Kyle Lewis Is Proving It

Take a glance at the early season position player WAR leaders and you’ll find Mike Yastrzemski leading all of MLB, making his grandfather proud. Next you’ll find José Ramirez on his quest to show that last year’s struggles were just a blip. The player with the third-highest WAR in this young campaign is Mariners center fielder Kyle Lewis, who was leading the category yesterday. After a sparkling debut last September, Lewis is proving that his hot start wasn’t a fluke.

With another two yesterday, Lewis has now collected hits in all seven games this season and has strung together five multi-hit performances in a row. All told, he’s hit .448/.500/.655 this year and owns a .320/.355/.610 line in his young career. His historic September included blasting home runs in his first three major league games, becoming just the second player in history to accomplish the feat. He would go on to hit three more through the first 10 games of his career.

But that success came with some glaring red flags. He posted a 38.7% strikeout rate last year, and it is only a touch lower so far this season. His tendency to swing and miss often only confirmed the skepticism some had about his hit tool. His swinging strike rate is a bit lower this year (from 17.7% to 15.2%), and his underlying plate discipline stats look a little better — a lower overall swing rate, particularly on pitches out of the zone — but his high strikeout rate will likely follow him throughout his career. Thriving in the majors with such a high swinging strike rate is difficult but not impossible. Bryce Harper ran a 15.3% swinging strike rate last season while posting a 125 wRC+. The difference for Lewis is that many of those whiffs are coming with two strikes, driving up his strikeout rate. Harper can survive with such a high swinging strike rate because he’s aggressive early in the count but adjusts his approach with two strikes.

Lewis’s impact power is still showing up this year. His first hit of the season was a 438-foot blast off a 95-mph fastball from Justin Verlander.

That ball exited the stadium at 110.9 mph, the hardest hit of Lewis’s career. After launching that fastball into the stratosphere, Lewis has seen a steady diet of breaking balls. Nearly half the pitches opposing pitchers have thrown to him this year have been curveballs or sliders. He’s still swinging and missing at those breaking balls just as often, but he’s adjusted his approach to combat the new pitch mix he’s seeing. His second hit of the season was a 358-foot home run to right field off an 82.5-mph curveball from Lance McCullers Jr.

Seeing so many breaking balls on the outer half of the plate has forced Lewis to sit back and wait for those pitches. He has pulled just one hit this season, that home run off Verlander on Opening Day. The rest of his 13 hits have all gone to the right side or up the middle. While working his way through the minors, his pull rates sat around 40%. During his September call-up, Lewis wasn’t as pull-happy as you’d expect based on his track record. He sprayed the ball around the field with the majority of his batted balls going to right. The result is a pretty extreme spray chart.

The fact that he was able to successfully make this adjustment based on how he was being pitched to is a sign that maybe his hit tool is just a little more robust than expected. But this adjustment has also come at a cost. After that home run off McCullers, all the rest of his hits have been singles poked up the middle or slapped to the other side. He’s definitely shown that he can hit the other way with easy power, but right now, his approach is limiting his best tool at the plate.

The ability to adjust to what pitchers are throwing to him is an important skill to learn. But over-adjusting to only focus on one type of pitch or one half of the plate may be taking it too far. Lewis alluded to this in an interview with David Laurila earlier this spring:

Development is about continuing to trust your process and your approach. For instance, when pitchers show that they want to bust you in, are you going to be able to stay with your approach, or are you going to give in to what they’re trying to do? And that becomes tougher at each level, because there’s a lot more mix. When there’s more mix, there’s more information in your head. You need to understand how to tunnel all of that back towards what you’re trying to accomplish. You need to stay true to who you are.

The true test for Lewis will be to see if he can combine this approach focused on covering breaking balls on the outer half of the plate with his ability to crush fastballs. Pitchers are going to notice that he’s sitting on outside pitches and will begin to challenge him with fastballs on the inner half. This tug of war between pitcher and hitter is simply part of the game within the game, and Lewis is in the midst of learning how far he needs to go to stay ahead while continuing to leverage his strengths.

One other encouraging note has been Lewis’s ability to stick in center field. After his devastating knee injury, many assumed that he’d be relegated to a corner outfield spot, hoping that his bat could carry his value. He spent about half his minor league innings in center field in 2019 but picked up just a couple of appearances up the middle in September. He’s made every start in center this year and has looked good. The other day, he made this five-star catch on a sinking liner off the bat of Justin Upton:

That’s a nice play and suggests that his range and mobility have recovered well after his knee injury. If he’s able to hold his own in center, his bat won’t have to carry as much of his value. And if his hit tool is a little better than expected, then he’ll be a premium center fielder for the Mariners for years to come. With Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez looking like they’re more suited for corner outfield spots anyway, Seattle may have all the ingredients for an elite outfield in just a couple of years.





Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Spa City
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Spa City

What is his BABIP?

Oh there it is – .733.

konondrum
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konondrum

Career WC+ through 107 PA – 158.
BABIP .462
ZIPS ROS BABIP projection – .344

The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat
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The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat

Does BABIP skew higher for RHHs who push the ball to the right side of the field? Those hits tend to be slow EV and teams may have shifted to his pull side which could cause BABIP to be extremely high in the early goings.

Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

Generally all field hitters have higher babips but obviously not that high. A healthy pull rate is good but hard hitting pull hitters have the biggest regression in babip from minors to majors.

That is because in the minors you don’t play to win but to develope and so there are less shifts and defenders are less adept at handling rockets.

Because of this hard hitting pull hitters tend to hit for higher babip in the minors because they hit rockets through the fielders and later in mlb they face those deep shifts in the OF grass getting hard grounders and low liners and they are also better at handling rockets hit right at them.

Gallo and Schwarber are good examples of this. Both pull hitters who hit a good share of fly balls running high babips in the minors on the strength of their power and batted ball quality but in the majors they ran more babips in the 260-270 range because of defensive placement and fielders handling their rockets hit at them into the shift.

All fields players tend to run higher Babips in the majors (like lemahieu or yelich) but sometimes it can come at the expense of power which works best to pull side. So it is a bit of trade off. For power and extreme pull/elevate approach like jose Bautista is best while for babip a gap to gap approach like mauer or Jeter works best.

Ideally you have guys like trout who have like average pull rates but enough power to make it work for power too but most need a slightly elevated pull rate to hit a lot of bombs.

thebearproofsuit
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thebearproofsuit

I don’t think anyone was saying he was going to continue to it .450 the rest of the way. I know a lot of the underlying stats are ugly,…..but the at-bats have not been. Despite the high-K rate, his at-bats have looked really good, at least to me. He looks like he has an approach and the patience to stick with it. And it looks like he’s able to handle the adjustments pitchers have made so far. It’s interesting that him and Evan White have the same K rate right now, but their at-bats couldn’t look further apart. White is swinging from his heels and hoping. Lewis looks like a vet out there. patient, easy power. I’m sure some of it is bias created by the results. An at-bat always looks better when the balls drops in for a hit, but Lewis looks like he is in control and dictating every at-bat, while pitchers seem to be in control of every Evan White at-bat so far. We’ll see how it plays out though. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lewis able to maintain a ~.260 average with 30+ homer power. Or he could end up at .247 every year with 40+ HR power. Kyle with a K , if you will.