Today is Kyle Lewis’s 25th birthday. That is a little later than would be generally hoped for a top prospect to be making his 76th plate appearance in MLB—fellow collegians Buster Posey finished his age 25 year with over 1000 MLB PAs, and Alex Bregman debuted four days after his 23rd birthday.
But it’s worth examining why there is such a fixation on a pre-MLB player’s age. Certainly it’s important to recognize that a player’s performance can be skewed if that player is repeating a level or is older/more experienced than the competition levels they’re facing. It’s not as hard as an SEC fourth starter to steamroll a bunch of kids in A-ball who are fresh from the DSL or AZL and facing elite velocity or a quality breaking ball for the first time, for example. However, it’s also important to note MLB owners are obsessed with age because the younger a player is, the longer he’s controllable under MLB’s laughably outdated free agency rules while performing at his physical peak, and unfortunately that obsession has spread to the general parlance in talking about players. Just like in Hollywood, MLB prefers its stars to be younger, similar industries where 25 is a gen-pop 45.
As a counterpoint, it took Aaron Judge until age 24 to collect 95 plate appearances before locking down a full-time job with the Yankees, and Judge didn’t have a catastrophic knee injury. Judge is actually an interesting case study to compare to Lewis; his ascension was slowed not by injuries, but by a Yankees system that was either stacked and/or still paying gobs of money to Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. In 2016 Judge edged aside fellow SWB RailRiders outfielder Ben Gamel to claim a spot in Yankee Stadium. Judge struck out 44% of the time in that first year and hit four home runs (for comparison’s sake, in 75 PAs Kyle Lewis hit 6 HR and struck out 39% of the time).
The difference between Judge and Kyle Lewis is that Judge produced prodigious power numbers in the minors, coming close to 20-HR seasons at every stop. Joey Gallo isn’t as good a comp because he didn’t go to college, so got an earlier start on his pro career, but similarly posted some eye-popping power numbers along with elevated strikeout totals, and also did something Lewis didn’t do as much of in the minors: he walked. All the time and everywhere. Both Gallo and Judge’s minor league numbers fit more into the picture-perfect three-true outcome player mold with big K numbers, yes, but also considerably higher power numbers and many more walks than Kyle Lewis.
But neither Judge nor Gallo suffered the kind of potentially career-ending injury Kyle Lewis did. Neither missed as much time as Lewis did; neither had doubts cast upon them as to whether they’d ever be able to play baseball again. Also, neither were drafted as close to the top ten (Judge and Gallo were both in the 30s), neither won Golden Spikes awards, and neither were expected to be the kind of five-tool, franchise-changing player Kyle Lewis was expected to be. In addition to getting less time on the diamond, Lewis has had to contend with the expectations of being a top draft pick. As a result of missing time and less-than-stellar numbers in the minors, Lewis has become somewhat overlooked in what has come to be a stacked Seattle system as attention shifts to the teenage phenoms of Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, along with ascendant prospect Noelvi Marte, 18 years old and the size of a shipping container, making a 25-year-old seem positively antiquated.
Since returning to health, however, Lewis has set about making noise of the sort to force folks to remember his name when listing Seattle’s top prospects. It started in spring training of 2019, when Lewis made his presence known at his first spring training since being drafted with three homers and four doubles in 28 at-bats, and despite a quieter year in righty-power-sucking Dickey-Stevens Park in Arkansas, he made his big-league debut with aplomb, socking dingers that were as long as they were memorable, including one that broke up a no-hitter.
NO HITTER? GONE— Diamond Digest (@Diamond_Digest) September 12, 2019
KYLE LEWIS 3 RUN JACK pic.twitter.com/a4M2QBxh8c
Time out to remember that Kyle Lewis made an actual professional baseball team tweet the following:
We got Kyle Lewis out.— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) September 13, 2019
Lewis returned in 2020 with the same fire before the coronavirus forced the cancellation of spring training, but has picked up right where he left off in “summer camp”; three of his four intrasquad at-bats have resulted in home runs, and not cheap ones, either. And, with the absence of Mallex Smith, the Mariners have been giving him some run in center field, where he’s looked capable, reminding fans of the big arm and plus speed that made him a five-tool prospect back in his pre-draft days, speed that has been diminished by the injury but not entirely sapped.
Seeing Lewis roaming center field at T-Mobile park is a reminder that this is a player whose story is very much still being written, and there is still so much to learn about who Kyle Lewis is as a player, even at the positively grandfatherly age of 25. It’s a reminder, too, that man plans, god laughs, and very few of us live lives that are a straight line from cradle to grave. So happy birthday, Kyle Lewis, and remember: age ain’t nothin but a number.