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Drayer: From overlooked to ‘the guy,’ Kyle Lewis still trending up for M’s

Kyle Lewis turned heads at the plate and in the field in 2020. (Getty)

If all is right in the baseball voting world, Mariners center fielder Kyle Lewis’ pandemic-shortened first full season should end with the American League Rookie of the Year Award in his possession. And while it has been easy for us in the Pacific Northwest to pair his name with that award all season, when you look at the journey it perhaps should be seen as a bit of a surprise.

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Don’t believe me? Think back to spring training one year ago. Not 2020 spring training, but 2019 – the spring immediately following the great tear down of the Mariners and start of the rebuild. The curiosity then was in the shiny new major acquisition, Jarred Kelenic. A 19-year-old co-centerpiece to go along with the homegrown, 18-year-old Julio Rodríguez, a pair of future stars who would lead the Mariners out of decades of darkness. The buzz was around these two players. And Lewis?

Well, he was healthy.

A year separated from his comeback from a catastrophic knee injury – with stops and starts – and handled carefully in the minors the previous season, most interviews still led off with questions about his recovery. You could sense Lewis was tiring of the question, and little wonder as the talk surrounding him was whether, on a surgically repaired knee, he could he be anything close to the player that Baseball America had ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the 2016 draft. He had had enough of being “the comeback guy.”

To his teammates that year in Double-A, he was anything but “the comeback guy.” He was “the guy.” While his numbers were suppressed a bit by the Arkansas Travelers’ cavernous Dickey-Stephens Park, they saw first-hand what he could do to a baseball. Then in September he put on a show in Seattle, homering in his first three big league games.

The first of the Mariners’ foundational wave of new talent to arrive, he made his mark, his play saying perhaps what he wouldn’t and reminding everyone there was a reason he was a first-rounder and the first pick overall for the Mariners under general manager Jerry Dipoto. Having to give that reminder was nothing new and a part of what drives Lewis to this day.

“That just comes from years of trying to have to prove myself,” he said recently. “Even high school, college. Trying to get scholarships, trying to get college teams to look at me, trying to get the pro teams to look at me, trying to get summer league teams. It’s always been kind of a little uphill battle in that sense and I embrace that. It’s just kind of natural at this point, I’m not going to short change myself.”

These words come a year after his spectacular September call-up. Off the field a year ago, he was the quiet young guy, taking it all in, most answers beginning with “I’m just…”

You wouldn’t get the brashness of Kelenic or the effervescence of Rodríguez from Lewis, more the rookie staying in his lane in a clubhouse of veterans. Very vanilla, as we say in the business. Appropriate for a September call-up but a little discouraging on the interviewers end when looking forward. Of course it was just a September snapshot both on and off the field, and we would discover that the 2020 version of Lewis would disappoint on neither.

On the field, Lewis backed up the small sample of his September with Rookie of the Year numbers across the board. He did it with flair at times, being it his first hit of the season, a 438-foot blast at Minute Maid Park off reigning Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, or the grand slam-robbing catch against the A’s as the Mariners tried to chase down a postseason spot. The latter was an exclamation point on a “prove them wrong” season of playing center field after most thought he would be relegated to a corner outfield spot after the knee surgery.

A “prove them wrong” perhaps remains for Lewis following his September slide, too – he slashed .147/.270/.280 (.550 OPS) in his final 22 games. Of course if those 22 games came amidst a normal 162-game season there would not be as much focus on that stretch, but until he is given the opportunity to work his way through a complete season, the picture of Lewis at the plate remains incomplete.

The good news? There is much that would indicate his performance in 2020 is trending in the right direction. Most encouraging, progress made on one of the biggest question marks surrounding Lewis as he arrived in the big leagues: the strikeout rate. Lewis is going to strike out, that is an accepted and at times perhaps even encouraged given (more on that below). Lewis lowered his strikeout rate from 38% in 2019 to 29% in 2020 – significant, notable and measurably real improvement as strikeout rates only take around 60 plate appearances to stabilize. Better yet, as the strikeouts came down, the walk rates came up with Lewis improving from a 4% BB rate to 14%, the 19th best among qualified hitters in 2020.

In 58 starts, Lewis demonstrated that he could hit big league pitching to all parts of the field, with 73% of his hits recorded up the middle or the other way. He showed that he can hit breaking and off-speed pitches, and while his average suffered against lefties, his OPS was nearly equal vs. left or right. As teams started pitching him differently, he adjusted, taking his walks and singles the other way. It is here where we could see improvement going forward.

While Lewis is regarded as having a mature approach at the plate – a very good thing – there are some that would like to see him get a little more greedy, live up to the power hitter profile a bit more. To take a risk when he is feeling good or when the situation dictates, to look to do bigger damage rather than settle for the single. It is not a criticism so much as something to work toward as he sees more and gets further adjusted to playing in the big leagues.

It was just 58 starts to go along with the 18 games he got in 2019, but Lewis has made the most of them not just in performance but in what has been learned about day in, day out baseball at the highest level. Part of that was getting comfortable in where he was and what he is, a cornerstone piece of a rebuild meant to take a franchise to the highest level.

A year ago Lewis was the young guy in a September clubhouse. In 2020 he once again was “the guy,” a role he appears to be very comfortable with. According to teammates and coaches, that is not a 2020 discovery or development, that is the Kyle Lewis that has always been there. No longer overlooked, he has helped put Seattle back on the baseball map as a representation of what could come with other prospects. Win or lose Rookie of the Year, the foundation has been set and Lewis has been a key part of it.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” said Lewis. “I think moving forward we just want the team to be a good team. To be a team that has the respect of all of MLB. When you come into Seattle you know you are going to know it’s going to be a fight. You are going to get our best shot every night. I think ultimately we have been doing that.

“It’s just taking another step with that in development so we are a winning culture. Taking that from a competitive culture to a winning culture and I think that can happen. We all feel that can happen and we all want to be a part of that.”

Follow Mariners insider Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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