Last Updated on January 12, 2021 by Luke Arkins
Considering he’s reigning AL Rookie of the Year, it’s understandable why some fans may view Kyle Lewis as a future Seattle Mariners star. But is that a fair assessment so early in a young player’s career? Is Lewis a future Mariners star or something else?
Just so that we’re clear, I’m not suggesting Lewis can’t be a centerpiece on Seattle’s roster when the club eventually exits from its rebuild phase. Just that we temper expectations for the Georgian until he gains more big-league experience. Only then can we assess what he’ll actually be for the Mariners. Remember, his MLB career to date consists of an 18-game September call-up in 2019 and 58 contests during a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign – 76 games.
I realize suggesting anything but stardom for Lewis is tantamount to blasphemy in the eyes of some Seattle fans. Particularly, after the Seahawks just treated them to another early and disappointing playoff exit – sorry 12’s. Still, a closer look at the Mercer product’s season exposes volatility worth discussing.
Stone Cold Finish
By mid-August, Lewis established himself as a front-runner for the Rookie of the Year award. He was easily the best player on the Mariners leading the team in every significant offensive category through its first 30 games. Not only that, he paced the majors in OBP and was top-5 in wOBA, wRC+, and fWAR. Then, the bottom fell out.
|Sources: FanGraphs; Baseball Savant
+ Top-5 In MLB
* Bottom-5 In MLB
In the second half of the Mariners’ truncated season, Lewis’ offensive production cratered. The right-handed hitter’s batting average was worst in the majors, while his slugging and strikeout percentages were bottom-5. Another troublesome indicator; a sudden inability to make sufficient contact.
After the Mariners’ thirtieth contest, 208 hitters attempted at least 150 swings. Only two had a higher whiff rate than Lewis. Whiff rate is the percentage of misses on swing attempts. Other notable names on the leaderboard include highly touted Angels prospect Jo Adell, teammate Evan White and AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Luis Robert.
Highest Whiff Rates After August 24th
Bobby Dalbec – 46.2% (BOS)
Adalberto Mondesi – 42.7% (KCR)
Kyle Lewis – 42.5% (SEA)
Willy Adames – 42.2% (KCR)
Jo Adell – 41.8% (LAA)
Jorge Alfaro – 41.7% (MIA)
Miguel Sanó – 39.9% (MIN)
Gregory Polanco – 39.2% (PIT)
Keston Hiura – 38.2% (MIL)
Brandon Lowe – 38% (TBR)
Franmil Reyes – 37.85% (CLE)
Matt Olson – 37.4% (OAK)
Evan White – 36.8% (SEA)
Javier Báez – 36.5% (CHC)
Luis Robert – 36.4% (CWS)
We know current players are far more comfortable with striking out than their predecessors from previous generations. However, making adequate contact still matters and Lewis struggled to do just that for half a season, albeit a shortened one.
Evan White Had A Better Second Half
When we recently White’s 2020 season, the term used to describe his conventional stat line was “ugly.” For this reason, suggesting he was better than Lewis at any point of the 2020 season may initially come across as a form of comedy. It’s not. The Gold Glove first baseman’s overall production during the Mariners’ final 30 games wasn’t noteworthy – not even close. Yet, his numbers ranked ahead of the 2020 Rookie of the Year’s in nearly every category.
|Sources: FanGraphs; Baseball Savant
* Bottom-5 In MLB
As you can see for yourself, the bats of neither Lewis nor White were particularly productive during Seattle’s final 30 games. Lewis did manage to walk at a good clip during his prolonged slump. This helps reconcile the large gap between his AVG and OBP.
White Was Also Better In 2019
Since the 2020 was so short, I decided to do another comparison between Lewis and White. This time, their 2019 season stats with Class-AA Arkansas. Some of you may be surprised to learn White was more productive at the plate than Lewis. In fact, the Kentucky alum’s .488 SLG as a Traveler was fifth highest among 131 AA players with 400-plus plate appearances. I have to admit that I previously missed that tidbit.
+ Top-5 In Class-AA
Thanks to FanGraphs, we can quickly determine how minor leaguers stacked up against their peers across MiLB in multiple categories, included several advance metrics. Since a 100 wRC+ is always the league-average, White’s 132 wRC+ tells us he was 32-percent better than the average AA hitter was in 2019. Lewis was above average also, but not nearly as much at 109.
It’s important to note I’m not suggesting White will be a more productive major-league hitter than Lewis. I’m only highlighting the disparity between their 2019 production levels and the subsequent similarity of their stats during the final 30 games of the 2020 season. For me, these factors establish the need to wait on more mature data before evaluating either player’s outlook.
Okay, I’ve demonstrated that Lewis struggled for half of the 2020 season, which may or may not be cause for concern. Perhaps some of you are now wondering whether he’s destined to suffer from the dreaded sophomore jinx in 2021. Although such an outcome is plausible, there are a few things to consider before you consider abandoning the USS Kyle Lewis.
Teeny Tiny Sample
I’ve said this so many times during the offseason I’ve lost count. Whenever we find ourselves fixated on 2020 stats, we have to remember an important reality. Last season constituted just 37-percent of a normal campaign. Therefore, treating a 60-game slate during a pandemic the same way as a normal year would be unwise.
A Work In Progress
We should bear in mind the combined major-league experience of Lewis and White is just 130 games. That’s a recurring theme with the Mariners. Only three Seattle hitters on its 40-man roster have more than 500 career plate appearances with any team in the majors.
Career MLB Plate Appearances By Current Mariners
Kyle Seager (5,534)
Mitch Haniger (1,499)
J.P. Crawford (853)
Tom Murphy (491)
Dylan Moore (441)
Ty France (356)
Kyle Lewis (317)
Shed Long (296)
Luis Torrens (233)
Evan White (202)
José Marmolejos (115)
Braden Bishop (94)
Jake Fraley (70)
Sam Haggerty (58)
Donovan Walton (33)
For added perspective, consider this. The longest tenured Mariner – Kyle Seager – has more career plate appearances than the combined total (5,058) of the remaining position players on the team’s current roster. So yeah, we should give the kids a chance before passing judgement on them.
Lewis Hits To All Fields
A common solution fans suggest to combat defensive shifts is for players to “hit it where they ain’t.” Easier said than done in an era where so many pitchers thrown over 95-mph. Still, Lewis proved capable of spraying the ball around the field last year. Of the 88 players with 50-plus hits, only three had a higher percentage of balls hit straightaway or to the opposite field than Lewis.
Highest % of Straightaway & Opposite Field Hits
Raimel Tapia – 83.1% (COL)
Jackie Bradley Jr. – 81.5% (BOS)
D.J. LeMahieu – 80.3% (NYY)
Kyle Lewis – 79.6% (SEA)
Alec Bohm – 79.6% (PHI)
Juan Soto – 77.8% (WSN)
César Hernández – 75.8% (CLE)
Nelson Cruz – 75% (MIN)
Víctor Reyes – 75% (DET)
Travis d’Arnaud – 71.7% (ATL)
The names you see above are an impressive lot. Included are both league batting champions, four Silver Slugger awards, and a player Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently compared to a young version of the greatest hitter ever – Ted Williams.
Lewis didn’t just slap the ball around the field for singles or doubles as we remember future Hall of Famer Ichiro doing. It turns out most of his home runs were hit straightaway or were opposite fielders. Last year, 68 other players and Lewis hit at least 10 home runs. Only four had a higher percentage of straightaway and “oppo” dingers than Seattle’s center fielder.
Highest % of Straightaway & Opposite Field Home Runs
Juan Soto – 84.6% (WSN)
Dansby Swanson – 80% (ATL)
Nick Castellanos – 78.6% (CIN)
Eloy Jiménez – 78.6% (CWS)
Kyle Lewis – 72.7% (SEA)
Ronald Acuña Jr. – 71.4% (ATL)
D.J. LeMahieu – 70% (NYY)
Keston Hiura – 69.2% (MIL)
Teoscar Hernández – 68.8% (TOR)
Trea Turner – 66.7% (WSN)
Christian Yelich – 66.7% (MIL)
Considering so many notable names surround Lewis on our previous two lists, there’s a reasonable chance he can enjoy success in the majors.
Improved Strikeout & Walk Rates
We all remember Lewis bursting onto the scene in September 2019 with five doubles and six home runs in just 18 games. That said; he also had a 38.7-percent strikeout rate. Only Eric Hosmer (39.6) of the Padres and Toronto’s Teoscar Hernández (39) struck out more frequently that month. Despite the initial spike during his MLB debut, Lewis’ strikeout rate returned to a more normal (at least for him) level in 2020.
|Source: Baseball Reference|
While Lewis’ 2020 strikeout rate aligned with previous career norms, he did demonstrate significant improvement at earning free passes with a career-high 14-percent walk rate. Even when his strikeouts soared late last season, he still managed to draw walks at a 13.7 walk rate. Good enough for top-30 in the majors and well above league-average (9.2-percent).
This is promising.
Imagine for a moment we flipped Lewis’ 2020 season splits. Instead of enjoying a torrid start, a stumble out of the gate occurred before a superb finish. Would he have won the Rookie of the Year award? Maybe, maybe not.
Does it matter?
For Mariners fans seeking recognition and validation for their team’s players, the answer is yes. However, Lewis would be the same player with or without the award. A potential foundational piece deserving more time to develop into the hitter he’s destined to be; whatever that is.
For now, I suggest enjoying the sight of Lewis, White, and so many other of Seattle’s youngsters as they develop before our eyes. As Jason A. Churchill deftly noted recently, some Mariner prospects won’t develop as quickly as the team needs. Others will never fulfill the promise their prospect rankings once suggested was possible.
In Lewis’ case, seeing his numbers plummet at the end of the 2020 campaign should give us pause. Especially when you consider his 2019 MiLB stats lagged behind White’s, who struggled mightily this year. Having said that, I do feel a degree of optimism that he puts his rough ending behind him and to good use as a learning opportunity.
Assuming he continues to have a discerning eye at the plate, keeps his strikeouts at a reasonable level, and uses all fields, Lewis will be a valued contributor to the Mariners.
But will he be a star?
Time will tell. Considering what he overcame to reach the majors, I won’t bet against Kyle Lewis – ever. Instead, I’ll be rooting for him.
My Oh My…