Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AL WestAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBSeattle Mariners

Kyle Lewis: Unanimous 2020 AL ROY

Kyle Lewis brought the AL Rookie of the Year Award back to Seattle for the first time since 2001 when Ichiro Suzuki won the ROY as well as the MVP. But how did Kyle Lewis get to this point? No need to wonder… we’re going to dive in and recap Lewis’s journey to 2020 AL ROY, in addition to looking at his future.

College and Cape Cod

Lewis graduated from Shiloh High School in Snellville, GA, just east of Atlanta, in 2013. He went undrafted out of high school, so he decided to attend Mercer University in Macon, GA. Lewis performed well in his freshman year, but his sophomore year at Mercer was when pro scouts really started to take notice. His sophomore year in 2015 produced 17 home runs, 19 doubles, an on-base percentage of .423, and a slugging percentage of .677. A 1.100 OPS is certainly nothing to scoff at and it earned him Southern Conference Baseball Player of the Year as well as the co-title of Gregg Olson Award, which is given to college baseball’s breakout player of the year. The other co-winner of the Gregg Olson Award? Just an Arkansas player named Andrew Benintendi, who also won the Golden Spikes Award in 2015.

Lewis would go on to play summer ball in the Cape Cod League summer of 2015, where he made the All-Star team, and in 46 games (playoffs included) slashed .301/.338/.539 with 7 doubles and 8 home runs.

In 2016, Lewis would go on to have a year that would make him “the most decorated student-athlete in Mercer University history”. Playing in 61 games with 223 at-bats, Lewis slashed .395/.535/.731 with 11 doubles, 2 triples, and a whopping 20 home runs. That’s a homer in 26% of games played in case you were wondering. This eye-popping year would give Lewis quite the awards season, as he was Southern Conference Baseball Player of the Year for the 2nd year in a row (first repeat winner since Clint Fairey of Western Carolina won 3 in a row from 1987-1989), Baseball America’s College Player of the Year, American Baseball Coaches Association’s Division I National Player of the Year, and the Golden Spikes Award winner. Other Golden Spikes winners to go on to win Rookie of the Year in their respective leagues include Bob Horner, Jason Jennings, Buster Posey, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant.

Professional Baseball

Lewis was selected by the Mariners with the 11th overall in the 2016 First-Year Player Draft. Jim Callis of gave high praise to the Mariners for this pick, saying “If I owned the No. 1 pick in this Draft, I would have taken Lewis there.” Some experts thought what he did at Mercer was overblown because of lack of competition, but his performance in the Cape Cod League gave the Mariners all they needed to take Lewis as their first-round pick.

Lewis began his pro-career for the Everett AquaSox, the Mariners’ Class A Short Season affiliate. Playing in 30 games with 135 plate appearances, he slashed .299/.385/.530 to the tune of a 152 wRC+. However, his first year of pro ball was cut short by a collision at home plate in which he tore his ACL and the medial and lateral meniscus in his right knee.

Lewis would return to play in June of 2017, where he would play just two games in High-A before being sent down to Rookie Ball. His stint in Rookie Ball wouldn’t last long, though, as after just 11 games he would be sent back to the High-A Modesto Nuts for the remainder of the year. In his second stint at High-A for 2016, Lewis slashed .253/.327/.379 for a 99 wRC+. His lack of power (only 6 HR, 4 Doubles) was most likely attributed to the knee injury from the previous year, and a near-average performance at the plate gave the organization hope that once he was back to 100% he would increase his power numbers.

Lewis would begin the 2018 season back in High-A with the Modesto Nuts for 49 games, slashing .260/.303/.429. Here we see a small improvement for his power numbers, but Lewis walked only 5.2% of the time while striking out 26.1% of the time. But after Mariners outfield prospect Braden Bishop was lost to injury for the season, Lewis got the call to Double-A. He would play in 37 games for the Arkansas Travelers, slashing .220/.309/.371 for an 87 wRC+ over 152 plate appearances. Not great, but being thrown into the fire can be just what a player needs sometimes. His walk rate jumped to 11.2% and his strikeout rate went down to 21.1% during his time in Arkansas for 2018, and a BABIP of .255 (which was a team low for players with at least 100 PA) was most likely the culprit for his low batting average.

In 2019, some of the hype attached to Lewis’s name died after 165 games in pro ball which looked below average on paper. Baseball America had Lewis ranked as the Mariners #1 prospect in 2017 and 2018, but in 2019 he fell to #8 behind top prospects such as Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. Still, Lewis hadn’t had the opportunity for a full season of pro ball, so by no means had anyone given up on his high ceiling. 2019 gave us the full-season Kyle Lewis, slashing .263/.342/.398 for the Travelers to the tune of a 109 wRC+ over 517 plate appearances. Lewis also increased his BABIP by .112 points to a great .367 (second-best on the team for players with at least 100 PA) and hit double-digit home runs for the first time in his pro career, popping 11 in 2019. Lewis helped lead the Travelers to a 1st place finish in the Texas League.

After the Travelers lost in the first round of the Texas League Playoffs, Lewis was brought to Seattle as part of September call-ups. He made his major league debut on September 10, 2019 and recorded his first major league hit the same day by way of a solo home run in the 5th inning off of Trevor Bauer. Lewis would play in 18 games for the Mariners to finish the season for the last-place club. While 75 plate appearances is an incredibly small sample size, Lewis did put up some numbers that were eye-popping for both good and bad reasons. 6 bombs in 18 games? Well hitting a home run in 33% of your games is definitely a good start. But a 4% walk rate and a 38.7% strikeout rate? That’s 29 Ks to 3 walks which is BAD, but MLB pitching is a whole different animal, and his .592 slugging and 0.5 fWAR gave the Mariners enough faith to use Lewis to replace an injured Mitch Haniger for the 2020 season.

The ROY Campaign

In an anything but normal 2020 season, Lewis was named the Mariners starting center-fielder, playing in 58 of 60 total games and starting in CF 56 of those 58. This full season Kyle Lewis is exactly what the Mariners had hoped for when they drafted him with their first-round pick in 2016. He slashed .262/.364/.437 for a 126 wRC+, 11 home runs, and an 88.3 mph average exit velocity. Lewis also posted his best walk rate since being drafted at 14% and saw a much better K% at 29.3% compared to his 38.7% in 2019. While there’s quite a bit of room for improvement for his strikeout rate, Lewis’s 0.48 BB/K rate among qualified rookies ranked 11th overall across all of MLB and 6th overall in the American League. Lewis tied Luis Robert for most home runs by a rookie in 2020, and was one of only four rookies across the majors to accumulate 200+ plate appearances, helping him reach a league-best 1.7 fWAR (tied for 13th overall in the AL).

Extrapolated over a full 162 game season (assuming he stayed healthy) Kyle Lewis’s 2020 would have had approximately 653 PA, 30 home runs, 100 runs scored, and a 4.6 fWAR. For reference, in 2019 in the AL only 9 players hit 30 home runs and scored 100 runs, and only 10 players put up an fWAR of at least 4.6. Of course, a full 162 game season is fraught with slumps, and it’s very possible a full 2020 season wouldn’t have produced these numbers for Lewis. But given the opportunity in 2020 despite the short season, Lewis made the most of it and brought the AL Rookie of the Year award back to Seattle for the first time since 2001.

Looking Ahead

Kyle Lewis’s minor league career was fairly lackluster due to injury and recovery, but the Mariners kept faith and were rewarded in 2020. But where does Lewis go from here? While Lewis played a serviceable center-field, it’s the consensus of most that his full-time position in future years will be as a corner outfielder. That being said, the Mariners still have two top-10 prospects in the minors, both outfielders, in Julio Rodriguez and Jared Kelenic. While I think Lewis would profile best in right-field, I also believe that’s where Rodriguez would do best. So CF is going to end up being a fight between Lewis and Kelenic where the loser ends up roaming left-field. That being said, all three of these guys could play CF on at least 50% of MLB teams, so the positioning debacle is a good problem for the Mariner to have.

The two big takeaways from Lewis’s 2020 is his 11 homers and improved BB/K rate. The Mariners drafted Lewis because of the raw power potential they saw, and in an age where the three true outcomes reign supreme, I’m sure plate discipline will be one of the main skills the organization has Lewis focus on in the offseason.

The 2020 exit velocity and hard hit rate definitely have room for improvement compared to the rest of the league, but a 78th percentile barrel rate and a 67th percentile xwOBA tells us that if Lewis does indeed improve his plate discipline, striking out less and swinging at better pitches will result in an improvement for these stats.

The plate discipline improvement from 2019 to 2020 was great, so I have no problem believing with more plate appearances in the future that Lewis will get better.

Swinging at roughly the same amount of pitches inside the zone as 2019 and posting the exact same Zone Contact % both years, Lewis dropped his chase rate a whopping 9 points while keeping his Chase Contact % almost exactly the same and dropping his Whiff % about 3 points. I believe in 2021 we will continue to see his chase rate and whiff rate decrease, resulting in less strikeouts, more walks, and more balls in play.

FanGraphs’ Depth Charts and Steamer projections are low on Lewis, predicting that even though he will play 150+ games he will finish with an fWAR lower than his 2020 total in only 58 games. Perhaps that is the projections taking into account his minor league performances or the fact that pitchers will be able to adjust to him, but I’m sure 99% of people are expecting Lewis to have a good, if not great, 2021 season.

Garrett Allen

Garrett Allen is a recent college graduate from Valdosta State University and is now pursuing a Masters of Science in Strategic Sports Analytics at the California University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Georgia, he is an avid Braves fan and has a particular interest in prospect development.