Kyle Lewis was the most exciting Mariner to watch this Spring Training. After losing roughly two years of normal development time to his devastating 2016 knee injury in Everett, Lewis had a healthy, if limited, 2018, a surgery-free offseason, and came into 2019 looking the best he’s seemed since being drafted. We were treated to a showcase of his talent in Arizona, when he did things like this off of MLB and upper-minors pitchers.
There’s that 60-70 grade raw power! That clip also showcases a fairly compact swing, with Lewis getting a nice slight uppercut and getting plenty of power from his now-healthy legs and hips. The high leg kick he’s long used as a timing mechanism works here to barrel up this Michael Lorenzen fastball.
It was all part of a brilliant .393/.452/.857 blur in his first 31 PAs of Spring Training action. Though we can’t get a full listing of contact data, Lewis put the ball in the air frequently, with nearly twice as many outs in the air as outs on the ground, and many of his hits coming on line drives and fly balls as well. Too often, of course, like a Vegas for prospects, what plays in Arizona stays in Arizona.
Since returning to AA-Arkansas in the pitcher-friendly Texas League, Lewis has been waging a less-successful ground attack. Through his first 98 PAs, the 23-year-old has has been a fine hitter, going .241/.357/.422 and a weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) of .346. For a guy with 720 minor league PAs broken up by multiple surgeries and level-moves, it’s not bad - for reference, his teammate Evan White, drafted a year later and also an injury-sufferer in his own right has 689 PAs.
But K-Lew hasn’t looked explosive consistently yet in AA, and there are a few possible culprits. The first is where the Travelers play their games. Dickey-Stephens park is rather deep down the lines, with a 332-360-400-375-330 line-gap-center-gap-line breakdown that is Safeco-lite, and lacks the benefit of the juiced ball being used in AAA and the bigs. Additionally, the wind typically blows directly in from center field. In fact, by MiLB’s multi-year measurements, no ballpark in all of Double-A has been harder to score, hit, or go yard in. Most notably, Dickey-Stephens is where homers go to die, as players have gone yard at just 0.545 the rate they have throughout the rest of AA when at Arkansas. It’s something to keep in mind looking at all Mariners hitters (and pitchers) when making evaluations, just as the AAA-Pacific Coast League has the opposite effect.
These conditions are no doubt a factor, and this early in the season even the slightest difference in result can be a huge swing in the numbers. But looking at Kyle’s spray chart gives us two suspects worth investigating, and points us towards the second issue Lewis is facing so far.
Look at all those groundouts to the left side! It’s hardly a shock, nor even a major flaw that Lewis is being retired by pulling the ball on the ground a decent amount. But Lewis has the power to get extra base hits in bunches when the ball is on a line and in the air, and too often this year its been ground-bound. His 50.9% groundball rate is holding him back from what has otherwise been an encouraging start. He’s still hitting line drives (22.6%) as he has his whole career and he rarely pops out. The danger is of course that his home field is unlikely to reward him when he does. The two highest dots on that chart in dead center field could’ve easily been a pair of homers instead of a double and an out if they’d come away from Dickey-Stephens. As it is, Lewis has had to do Domingo Santana-like things to earn his dingers thus far.
That oppo power will play anywhere, and it appears Lewis has been working to streamline his swing, with a few minor adjustments since last year that hopefully are starting to become more comfortable. In this helpful video from FanGraphs we can see Lewis’ hands this spring were quieter, more consistently in one spot as he begins his swing.
It’s a stark contrast to last year’s hyper-waggle in Modesto fresh off surgery, which seemed to disrupt his timing and raise his back elbow above his shoulder, leading to an erratic, long swing.
By no means is bat waggle inherently bad pre-swing, but the danger in ‘loud hands’ like this is that your swing will not begin in the same place consistently, making it difficult to make contact the same way consistently by extension. Looking at Lewis in his most recent game, he appears to have settled somewhere in the middle - still some waggle, but a level back elbow that still lends itself to compact contact.
It’s not perfect, but it’s improvement. Lewis has shown both good discipline and a swing-and-miss tendency this year, with a 14.3% walk rate and a K% exactly double that, but that will play perfectly well if he can get to a bit more power. Let it fly, K-Lew. Let it fly.