Through 200 MLB plate appearances, a benchmark Kyle Lewis reached during Sunday’s game, the Mariners’ wunderkind has taken All-Stars and future Hall of Famers deep, floated through the air like a hang glider, and prescribed the Mariners with a dose of excitement the team was aching for.
Lewis, a former Golden Spikes Award winner and 11th overall pick, is on the fast track toward the 2020 Rookie of the Year as well. His sizzling 2019 debut has carried over into 2020 – a season in which he still holds rookie eligibility – and shown that his euphoric start was no fluke. While the green is turning brown for fellow 2019 callups Shed Long Jr. and Tim Lopes, the Mariners’ newest phenom continues to bloom. The final results are yet to be seen, but for now Seattle has a beautiful addition to the garden they started tending years ago.
Countless players have sprinted out of the gates to begin their career, or entered the big leagues with a hype-filled reputation, but only the truly special can turn both of those into prolonged success. Through his initial 200 plate appearances at the highest level, Lewis is toting a .328/.395/.588 line with 58 hits and 13 home runs. Entering play on Tuesday, he leads the American League in on-base percentage, ranks third among AL position players in fWAR, and leads AL rookies in batting average, RBI, and wRC+. In short, he’s killing it, absolutely laying waste to each pitcher in his way and mercilessly stunting on his more experienced rivals. He’s hitting like his bat can’t go back to the dugout until it’s tasted blood.
With a resume like Lewis’, prolific numbers are often expected if not presumed. Several players taken as high in the draft have dominated immediately, though others failed to hit at all or even fizzled out before reaching the majors. When Lewis went off the board with the 11th pick in the 2016 draft, he joined some VIP’s including Andrew McCutchen and George Springer who were also taken at that slot, but also guys like Max Pentecost or Tyler Stephenson who you’ve likely never heard of. In looking at McCutchen and Springer’s early numbers, as well as Michael Conforto’s, who went tenth, Lewis compares favorably to the ones that have cashed in on their draft stock.
11th Overall Picks (plus Conforto)
It’s hard to pin things down to 200 plate appearances on the dot, as many players reach their 200th plate appearance in the middle of the game and make things tough on FanGraphs (shout out to KLew for hitting a nice, round number at the end of a game). Through roughly the same amount of PA’s, we can see Lewis lapping the star-studded field in a few categories, though. His otherworldly 166 wRC+ jumps off the page along with the marvelous slugging percentage, but it’s the batting average and on-base percentage that are real causes for celebration.
Coming out of Mercer University, scouts across the nation identified Lewis as a prodigious slugger. MLB.com slapped a 60-grade on his power tool while FanGraphs went as high as 60/70 on the raw power scale in 2017. What most people did not expect is an on-base machine approaching Joey Votto’s single-season high, at least for now. Lewis’ O-Swing%, or percentage of pitches he’s swinging at outside the strike zone, has dropped precipitously from last year to this. As an eager September callup, Lewis hacked at 36% of wayward balls pitched in his direction. This year that number is down to 21.6%. That puts Lewis in the upper echelon of that category, ahead of plate discipline savants Yasmani Grandal and Matt Chapman. A player who was drafted just four years ago (and missed a whole year to injury) already showing an advanced batter’s eye while outproducing past 11th overall picks at the same stages of their nascent careers is nothing short of extraordinary.
The 11th pick of the first round is actually a bit later than we’ve come to expect of Golden Spikes winners. It’s rare for the person who brings home college baseball’s Heisman to escape the top five picks, let alone the top ten. Excluding 2014 winner AJ Reed, who played first base and pitched at Kentucky, Lewis had the longest draft night wait of any position player to win the award since 2002, when the Padres swooped Khalil Greene with the 13th selection. Being named the top collegiate player in the country means a player is basically as pro-ready as they can be, which is why in the case of people like David Price, Stephen Strasburg, or Bryce Harper, their first MLB game came very quickly. Other, more recent winners garnered fewer “can’t miss” tags but still arrived on the scene in short order. Again, excluding Reed, here’s how Lewis’ MLB entrance compares to the three pure position players who won the Golden Spikes preceding him.
Golden Spikes winners
Aside from Kris Bryant’s prudent walk rate and Andrew Benintendi’s contact skills rendering a better K%, Lewis once again stands out in several major categories. Benintendi, who has a much better hit tool than Lewis, almost matched him in hits, but didn’t pack nearly the punch. Bryant was an above average hitter right away thanks to his devotion to the Three True Outcomes, but that also left him with a lower batting average and fewer hits than Lewis through 200 plate appearances. Then there’s Mike Zunino, who we can all agree was trying his best.
Even if Lewis regresses in the future and the numbers for his fifth MLB season don’t equal the numbers Bryant put up in his fifth year with the Cubs, the history of Golden Spikes winners points to a fairly sunny forecast. The foundation already in place will hopefully be enough to steer him away from Zunino or Mike Kelly territory. If he can’t be Harper, Bryant, or Buster Posey, a career somewhere in the neighborhood of 1998 winner Pat Burrell, or 2005 recipient Alex Gordon, would be welcomed as well.
Lewis is certainly on pace to capture the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year honors, and when you stack his numbers up against the first 200 plate appearances of players who actually won the award, it becomes obvious why they have the trophies above their fireplace.
In their first flights around the league, only Yordan Álvarez soared higher than Lewis. Despite playing his home games in a normal-sized stadium, Lewis’ slugging numbers are still right in line with Aaron Judge, who set a rookie record for homers in 2017. The Mariners’ homegrown talent also boasted better numbers than one of Houston’s. A double-digit walk rate has allowed Lewis to get on base at a steadier clip than Carlos Correa did, and his batting average is also about 30 points higher for good measure.
Of all the hitters in all the categories we’ve seen, Álvarez is the only one who has a definitive claim to being better than Kyle Lewis in the first 200 plate appearances of their career. This is a group, mind you, that includes two MVP’s, seven Silver Sluggers, and 15 All-Star Game appearances. Even Mike Trout (109), couldn’t match Lewis’ wRC+ (166) through his first 200 trips to the box, and if you really want to go there, neither could Miguel Cabrera (110) or Ken Griffey Jr. (128). I’m not saying Kyle Lewis is going to become those players, but I am saying he’s already done things that they didn’t.