12 percentage points better than expectations. There’s no center fielder better among the 40 who have had the most opportunities since the start of 2023.

Biggest Differential – Out Rate vs Expected Out Rate – CF Since Start of 2023

Player Out Rate Expected Rate Difference
Kyle Isbel 87% 75% 12%
Daulton Varsho 93% 82% 11%
Kevin Kiermaier 90% 82% 8%
Johan Rojas 86% 80% 6%

Stats through games of April 29, 2024

The other thing we liked about talking to Isbel was that he played along with some of our questions. He opened the interview by sharing his defense origin story, playing “Impossibles” with his father as a kid (he’d have to try to make difficult catches). And he closed it by indulging us on a hypothetical.

Isbel has a heavily tattooed left arm and says he’s done with body art. But what if he added one to commemorate his defense. What would it be?

“I would get a lock,” he said. “That’s what comes to me when I play center field. If you get the ball over here, you’re out. It doesn’t matter where it’s at. I’m gonna lock it down. That’s just my mindset.”

He’s got the mindset. The analytical approach is the key that unlocks the skill.